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Union Leaders Discuss Workplace Flexibility, Family-Friendly Policies in Bargaining Context
Daily Labor Report, February 28, 2011

By Michael Rose

Unions can play a large role in urging the adoption of workplace flexibility policies, including paid leave, flexible scheduling, and other “family-friendly” practices at both union and nonunion employers, through both collective bargaining agreements and public policy advocacy, a panel of union leaders said Feb. 25.

At a panel discussion co-sponsored by the Kalmanowitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor at
Georgetown University Law Center and the Labor Project for Working Families, participants discussed various ways that unions could become active supporters of various workplace flexibility options.

In introducing the panel, Netsy Firestein, director of the Labor Project for Working Families, pointed to the recent events in Wisconsin, where the state's governor is seeking to limit state employees' bargaining rights to wages only. Because “unions set the bar for all workers” in terms of other benefits on top of wages, taking away the right to bargain over other issues “will set the bar at a new low,” Firestein said.

She also cited California's paid leave policy, enacted in 2002, which allows most of that state's private sector workers to take leave to care for members of their families or for a new baby. “We were able to pass that law because we have a strong labor movement,” Firestein said.

Flexibility ‘New to the Labor Movement'

Elizabeth Shuler, secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO, said just as the labor movement currently is making an effort to “broaden its appeal” to various groups, such as younger workers, women, and people of color, workplace flexibility also appeals to those populations, providing an opportunity for labor to work on such issues.

“Workplace flexibility is still new to the labor movement,” Shuler said, adding, however, that several of the AFL-CIO's affiliate unions were experimenting with “creative language” related to flexibility policies in their collective bargaining agreements. For example, she said, with the “erosion of full-time employment” resulting from the economic downturn, some public sector unions have been “creatively reducing [workers'] hours” and making state furloughs “less arbitrary.”

In addition, Shuler said, a union representing retail store workers has included in its contracts a clause calling for the employer to provide a required minimum number of hours.

Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union, said “it is possible [for unions] to fight for economic justice and insist on family friendly workplaces at the same time,” and that it was necessary to swap one for the other.

Henry Discusses Union Advantages
Henry also illustrated how unionization could contribute to more work-family balance. For example, she said, janitorial and building security work typically is part time, leading workers in those fields, largely immigrants, to work several jobs. With unionization, Henry said, it is easier for employees to move toward full-time employment at fewer jobs, with higher wages, thus allowing workers more time to spend with their families, not to mention better family-supporting wages.

Similarly, Henry said, health aides and child and elder care providers are able, through unionization, “to be paid for every hour they work,” rather than working a set schedule and then, essentially, “volunteering out of love” for their charges when necessary.

Unions also can play a role in work-family balance, as well as advancement up the career ladder, through training programs, Henry said. For example, certified nursing assistants (CNAs) “couldn't think about becoming registered nurses if not for their employer releasing half of their time” for nursing training “without giving up” their family obligations, she said. Such programs, Henry said, can be negotiated during the collective bargaining process.

Veda Shook, the president of the Association of Flight Attendants, an affiliate of the Communications Workers of America, said flight attendants had been able to bargain for contract provisions providing for scheduling practices that allowed them to spend more time with their families.

Legislative Efforts
Shuler also said the AFL-CIO would be able to “provide policy support for our affiliates and legislative
assistance” for efforts to institute family friendly workplace policies through the legislative process. As an example, she pointed to organized labor's activity during the debate over last year's health care overhaul legislation, and said it could do the same for other types of policies.

Henry said given the outcome of the 2010 midterm elections, “it's hard to imagine” that more family-friendly employment policies, enacted through legislation, would be in the offing. “But we shouldn't just think about playing defense,” Henry said. “The notion that we're thinking about family friendly policies when 30 million people can't get a job is a challenge at the moment.”

Still, Henry said, there was room for unions to be “more creative” and “more strategic” in their policy
advocacy, by focusing, for example, more closely on state-level action or smaller worker populations. Unions should not think a particular policy would “work as a blanket” for all workers, she said.

Shuler summarized the discussion by noting that today's workforce “works differently” than workers of the 20th century, particularly when it comes to younger workers. For younger workers, she said, family-friendly policies are a “top priority.”

“If the working world is changing and we aren't, we're going to be left behind,” Shuler said, referring to organized labor in general.

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