Report on Working Families Summit, Plus One More Link


(1) Tim Koechlin, “Inequality and the Case for Unions.”  In my Monday Links post, I meant to include this excellent piece by sometime D&S author Tim Koechlin, which appeared at Common Dreams and at Huffington Post. It’s a careful account of how workers as a whole benefit from strong unions. But I especially like the parts where Tim takes Democrats to task for not defending unions and workers’ rights.  “De-unionization is not an imperative of the global market.   It is a political choice.”  

(2) Report-Back from the White House Summit on Working Families by Deb Figart.  Deb Figart, who will have a piece in our July/August issue on so-called “alternative banking

Back to the Grassroots for Work-Family Balance

By Deborah M. Figart

The United States is the only developed country in the world without paid family leave. Access to paid leave is a key issue for working families. So are raising the minimum wage, universal pre-school, affordable child care, guaranteed paid sick leave, and paycheck fairness.

On Monday, June 23, 2014, President Obama brought together policymakers, business and labor leaders, academic experts, and activists for the White House Summit on Working Families. Besides President Obama, other speakers on the program included, for example, Vice President Biden and Dr. Jill Biden, First Lady Michelle Obama, House Leader Nancy Pelosi, Maria Shriver (of the Shriver Report), Ellen Bravo (President and Founder of Family Values @ Work) and Gloria Steinem. Frustrated with the gridlock in Washington, the President is serving partly as “Organizer-in-Chief,” hoping to rally us to affect change at the local and state levels. The President argued that 21st-century families are struggling to survive with polices from the Mad Men era. (Actress Christina Hendricks, who plays Joan Harris on Mad Men, was in attendance).

Obama is also using executive powers to issue Executive Orders and memoranda where he can to affect the well-being of federal employees and workers employed by federal contractors. In April, on so-called Pay Inequity Day, President Obama issued an Executive Order that protects federal employees from retaliation if they disclose their salary. Salary transparency at the workplace helps reduce the gender- and race-based wage gaps. This is part of the Paycheck Fairness bill that has been stalled in several sessions of Congress. As outlined in his State of the Union address last January, the President, also by Executive Order, raised the wage for employees of federal contractors to $10.10 per hour.

Two companion policy announcements were made at the event. President Obama proclaimed that he had asked Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez to make available technical training grants to low-income individuals training for in-demand industries. That’s because low-income persons struggle to cover child care costs while attending federally-funded job training or retraining programs. Working parents, he argued, should not have to choose between taking care of their children and trying to train for a new career.

Second, President Obama intended to sign a presidential memorandum to require all federal agencies to expand access to flexible work schedules. That he is using the federal government as a model employer, hoping for a demonstration effect, is not insignificant. Katherine Archuleta, Director of the Office of Personnel Management, shared that the federal government is the nation’s largest employer with 2 million workers on the payroll. Only 15 percent of them work in the nation’s capital. The federal government already has a flexible workweek, so we will have to wait and see the details.

So there was much talk from business leaders and policymakers alike about the need for workplace flexibility. I listened to numerous first-hand accounts of beneficent employers who allowed their professionals to tele-commute from home. Or to leave early for a high school graduation, a Halloween parade, or a soccer game. But flexibility for whom? There was little discussion about how to extend flexibility to frontline service workers, most of whom are paid by the hour. What about employees who must remain on the line—in the factory, in food service, or in hotels and casinos, for example? And flexibility can have a high road or a low road. With the rise of the “precariat” (see Guy Standing’s book), will more part-time, contract, and contingent workers report to the work site only when called in from being on call? Or will employers increase full-time, year-round work and trust their employees to do the job?

Much of the focus was on asking us to advertise the return on investment of family-friendly policies. This message was delivered by Betsey Stevenson, member of the President’s Council of Economic Advisors. Such policies improve recruitment and retention as well as boost productivity and profits. The empirical evidence has been published as a series of new fact sheets by the Council of Economic Advisors, with titles such as “Work-Life Balance and the Economics of Workplace Flexibility,” “The Economics of Paid and Unpaid Leave,” and “Nine Facts About American Families and Work.”

Americans overwhelmingly support these policies. We just need to convert this to tangible progress. Valerie Jarrett, Assistant to the President and Senior Advisor, closed the White House Summit as she began it, with a message about going forward to make change: “This Summit is not just a moment, it’s a movement.” Other quotes from the Summit are available from the Center for American Progress, a chief sponsor along with the White House and the U.S. Department of Labor.

Deborah M. Figart is a Professor of Education and Economics, The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey.

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