Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Paid Family Leave: The Lack of a National Policy Isn’t the Only Barrier

Paid family leave is back in the U.S. news again, this time with a proposal by Senator Mario Rubio called the Economic Security for New Parents Act, which would provide paid leave to parents who agree to delay taking social security benefits by an amount to offset the paid leave. I’m not going to get into the merits and controversies of this approach (for that, see this by the proposal’s originator, Kristin Shapiro, and this piece).

Rather, my key point is that simply offering a family leave policy does not automatically alleviate workers’ concerns about income loss or other potential negative consequences of taking a leave. So while new ideas about universal policies are important—and actually enacting policies would be even better!—we also need to better understand the factors that prevent workers from taking a leave, and ways to reduce these barriers.

So to think about the barriers to a leave, Tae-Youn Park (Vanderbilt), Eun-Suk Lee (KAIST), and I develop a four-part framework consisting of all A’s: availability, awareness, affordability, and assurance. These four elements reflect the key considerations for whether any worker takes many kinds of leave from work: 1) the policy needs to be available, 2) if available, the worker needs to be aware of it, 3) even if aware of an existing policy, the worker needs to believe he or she can afford a leave, and 4) even if affordable, the worker needs to have assurances against negative consequences that might result from taking a leave (e.g., a promotion going to someone else). We think this framework can help guide research into leave-taking barriers.

In a paper titled “What Do Unions Do for Mothers? Paid Maternity Leave Use and the Multifaceted Roles of Labor Unions,” the three of us focus specifically on the potential impact of labor unions. For starters, based on existing research on what unions do, it’s clear that unions have the potential to positively affect all four of these key steps (and not only in the United States). They can bargain for (better) leave policies; help spread awareness through newsletters, one-to-one interactions, and the like; make leaves more affordable through higher wages and better insurance coverage; and combat reprisals through bargaining, grievance procedures, and other means. But what happens in practice?

To find out, we turned to the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1997 (NLSY97) which, importantly, is a nationally-representative sample. Due to some data peculiarities, we are only able to analyze women taking paid maternity leave, but future analyses of paternity leave taking would also be valuable. Our final data set has 27,472 observations from 4,108 female workers across a 15-year period. Ultimately we find that union-represented workers are at least 17 percent more likely to use paid maternity leave than comparable nonunion workers, and that unions facilitate this leave-taking through the availability, awareness, and affordability channels. We also find that mothers who take a paid maternity leave experience a post-leave penalty—specifically, their wage growth is slower when compared to those who did not take a leave. Surprisingly, we did not find that labor unions lessen this penalty, which would be one aspect of the assurance dimension.

At one level, this research is about what unions do with respect to the important issue of helping new parents take the amount of leave they deserve after a birth or adoption. In looking at the aggregate picture, they appear to be helping in some ways, with perhaps room for expanding their activities. What happens on a case-by-case basis, we cannot observe. But at a higher level, this research is about continuing to deepen our understanding of the barriers to parental leave taking, which can help with policy design when (hopefully!) a policy is (finally!) enacted in the United States.

Source: Tae-Youn Park, Eun-Suk Lee, and John W. Budd (forthcoming) "What Do Unions Do for Mothers? Paid Maternity Leave Use and the Multifaceted Roles of Labor Unions," Industrial and Labor Relations ReviewClick here to read the full paper.

Monday, July 2, 2018

What Happens in the Aftermath of the Janus Ruling?

In 2018, all eyes in the labor relations community were focused on the Supreme Court in anticipation of its ruling in Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, Council 31. Workers who are represented by a labor union cannot be forced to join a union and pay full dues, but in the absence of a right-to-work law, it has been possible to require them to pay an agency fee (equivalently, “fair-share fee”) to cover the costs of representing them. The question in Janus was whether mandatory agency fee arrangements in the public sector violate an individual’s free speech rights. This is only a question relevant to the public sector because the Constitution only prohibits the government from infringing on speech—there are no prohibitions against a private sector employer limiting an employee’s speech.

