The realities of our workplaces have not changed to meet the new realities of our economy and society, says AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Arlene Holt Baker. Employers and political leaders must create new policies that help working families deal with their basic needs of feeding their families, caring for their elderly parents, paying the mortgage.
Speaking this afternoon to a conference on the “Three Faces of Work-Family Conflict,” sponsored by the Center for American Progress, Holt Baker said, “Our families are trying to live in two different worlds at the same time—and it is just not working.”
Most people—men and women, across race and class—agree that the changing status of women is a good thing, now that we are half the workforce and have the opportunity and the weight of being breadwinners. But we also agree that something’s got to give.
The conflict between work and family is no longer between men and women, Holt Baker said. “It’s between families and the systems that are not meeting our needs.”
To meet the needs of today’s working families, she said, we need public policies that support working families. We need employers to change with the times. And workers need the power to shape work-family policies at our workplaces, which means more working people must be able to form unions and to bargain for what they we need on the job.
On the public policy front, Holt Baker called for giving workers more flexibility to care for their families by passing the Paycheck Fairness Act, which would give employees the tools they need to close the wage gap between men and women and provide the government with enforcement power to correct pay inequities. Another, the Healthy Families Act, would require most employers to provide full-time workers seven days of paid leave a year if they’re sick or have a sick family member, with prorated benefits for part-timers.
Congress also must ensure employers do not use this new flexibility as an excuse to reduce wages and take away workers’ rights, Holt Baker said.
Flexibility is meaningless without a good job, decent wages and benefits. Public policy has to protect workers’ pay, job security and basic workplace rights while expanding flexibility.
It’s also time for employers to recognize that family-friendly workplaces are more productive and profitable, she added:
It’s time for them to recognize that the costs of doing the wrong thing really do outweigh the costs of doing the right thing. The cost of not providing paid sick leave is an unhealthy, unhappy workplace. The cost of not enabling working people to meet their family responsibilities is high and expensive turnover.
The key to gaining a family-friendly workplace, Holt Baker said, is for workers to be able to join unions freely:
When workers can bargain, they can change their working conditions and do it equitably across the workforce.
Even as the union movement focuses on creating new jobs, this is the right time to push for policies that support working families, Holt Baker said. In answer to a question during a panel discussion, she called for passage of the Employee Free Choice Act, federal legislation to level the playing field for workers seeking to form unions, as the necessary step for workers to regain a solid place in the U.S. economy.
We have the clearest evidence of our lifetimes that this economy has failed working families. It may be working for people who speculate for a living—but not for people who work for a living.
So while the labor movement’s focus is on getting America back to work, we know the longer term solution is to build a new economy responsive to the needs and realities of working people. Resolving the conflicts between work and family must be part of that agenda, and the time to get to work is now.