The Politics of Family Leave

By Buell, John | The Humanist, November-December 1996 | Go to article overview
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The Politics of Family Leave


Buell, John, The Humanist


During a state visit to Canada several years ago, President Clinton was asked about the long overtime hours many U.S. and Canadian auto workers are frequently forced to work. He responded flippantly, "Where I come from, they call that a high-class problem," and went on to suggest that the workers should be grateful for forced overtime.

The president's reading of the public mood changed as the campaign season approached. In July he asked Congress to expand the Family and Medical Leave Act, which currently allows workers to take 12 weeks of unpaid leave to care for a sick relative. He also proposed legislation that would grant employees an additional 24 hours of unpaid leave a year to tend to any family concern. Even the Republican Party now concedes the importance of this issue. Whether Clinton or Dole wins in November, we will hear much more on this topic.

Full-time U.S. workers now work on average a month more per year than they did a generation ago. The New York Times recently reported that the number of families unable to take any vacation this year increased to 38 percent from 34 percent in 1995.

With this new attention to worker and family stress, it is important to take a look at the effects of previous legislative efforts on family leave and working hours. From the sound and fury surrounding its passage, one would have thought that enactment of the first family-leave legislation in 1993 portended the biggest change in our economy since the National Labor Relations Act. Congressional liberals trotted out stories of bereft families who would be saved by such legislation. Business lobbyists made dire forecasts about the loss of U.S. competitiveness that would flow from "tying the hands" of management.

Fast forward three years and the story seems quite different. I know of no comprehensive study of family-leave practices, but it seems clear that relatively few American workers have availed themselves of the law. I suspect this is one reason why the business lobby did not press Bob Dole to make repeal of this act one cornerstone of his campaign.

Unfortunately, whatever amendments to current family leave policy emerge from the 105th Congress, the rhetorical onslaught is once again likely to signify very little improvement in the day-to-day lives of most working citizens. The problem here goes beyond the tactical dilemma of crafting a congressional majority for significant reforms. The exclusive reliance on sweeping governmental mandates has major strategic limitations. Workers are unlikely to gain more time off, more economic security, or more flexibility in the use of their time until they achieve more power in their workplaces.

Perform an intellectual experiment. (Or perhaps you live this experiment.) You are a junior-level technician or a secretary at a factory or retail outlet. Your spouse has just developed a serious medical condition and could use help around the house for a few months. Even if you are fortunate enough to be able to get along without your salary, will you ask your boss for the time off? Or threaten the boss with a suit if your request is refused?

Workers are smart enough to know that they are one downsizing away from the loss of a job and that their record in management's eyes will determine if they survive the next reorganization. I suspect that most workers now taking leaves are either virtually indispensable or work for one of those few corporations in which workers and management have negotiated genuinely cooperative agreements on such issues.

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