The free-speech argument against public sector agency fees is that mandating these payments means that a governmental body is forcing someone who does not belong to the union to subsidize the speech of others (the union) who they don’t agree with. Note carefully that this requires seeing public sector collective bargaining as rising to the level of public expression that enjoys constitutional protections. Opposed to this view is a counter-argument based on seeing collective bargaining as part of the employment relationship, not part of public discourse. So if states want to allow agency fees and prevent free-riding, then this should continue to be within their authority as regulators of the public sector employment relationship, consistent with other precedents in which public sector employees do not have free speech rights when speaking as workers rather than citizens.

When the Janus decision was issued last week, no one was surprised by the verdict: five conservative justices outnumbered four liberal justices in declaring that mandatory  agency fee arrangements in the public sector are unconstitutional free speech violations. This makes the entire U.S. public sector a right-to-work sector in which public sector unions will only be financially supported by union members. As such, this is arguably the most significant Supreme Court ruling affecting labor relations in a long time. It is also a highly-charged decision because Janus and related cases have been funded by conservative political groups seeking to weaken the labor movement as a counterweight to Republicans in the political arena. Indeed, President Trump’s tweet in support of the ruling boasted “Big loss for the coffers of the Democrats!”:

So this case is about much more than individual free speech. But will it be successful in weakening the labor movement?

In the short-term, Janus is likely to reduce the financial strength of public sector labor unions in non-right-to-work states (agency fees were already prohibited in right-to-work states) as nonmembers stop paying dues. Labor unions might also have to spend more time and money fighting additional lawsuits that will likely be filed by conservative groups seeking to get previously-paid agency fee amounts returned to workers. But it might not be all bad news for organized labor.

Some states might take legislative steps to lessen the impact of the Janus ruling. Possibilities include not requiring unions to represent nonmembers in grievance hearings; allowing unions to charge nonmembers for specific services such as grievance representation or arbitration; giving unions time during new employee orientation to meet new workers; making it difficult for anti-group workers to contact workers; and giving union members paid release time to recruit others into the union. It might also be legal for public sector unions to negotiate an agency fee arrangement that includes an opt-out clause allowing objectors to donate their fee to a charity.

At an even more fundamental level, recall that the Janus decision relies on elevating collective bargaining to a level of public speech that is entitled to constitutional protection. Ironically, then, this could bring new levels of legal protection to public sector collective bargaining. For example, state laws that restrict collective bargaining to narrow occupations or prohibit it altogether might be now be unconstitutional violations of free speech. Attempts to legislate further limitations on public sector bargaining, as in the case of Wisconsin, could also be challenged on this same basis. These issues will take years to work through the legal system, however.

So without waiting for favorable legislative or legal action, what can the labor movement do? The labor movement has had several years to prepare for this kind of ruling, and the primary response is to focus on internal organizing. This emphasizes relationship-building with bargaining unit members so that workers feel that they are a necessary part of a vibrant organization that effectively represents their interests. When this is successfully, not only will workers join their union and pay dues, but they will also be more engaged which further creates a more dynamic organization. Janus might also contribute to a feeling among public sector workers that they are under attack, making them receptive to collective action, as was demonstrated earlier this year in the statewide teacher strikes in West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Arizona. So there is the distinct possibility that the labor movement ends up stronger than it was before the Janus decision.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Undoing Work, or Doing it up? How Central Should Work Be to Society?

I just finished reading James Chamberlain’s new book Undoing Work, Rethinking Community: A Critique of the Social Function of Work (Cornell University Press). It’s an ambitious theoretical work that raises fundamental issues regarding not only the meaning of work but also the construction of society. But let me first back up. My own book, The Thought of Work, is intended partly as a statement of the diverse ways in which work is important—materially, psychologically, sociologically, and so forth. Behind this is an assumed default in which work’s diverse values are not fully appreciated, especially when it is reduced largely to an income-generating activity. That is, capitalism and neoliberalism devalue work by prioritizing the monetary aspects and reducing work to being seen as simply a commodity.

