Last week, I talked to a cashier at a Ralph’s grocery store in Orange County, California. She told me she lives with and supports her 82-year-old mother and her disabled 56-year-old sister. She represents a growing group in the United States: a working woman who is head of household and also a family caregiver.
But with the rise of the low-wage retail giants like Walmart, she is also part of a shrinking group: a union worker with rights on the job, health benefits, paid sick days, vacation and possibly a pension or retirement fund. And, with a union contract, she won’t be arbitrarily paid less than a man doing the same job with the same seniority.
When I was in high school and college, I worked in restaurants. I worked for minimum wage and I worked hard—cleaning, cooking, even counting money and making bank deposits. I remember my pay going from $3.35 an hour to $3.45 an hour when I made “head cashier”—a job that carried a lot more responsibility than a 10-cent raise would imply.
My second year at UCLA, I got my first union job at a deli/restaurant in West Hollywood. There were some differences that I noticed immediately: grown-ups worked here, I had enough money to buy my family Christmas presents that year and, after a probationary period, I was eligible for health benefits. But most striking of all was the absence of fear. I wasn’t used to working in kitchens where the line cook could talk to the boss when he didn’t agree with a decision. He didn’t always win, but at least he wasn’t afraid to speak up. This made a big impression on me and made me a life-long supporter of unions.
A good shop steward knows that after bargaining a contract, the union’s work has just begun. Stewards and leaders must now educate and empower members in order to enforce newly-negotiated language like overtime pay, shift differentials and time off for family events. The same is true when we pass a worker-friendly law like California’s Paid Family Leave (PFL). PFL allows California workers to get some wage replacement when taking leave to bond with a new child or to care for a sick family member. But research shows that low income, immigrant and Latino workers are least likely to know about the law even when they need to take leave.
Union and work family activists are learning that passing the law was just the first step – we still have to educate and empower the workers who need it most. On May 5th and 6th, the Labor Project for Working Families hosted panel discussions in Los Angeles and Berkeley on California’s Paid Family Leave program.
The good news: Since California unions and community organizations helped pass Paid Family Leave legislation in 2002, over one million people have used the program, which provides up to six weeks of partial wage replacement for workers who take time off to bond with a new child or care for a seriously ill family member.
A newly released report, Leaves That Pay: Employer and Worker Experiences with Paid Family Leave in California (Eileen Appelbaum & Ruth Milkman, 2011) shows that 91% of those who used the benefit said that it had a positive effect on their ability to care for a new baby, foster or adopted child. California’s Paid Family Leave program has doubled the median duration of breastfeeding for all new mothers who used it. And it also benefits new fathers, as the number of men using the program to bond with new babies has steadily increased since the law was first passed.
Many workers have a hard time balancing work and family, but the workers who take care of other people’s families have the hardest time of all.
Until recently, it was practically impossible for domestic workers to fight back when treated unjustly. Labor laws explicitly excluded them from protection. In spite of these obstacles, domestic workers in New York celebrated a major victory in July when a new law extending state labor protections to home-based nannies and housekeepers went into effect. New York State’s law is the first of its kind in the United States. Now organizers are building momentum to enact a similar law in California.