Standing up for a Family Friendly Economy

Too often today, family values end at the workplace door. A new Human Rights Watch report just hammered home how behind-the-times we, as a country, are.
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Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker's brazen attack on working families reminds us what a mountain we've climbed to get even the most basic rights for America's workers. We wouldn't have the weekend, minimum wage, overtime pay, workers' compensation, the Family and Medical Leave Act -- and so forth -- if working families and their union allies hadn't fought for these laws that benefit all Americans.

But now, the realities of our changing workplace call for different solutions and new standards. Women represent half the workforce and 70 percent of mothers with kids work outside the home. These stark changes alone result in unprecedented challenges for families. Who cares for children, or elderly and disabled family members, if no one is home? At the same time, working people continue to wrestle with the blunt impacts of the recession. As more of the nation's wealth gets shifted to the rich and budget cuts threaten the economic security of millions, we have to find new ways to help Americans respond to the 21st Century demands of work and family.

Last week, a group of dynamic new labor leaders gathered in Washington, DC to do just that. Working with Georgetown University's Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor, Labor Project on Working Families brought together Liz Shuler of the AFL-CIO, Mary Kay Henry of SEIU, Veda Shook of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, and Larry Hanley, of the Amalgamated Transit Union to ask: what can we do to make a more family-friendly economy?

As the largest representative of working families today, unions have a role to develop strategies that help all Americans achieve economic security and support family life. In her opening remarks, Netsy Firestein, Executive Director of the Labor Project for Working Families, said, "We need to set the bar higher. Every day, working people are still forced to choose between their jobs and their families, but through collective bargaining, legislation, and organizing, unions have a key voice in the fight for better conditions for working families." The to-do list is long: flexible workplace schedules, childcare services, organizing home care workers, paid family and sick leave -- we have a long way to go to make our economy family-friendly.

A new Human Rights Watch report just hammered home how behind-the-times we, as a country, are. At least 178 countries have national laws guaranteeing paid leave for new mothers -- the handful of exceptions includes the U.S., Swaziland and Papua New Guinea. About 40 million private-sector workers in the U.S. lack paid sick leave, also a standard in the rest of the industrialized world. People are working longer and harder, balancing child rearing, career goals and often two or more jobs -- but the laws of the workplace are not keeping up.

The good news is that we are making strides. A recent study found that California's paid family leave program -- the first of just two in the country -- has been a resounding success with businesses and employees. The same for paid sick days in San Francisco, the first jurisdiction in the country to implement paid sick leave for all workers. President Obama has proposed $23 million in his budget to help states set up paid family leave initiatives, and a new guide we created lays out concrete steps states can take to create their own paid leave programs.

Too often today, family values end at the workplace door, but work and family are no longer separate worlds. In her closing remarks, Mary Kay Henry of SEIU reminded us that, "this panel represents what the fight in Wisconsin is all about." Workers' rights mean flexibility in the workplace -- so you don't have to choose between your health or family and a paycheck. And that means unions are more important than ever to help us rebuild an economy -- a family-friendly economy -- that works for all of us.

Carol Joyner is National Director of Public Policy at the Labor Project for Working Families. She is founding director of SEIU's 1199 Employer Child Care Fund and lives in Washington, DC with her family.

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