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Reclaiming Our Working Class Family Values

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Todd FarallyAs we move further into the twenty-first century, I have come to the realization that many of us have forgotten where we came from. I would wager many who are doctors, lawyers, elected officials and captains of industry came from humble means. Working class families, such as construction workers, maintenance people and factory workers, just to name a few. And many (oh so many) have turned on the same sort of people that bore and raised them, clothed and fed them, put them through college and called them son or daughter. How do we end this cycle?

To solve any problem we first need to address the main cause and move from there towards a solution.

Much of the problem starts with us, the parents. Do we tell our children about what we do? Do we educate them on the struggles of those who have come before us? Those who had endured, bled and sometimes died so that the generations to come could have a better life than their parents had. Sadly, I don’t think so.

Many parents back in the seventies and eighties probably never thought there would be attacks on the people that build our country, that teach our children, or even those that protect us while we sleep. And that was our first mistake. Never underestimate the greed of those that have no conscience. Never think for a second that people won’t watch you suffer while they profit.

Something else that has put us in this predicament is that some of us in skilled labor put down our professions, expressing horror at the thought of our children following in our footsteps. This happens more often than we might want to admit and it has lasting consequences. We act as though working with our hands is something to be ashamed of, that it’s something to look down on. And we’re ok with that? I’m certainly not and you shouldn’t be either.

Now, to end the cycle.

We need to talk to our children. We have to tell them that those of us that work with their hands, those that earn their wages from the sweat of their brow, those that put themselves in danger to serve the public good, work in an office and teach our children are not expendable. That these people ought to be treated with the same respect and dignity we all want in life.

We should remind our kids that men, women and even children were degraded, abused, beaten, stabbed, shot and killed all in the name of a few very wealthy people that didn’t want to pay their fair share to raise this nation to its full potential. More importantly, that those who fought prevailed, it was not in vain and they won a lasting period where most had a fair shake. And this is what has been under attack. This is what is at stake.

The fight for all working people throughout the nation starts with us as workers, blue and white collar alike. We need to erase the lines that divide us, realize that we all labor; we all scrape and scratch for a better life for our families. We must get past these superficial and petty differences or we will all fall. As Benjamin Franklin once said, “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.”

If we’re going to end this cycle now, we need to stand together, take pride in our work and teach our children that everyone has worth. Preserving our way of life starts at home.

This blog originally appeared in Daily Kos on June 24, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Todd Farally is a third generation Union Sheet Metal Worker, blogger and activist who has been involved in the Labor Movement and political activism most of his life. He was raised to believe in speaking out when injustice is imposed upon those without a voice and to never give up, no matter how tough the fight may seem.

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Bloomberg Did Not Discriminate Against Women by Treating New Mothers the Same as Other Leave-Takers

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Piper HoffmanArticle first published as Judge: Bloomberg Did Not Discriminate Against Women on Blogcritics.

The judge who ruled that Bloomberg LP did not illegally discriminate against women for taking pregnancy leave raised an important policy question in her written opinion. Judge Preska did not drop “an anvil…on the work-life balance scale,” despite commentators’ efforts to portray her decision as a calculated blow against work-life balance; in deciding in Bloomberg’s favor, all she did was follow the existing law. In her commentary, however, she questioned the wisdom of the law itself, and noted that one alternative might be for employers to “treat pregnant women and mothers better or more leniently than others.” Judge Preska did not say whether she thinks that would be a good idea. It is a dreadful idea.

The judge’s legal reasoning in the Bloomberg ruling is by the book. The federal law bans pregnancy discrimination as a form of gender discrimination, as it should – only women get pregnant. The law does not require employers to treat pregnant women better than other employees, just not to treat them worse. Based on the evidence Judge Preska summarized in her decision, Bloomberg LP did not treat women who took pregnancy leave worse than other leave-takers; to the contrary, if that evidence is to be believed (in an earlier ruling Judge Preska threw out the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s expert witnesses, leaving the evidence lopsided in Bloomberg’s favor), women returning from maternity leave may have fared slightly better in terms of compensation than employees returning from other kinds of leave.

The evidence also showed that taking leave for any reason is not a wise career move at Bloomberg. The company policy is, in essence, that employees must put Bloomberg LP ahead of God, country, family, and whatever else figures in their particular pursuits of happiness. Bloomberg scoffs at work-life balance, and while that might be poor business judgment or even reprehensible, Judge Preska was correct that it is not against the law.

Judge Preska makes it clear that the law, whether she likes it or not, grants employers the right to ignore and even discourage workers’ lives outside of work. She quotes former General Electric CEO Jack Welch’s grim assessment that there is “no such thing as work-life balance. There are work-life choices, and you make them, and they have consequences.”