Undoing Work comes from a seemingly-opposite perspective—that work is too central in today’s neoliberal, capitalist societies.  So whereas I want to raise the value of work, Undoing Work wants to, well, undo it. Why? Because neoliberal social norms require an individual to be working full-time for pay in order to be fully welcomed and included as a citizen—normatively if not in fact. But this raises at least two problems. One, the highly-unequal nature of capitalism limits the opportunities for full-time, paid work to a privileged set, thus excluding from full citizenship many who have traditionally been marginalized, whether on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, class, or other bases. Two, the material and social pressures for full-time salaried or waged work limit human freedom by coercing people into spending more time at work than they would choose if they were truly free.

Chamberlain strongly argues that at a fundamental level, these norms are rooted in how society is constructed. That is, Undoing Work argues that neoliberal, capitalist societies are seen as collections of individuals who form societies (communities) because they benefit from exchanging their work. So the twin features of individualism and work lie at the core of a capitalist society. Through the Marxist lens that grounds Undoing Work, this is highly problematic because capitalism always degrades work and because individualism always leads to hierarchy and exclusion. So how can individuals—or maybe I should say, members of communities—be free to follow their self-determined rather than neoliberal needs and wants?

A popular proposal these days is for a universal basic income, the (simplified) theory being that reducing people’s dependency on work for subsistence will allow them to choose from a broader set of life activities. An interesting contribution of Undoing Work is showing how the thinking that lies behind many of the proposals for universal basic income do not break with traditional views of work and society to the extent needed to really bring about a large-scale change in the centrality of work. Which brings Chamberlain to the heart of his argument: for humans to truly be free, the basis of society needs to be seen as something other than work. So it’s not just about rethinking work, it’s about rethinking the definition of community. Maybe it’s my own lack of sophistication, but unfortunately, after reading Undoing Work I’m left with a much greater appreciation of the nature of this problem than for the author’s solutions. And by this, I don’t just mean practical solutions—which the author admits are challenging given that he believes this entails a rejection of capitalism; rather, I’m referring to the conceptual solution. Maybe I’ve been studying work for too long, but I can’t figure out what it would mean to undo work.

Undoing Work is clear (at least towards the end), that work would remain important (otherwise I think we’d really be getting into utopian territory), but what would seem to be left of value are psychological rewards and caring. This strikes me as a movement towards the more individual aspects of work—which make sense in some respects because it’s the social aspects of work in terms of exclusion and lack of solidarity that are at the root of the problem presented in Undoing Work. But on the other hand, this seems contradictory with the overall direction advocated—that is, this movement toward individualism does not seem consistent with the overall goal of trying to reconstitute society on basis of something other than a collection of individuals.

So where do we go from here? I think Professor Chamberlain would agree with me that work is too important to be left in the hands of neoliberal thinkers or propagandists. But dedicated readers of my blog will know that I’m a pluralist scholar rather than a critical, heterodox (including Marxism) scholar. So imbalances of labor market power are important, but can be alleviated. This requires continued attention to the material institutions that shape work—laws, unions, and the like—as well as the normative institutions. Going back to The Thought of Work, my goal is that if society can more fully recognize the ways in which work is important—including the dimensions that Undoing Work rightly recognize, like inclusion, citizenship, and solidarity—then we can design institutions that will better support inclusion, citizenship, and solidarity. And empowered individuals can pursue something that comes closer to their desired forms or conditions of work and do so with dignity.

But as I admit in my own writings, this is challenging because we don’t want to elevate work to such a level of importance that it is the only way of creating an individual and social identity. I think Undoing Work is premised on that ship having sailed. I maintain that somehow it’s still possible. But we can both agree that these issues are too important to not discuss as scholars and a society.