Women, work… and making it work – National Consumers League

Lili Gecker, NCL public policy intern

Lili Gecker, currently a summer public policy intern at NCL, is a rising senior at Brandeis University where she is studying sociology. Lili’s internship was made possible through the Louis D. Brandeis Social Justice World of Work (WOW) Fellowship.

As a summer intern for NCL, I recently had the opportunity to see Professor Marian Baird from the University of Sydney speak at AFL-CIO on the topic of Gender Equality Bargaining. Australia’s National Employment Standards was able to gain many rights for workers, and their policies include rights and needs of women and families. The Fair Work Act 2009, which included 10 entitlements, sets a minimum wage standard each year, and also offers four weeks paid vacation leave, ten days paid sick leave, and the right to request accommodations if a worker is responsible for caring for a preschool-age child or a child under the age of 18 with disabilities, among others. This law provides a baseline and a safety net for all workers.  In addition, on Mother’s Day in 2009, workers gained the right to paid maternity leave. This includes same-sex couples, and adoptive parents.

The United States certainly has a lot of work to do. According to the National Partnership for Women and Families, an organization that advocates on behalf of such issues, workers in 145 countries around the world have paid sick days, but not in the United States. In addition, we are one of only three countries (those being Papua New Guinea, Swaziland, and Liberia) that do not offer paid leave to new mothers. Although unpaid leave is available through the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, (FMLA), it is only available to fewer than 50 percent of workers, and many cannot afford to take it.

Professor Baird explained the role unions can play in reaching gender equality and fair labor standards. Some factors that facilitate equality include:

  • Supportive union leadership
  • Union membership support
  • Negotiator abilities (on both sides)
  • Negotiator gender and age (younger may be open to more diverse ideas)
  • Intra-union cohesion
  • Setting common claims across and within unions
  • Arguing the business case/ building on HR policy
  • Alliances formed with community and other advocacy groups
  • The social and political contexts

Factors that inhibit equality include:

  • Low trust bargaining relationships
  • Delegates attitudes and posturing
  • Centralized union leadership
  • Lack of educating members about family pensions
  • Member minority v. majority interests
  • Organizations’ finances

With all the ways in which the United States is behind, it is no wonder that we are publicly debating if women can “have it all” (and concluding they can’t). A 2011 study by the Families and Work Institute showed that increased flexibility correlates positively with job engagement, job satisfaction, employee retention, and employee health. Other scholars have found that good family policies attract better talent, which results in raised productivity. Perhaps we can look to countries such as Australia as an example. Their use of organized labor and gender equality bargaining played a strong role in progressing their labor practices and transforming gender relations. While they will continue to fight for more progressive changes, such as paid leave for workers who have been victims of domestic violence, we in the United States have more than one job to do—fair and equal labor standards will take work, but it is time to catch up.