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The Working Women's Department at the AFL-CIO wants to make work/family benefits more mainstream in collective bargaining agreements and more visible in public policy.
Formed about a year ago, the Working Women's Department is a reflection of the AFL-CIO's new leadership, which Karen Nussbaum, director of the department, describes as having brought "a more aggressive, more forward-thinking approach to the union movement."
"Forty percent of union members are women," she said. "It's an important constituency that had not been addressed in the past."
Indeed, unions are the forerunners of work/family benefits, experts say. They originally negotiated for such family-friendly benefits as an eight-hour work day, health benefits for family members, sick leave and vacation time. But as time progressed and more women entered the workforce, not all unions' work/family benefits progressed at the same pace.
"As union representation becomes a smaller and smaller portion of the workforce, instead of seeing more benefits, we're seeing less," Ms. Nussbaum said. "There have been more work/family benefits developed over the last 10 years, but it is still a very minor portion of the workforce that has access to them. The fact is, 75% of women earning $25,000 or less have never seen a work/family benefit."
By emphasizing work/family issues, the Working Women's Department is recognizing the good work many unions have done in the area of work and family, Ms. Nussbaum said. "We want to encourage that and take it further by bringing more unions into that experience."
To do this, many unions have to get over some hurdles, experts say.
In some cases, the lack of work/family benefits in collective bargaining agreements is due to employers' lack of education about the advantages of offering these types of benefits. In other cases, it is due to old-line male union leadership that perceives the benefits as pertaining solely to women and children. In other cases, the era of corporate downsizing is taking its toll.
"What I find is that a lot of unions are so overwhelmed in fighting layoffs and health care
cuts that it's hard to put any other issue on the table," noted Netsy Firestein, director of the Labor Project for Working Families, a Berkeley, Calif.-based non-profit corporation that works with unions to develop work/family policies.
One way Ms. Nussbaum's department plans to highlight work/family issues to employers is through a nationwide "Ask a Working Woman" survey that was sent to union and non-union women across the country in March.
The survey results will be released on Labor Day.
"We want to talk to working women about what matters to them and use the information to guide us in public policy and bargaining," Ms. Nussbaum said.
After the survey results are examined, "we're likely to come out with legislation and useful fact sheets to help unions in bargaining," she said.
While the AFL-CIO is eager to put its weight behind promoting work/family issues and legislation perceived to enhance work/family benefits for union workers, it opposes legislation introduced by both houses of Congress earlier this year that would amend a portion of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938.
Under the 59-year-old statute, private sector employers must pay hourly workers time-and-a-half for every hour they work exceeding 40 hours during a week.
If passed, the two bills-H.R. 1, entitled the "Working Families Flexibility Act" and S. 4, entitled the "Family Friendly Workplace Act"-would permit employers to pay overtime workers compensatory time off instead of money.
Supporters of the bills say they promote family values because they would give workers the flexibility to take additional time off to be with their families.
The AFL-CIO and others, however, see the bills as an infringement on workers' ability to take control over their work and family lives. They say the bills grant employers most of the power to determine whether a wage earner who works more than 40 hours would receive money or time off from work, and provide no deterrent to prevent employers from forcing workers into making a decision the employer wants.
"We think the way to give more flexible time is through expansion of the Family Medical Leave Act, which keeps the discretion with employees when to take time off," Ms. Nussbaum said.
If a bill is passed, "it will set back work/family issues by decades," contends Stuart Piltch, a principal with Buck Consultants Inc. in Philadelphia.
Dana Friedman, senior vp at work/family consultant Corporate Family Solutions in New York, agreed there is a "real potential" for employers to take advantage of workers. However, she said there are workers who want that choice between extra pay and time off, and that needs to be acknowledged.
While the controversy over compensatory time off vs. overtime pay has yet to hit union agendas, union members and work/family consultants see a promising future for work/family benefits in union negotiations.
"I'm pretty optimistic," said Beth Kuhn, a vp for WFD, a work/family consulting firm in Boston. "There are many compelling forces at play: the retirement of the old guard; the lowest unemployment in decades; and external visibility of work/family issues. It's a time when unions are either going to capitalize on it fully or miss an opportunity to move in a new direction."
Donna Dolan, the Communication Workers Assn.'s director of work/family issues for the eight Northeastern states, also is optimistic. "You're going to see a lot more thrust in this area," she said.
"For those of us who've been up on the soap box for years, it's great."
She admits, however, that with corporate downsizing, bargaining can be tough.
"We sometimes can't push as hard as we could if the climate was better." However, she added, "there is a lot of smart bargaining going on."
Indeed, the CWA was successful in negotiating a dependent care subsidy fund with NYNEX Corp. during its 1994 talks, at the same
time negotiations revolved around downsizing at the White Plains, N.Y.-based telecommunications company.
"We told them: 'We understand your needs to shrink the business because of the global marketplace. But we have an equal stake in making that plan work. Let's take the workers' needs into account," Ms. Dolan recalled.
What resulted was a negotiated enhanced early retirement plan and no layoffs, she said. It also resulted in a new $7 million dependent care subsidy fund that offers employees with less than $45,000 in family income up to $50 per week toward the cost of child care.
The CWA is not alone in its success.
The Clerical and Technical Employees at Harvard University, a
union affiliate of the American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees, has bargained for a variety of work/family benefits for its members, noted Carolyn York, assistant director of the women's rights department of AFSCME in Washington.
Not only has the union affiliate negotiated an annual $135,000 child care subsidy fund, but it also successfully negotiated a fund to help defray adoption costs, an eight-week paid leave after the birth of a child and health benefits to domestic partners, Ms. York said.
General Motors Corp. employees represented by the United Auto Workers also have made great strides in negotiating for work/family benefits.
Beginning in the early 1970s with an employee assistance
program, the UAW and GM have since added and expanded a variety of work/family programs.
In addition to a child care resource and referral program, which the UAW won through negotiations in the early 1980s, the union negotiated in 1990 and opened in 1992 a child development center for UAW/GM employees living or working in Flint, Mich., explained Karla Swift, assistant director of the UAW General Motors department.
The UAW was able to negotiate a fund with GM that will help defray the cost of sending UAW/GM employees' children to the "high-quality child care" facility, Ms. Swift said.
Because the UAW represents approximately 200,000 workers, it is always a challenging task to try to create work/family programs that will touch as many families as possible, according to Ms. Swift.
Fortunately, GM's leadership is "fully committed to this," she said.