News & Events

A family friendly workplace: how unions make a difference

From the Massachusetts Nurse Newsletter
October 2009 Edition

By Jenifer MacGillvary and Netsy Firestein

How do unions help build family-friendly workplaces? To begin with, compared with nonunionized workers, unionized workers enjoy better conditions of employment across the board: they receive higher salaries and more generous benefits packages. Unionized employees receive not only more benefits, but also benefits that are more useful to them.

Unions take the collective preferences of their members and communicate this information to the employer, with the result that the mixture of the total compensation package is rearranged to reflect these preferences. It seems likely that job security, wages and health benefits will always be higher priorities in contract negotiations, but as family-friendly benefits become more important, this preference will be implemented more quickly (and more generously) for unionized workers.

Unions also play a critical role in actualizing formal workplace or public policies: they turn policy into action. This “facilitation effect” (also described as a “rights-facilitating effect,” an “educational role” or an “implementation function”) is central to any understanding of the union advantage. Unions educate members on what their workplace rights are and how to exercise them; they monitor the workplace and ensure that policies and rights are being enforced; and they protect workers from retaliation when they exercise their rights.

Study after study has found evidence of the facilitation effect. Union-represented employees are more likely than nonunionized workers to file workers’ compensation claims; they receive more unemployment insurance; and they are more knowledgeable than nonunionized workers about their future social security and pension benefits. As explored more fully below, unionized workers are more aware of their rights under the Family and Medical Leave Act. In unionized workplaces, OSHA enforcement improves, as does compliance with the overtime regulations of the Fair Labor Standards Act. These programs are costly to employers, giving them a clear disincentive to voluntarily provide more than the legally required minimum notice. Unions fill this information void.

The undeniable benefits on unionizing

Family and Medical Leave Act: Unionization promotes compliance with the Family and Medical Leave Act. Unionized employees are more likely to have heard of the FMLA and have fewer worries about taking leave. Companies with any unionized employees are 1.7 times as likely to comply with the FMLA as companies without any unionized employees

Access to paid leave: Unionized workers are more likely to receive fully paid and partially paid family leaves. Comparing hourly workers who take leave, 46 percent of unionized workers compared to 29 percent of nonunionized workers receive full pay while on leave.

Flexible paid sick days: Unionized workers are 1.3 times as likely as nonunionized workers to be allowed to use their own sick time to care for a sick child, and they are 50 percent more likely than nonunionized workers to have paid personal leave that can be used to care for sick children.

Private-sector unionized workers are 10 percent more likely than nonunionized workers to have “illness leave,” a measure that includes a combination of paid vacation, paid sick leave, paid family leave and paid personal leave.

Family-friendly health-care benefits: Companies with 30 percent or more unionized workers are five times as likely as companies with no unionized workers to pay the entire family health insurance premium. Even when unionized employees are required to pay part of their family insurance premium, they pay a much lower share of the premium than nonunionized workers do—13 percent of the premium compared to 32 percent.

Flexible work arrangements: Flexible work arrangements include job-sharing, part-time work, compressed workweeks, working from home, returning to work gradually after family leave and atypical schedules. There does not appear to be a union advantage when it comes to flexible workplace policies. In fact, the few studies of this issue that have been done show a negative relationship between unionization and flexible work arrangements. This may be because many types of flexibility are not an option for some occupations: for example, telecommuting for factory workers or daily change of start time for nurses. Or it may be that flextime for some union workers and unions has a negative connotation in that it could mean employers have the flexibility to require unscheduled, mandatory overtime and shift work. More research is needed that examines the union-nonunion difference in flexible work arrangements within job classes and categories.

Child-care benefits: In the private sector, 19 percent of unionized workers compared to 10 percent of nonunionized workers receive child-care resource and referral services from their employers. Additionally, 37 percent of private-sector unionized workers compared to 31 percent of private-sector nonunionized workers have dependent care reimbursement accounts, in which part of their salary is set aside each month on a pre-tax basis to pay for eligible child-care expenses.

Vacation and holidays: Unionized workers receive an average of 15 vacation days per year, compared to the nonunion average of 11.75 days. This amounts to a union advantage of 28 percent (AFL-CIO, 2009). In the private sector, 84 percent of unionized workers receive some paid vacation, compared to 77 percent of nonunionized workers, and 85 percent of unionized workers compared to 76 percent of nonunionized workers receive some paid holidays. Eighty-five percent of private- sector unionized workers, compared to 76 percent of private-sector nonunionized workers, receive at least one paid holiday.

Interested in unionizing?

To find out how benefits like the ones described above can become part of your work environment, contact the MNA’s division of organizing at 781.830.5777.

This article is taken entirely from “Family- Friendly Workplaces: Do Unions Make a Difference?” (July 2009), by Jenifer MacGillvary (University of California, Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education) and Netsy Firestein (The Labor Project for Working Families).