The judge writes that “it is not the Court’s role to engage in policy debates or choose the outcome it thinks is best. It is to apply the law.” Judge Preska goes on to discuss all the things that courts do not have the power to police. She includes in that list what she calls “work-family tradeoffs” – she does not believe one can have it all. But maybe one can have more than Bloomberg gives: the judge observes that it “may be desirable” and “may make business sense” for companies to “treat pregnant women and mothers better or more leniently than others.”

I disagree. Treating pregnant women and mothers more leniently than other employees is not desirable. The view that pregnant women and mothers deserve special treatment may appear feminist, but it actually serves the interests of those who want women pregnant and at home while daddy wins the bread. The law already bars employers from discriminating against women because of pregnancy and related medical conditions, so this policy question is not about whether women’s biology holds them back in the workplace. It is about whether some mothers’ choices to spend more time away from work than fathers and non-parents do should be underwritten by the government and employers.

“Treat[ing] pregnant women and mothers better…than others” would be an insult and a disservice to several groups of “others.” First, fathers: why should employers treat mothers better than fathers? To ensure that women take more time off work and that men don’t? To reinforce sexist stereotypes that, compared to men, women are better at/prefer/should be raising children? Those stereotypes don’t need much reinforcement: studies have shown that men who take paternity leave are later penalized in terms of compensation and promotion compared to men who leave all the child-rearing to women. The attitudes behind those penalties are the same attitudes that support treating mothers better than other employees.

The second group of slighted “others” is the ill and disabled: why should pregnant women and new mothers be treated better than employees who take leave that is necessary for different medical reasons? Pregnant women at least chose to suffer their medical condition, unlike people who have to take leave for, say, a kidney transplant, or to care for a dying parent. Pregnant women and new mothers should not be treated worse than others with medical conditions, and they should not be treated better.

Third, non-mothers: treating female employees who choose to bear children better than those who do not (and in some cases cannot) devalues the lives of women without kids. Requiring employers to treat mothers better in the workplace than women who are not mothers would divert both public and private resources to subsidize the individual lifestyles of people who choose to have children. People do not have children for the greater good or out of a sense of civic duty – they have children because they want to. It makes no sense to force employers to grant preferential treatment to women who choose to spend their time and resources having children over women who choose to spend their time and resources doing something else. It is not up to employers to value any of these private, non-employment-related choices over the others.

Judge Preska put a point on this policy debate by referring to “work-family tradeoffs” rather than “work-life tradeoffs.” But these are not the same thing. Family is not a substitute for life; family is a part of life, but there is more. For most people blessed with the resources to choose how to spend their time, life includes friends, the arts, physical activity, spirituality, or any of many other interests. The judge’s phrase, “work-family tradeoffs,” frames the issue as a question of trading family time for work time, implying that family is the only thing that could possibly merit time off of work. In the context of a gender discrimination case like this one, this framing is not only reductionist, it is frightening in its confinement of female employees to only two spheres: family and making a living.

Judge Preska merely outlines the policy choice of favoring mothers over other employees. She does not claim it as her own. But it is not a straw man: it is at the heart of many “work-life balance” criticisms of the judge’s ruling. Critics are not satisfied with the law’s requirement that employers treat women who take medical leave related to pregnancy the same as other employees who take leave for other reasons. They want pregnancy and motherhood to be privileged.

I am not on Bloomberg’s side. Expecting employees to put work above all else is a recipe for misery for all but workaholics, and an ugly manifestation of corporate greed. But putting children above all else is not the answer for everyone either.
Judges lack the power to force employers to facilitate humane work schedules, and in a free market with more workers than jobs, employees lack the leverage to reach company- or industry-wide bargains for a better balance. At least for now, people who choose to have children will have to make trade-offs to pursue their dreams the same way that people without children do. Under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act and Judge Preska’s ruling, pregnancy and related medical conditions are not a part of that trade-off – they should have no different effect than any other medical condition.

If other “work-family” trade-offs continue to fall more heavily on mothers than fathers, they will have a discriminatory effect. The most immediate and attainable palliative is for fathers to step up and mothers to step back. As more fathers take more parental leave the stereotype of women as children’s natural caretakers will begin to erode, and if women take less leave, the stereotype that women are not as committed to their work as men are may begin to erode too. Parents who can afford for mom to take non-medical time off with the kids should not wait for the courts or the legislature to solve their childcare challenges. They should tap underutilized in-house talent instead: dads.

This blog originally appeared  at Piper Hoffman on August 26, 2011. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Piper Hoffman is a writer and employee-side employment lawyer. She holds degrees with honors from Harvard Law School and Brown University. Hoffman blogs regularly on law and social justice issues at piperhoffman.com.

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Not a Hobby

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They’re not like taking up skydiving.

I was subscribing to a business magazine for women in 2001. I remember the year because I got laid off and had to cancel all my subscriptions, though the magazine’s name is lost in the mists. Anyway, that was the verdict of an article they published on combining children and work, that having children isn’t a hobby like skydiving.

The author wrote about endless frustration with having employers act as though children are an inconvenient hobby to indulge, and a really far out hobby at that, instead of the only way you insure the existence of a future workforce.

Parenting is normal, but the business world still treats it like a disorder.

I didn’t have any children when I read that article, and don’t yet, but the author’s metaphor has always struck me as a desperate plea for mercy for working parents. I was in my mid-20s, single, working 60-80 hours a week and spending most of my weekends catching up on sleep. It was hard enough taking care of myself, why wouldn’t an employer get that having other people to take care of wasn’t just some whimsical pastime?

Then I started to notice that the receptionist at work got talked about as being unreliable because she had occasional childcare emergencies that she had to take off for. I wasn’t thought of in the same way when I took a half day for personal reasons and shifted my hours around to make up for it.

In our office hierarchy, I was a trusted, salaried professional. She was treated like an answering machine. Machines only get attention when they break.

It’s hard for everyone.

I thought about that article sometimes after I got laid off a couple months later. It made me more grateful that even when times were tough, it was just me that had got stuck in a difficult situation.

While I didn’t have kids, I had been one. My sibling and I weren’t a hobby to my parents. They’d worried and sacrificed for us, we were their world.

It’s been harder as women integrated into the workforce to assure that parents could still be there for their children. The idealized, standard model of an employee is still tilted towards a single person or a married male partnered with a full-time parent and homemaker.

The first generation of women who came to the workforce as parents had to do two jobs, as many, many people before me have pointed out. Not only was childcare still seen as women’s natural job, but because of ingrained wage discrimination, it hurt families more in the pocketbook for men to cut back on their work obligations to handle childcare.

You’ve probably heard all the reasons why this was bad for women, and it was, and they realized it quite quickly. Too bad it took such a long time for men to realize that the situation was bad for them as well and always had been.

Attitude adjustments happen.

The necessary flipside of expanding women’s roles in family and the society is expanding men’s roles. Yes, there are women who’d rather work more when the children are young, like Republican vice presidential nominee, Gov. Sarah Palin. There are also men who’d rather spend more time with their families when the children are young, like Democratic vice presidential nominee, Sen. Joe Biden.

Even as late as 2006, a state like California, which has a fairly progressive family leave policy saw relatively few men take advantage of it. The financial responsibilities men continue to be saddled with by cookie cutter gender expectations and wage inequality still leave many men feeling torn between paying the bills and staying away from their partners and new infants during an important and emotionally intense time.

You know how the saying goes. Who wishes on their deathbed that they’d spent more time at the office?

Fortunately for them, and their families, nearly 70 percent of men would consider staying home to be a caregiver if money wasn’t an issue. Those numbers reflect a society where women’s advances give men a greater range of acceptable options, but even though the numbers have increased, only around 330,000 men in the U.S. are stay-at-home dads.

That’s not even one percent of adult American men. I count it as yet another market failure, for there to be such a significant gap between what today’s families want and what they feel they’re able to handle.

And we aren’t talking about wanting extravagant perks out of life, this isn’t a call for free skydiving lessons for everyone. We’re talking about the ability of parents, both birth and adoptive parents, to provide healthy, secure relationships with their children and keep the basic necessities covered at the same time.

This is something fundamental to being human and you don’t need to have kids to appreciate it.

Where are our leaders?

The United States continues to be the only Western nation without paid family leave, with 163 other nations offering paid maternal leave and 45 providing paid leave for fathers.

Current law only forbids employers from treating women worse than men, who are themselves severely penalized if they want to give their families more of their time. Current business culture often looks at leave suspiciously, as a threat, a frivolity and an opportunity for employee cheating.

Both government and business are behind the times. More than that, they’re adding to the strain on families in a hard economy. And if I’ve said it once, I’ll say it a hundred times, you can’t have a healthy economy when your workforce is stretched to the breaking point.

This is a nation that needs, almost all of us, to spend more time with our families.

Meanwhile, our institutions include a business community that prioritizes executive bonuses and congressional pay raises over boosting living wages for typical families. Working and middle class families get squeezed for both money and time, and their basic quality of life suffers.

Even before the current financial crisis, only a third of Americans believed that the future would be better for their children than it was for them. Something has to give. People need some assurance that their children’s lives can be better than their own again, and a good start would be making it easier for families to meet both their caregiving and financial responsibilities. A good start would be paid leave and gracious accomodation for one of the most important family decisions many of us will ever make.

America’s families are the real fundamentals of our economy. Our leaders need to act like it.

About the Author: Natasha Chart has been blogging about the environment, social justice and various other political topics since 2002. She currently writes at MyDD.com and works as an online marketing consultant in Philadelphia.

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