Can someone puh-lease get all the Wall Street shills like this one off my t.v.? As the economic horizons look darker and darker, economists at Janet Gornick and Pam Stone’s awesome work/family mini-conference at the Eastern Sociological Society meeting in Baltimore this weekend presented, by way of contrast, really nice work.

At the concluding panel, “Public Policy and Working Families: Providing, Supporting, and Equalizing Access,” Heather Boushey (Center for American Progress), Chai Feldblum (Workplace Flexibility 2010), Heidi Hartmann (Institute for Women’s Policy Research) and John Schmitt (Center for Economic and Policy Research) discussed horizons for work and family policy. And they really took Obama adviser Rahm Emanuel’s advice to “never waste a perfectly good crisis” to heart. All four demonstrated that the particulars of the current downturn plus key demographic trends will help us to move work/family policy issues higher up on Obama’s and Congress’s priorities list, even in these hard times.

Here are some key points:

*Four out of five jobs lost since December 2007 are men’s. This means that women are increasingly sole breadwinners in partnered families as well as in single-mom families. As Heather Boushey argued in a recent paper for CAP, this shift in family relations and the workplace makes work/family issues more salient as the economic crisis deepens. Boushey encourages us to focus on the implications of a “woman, making 78 cents on the dollar, now supporting her family.” More than ever, we gotta have pay equity. And here’s the crisis-as-opportunity piece:

These shifts in employment mean that the Pay Check Fairness Act is a huge agenda item for workers and families. Heidi Hartmann, who knows a thing or two about pressing forward a pro-woman, pro-family legislative agenda, included the PCFA on her list of promising laws on the horizon.

*Many more people are working part-time, or reduced hours, and are doing so involuntarily. Part-time work is notorious for unequal pay and no benefits, including no health insurance, and part-time work has been the domain of women trying to juggle child-care and other responsibilities. Boushey pointed out that of course we shouldn’t need to have legions of involuntarily part-time workers to believe in parity for them, but the crisis—with an increased number of men joining the part-time work force—gives us an opportunity to talk about part-time parity. The same is true for issues of workplace flexibility, which Chai Feldblum discussed in detail.

*Since the early 1980s, women have grown from about 35 percent of the unionized workforce to 45% today. On this trajectory, John Schmitt explained, women are soon likely to be more than half of all union members. “Unions are a powerful aid for promoting work-family issues,” explained Schmitt. (Several audience members, including Kathleen Gerson at NYU, pointed out that it sure would help if unions could do more to overcome that enduring image of unions as a male domain. Schmitt and Boushey are doing their share to draw attention that the much more progressive and representative reality of unions today.) (Don’t miss Schmitt’s recent study that shows that union membership increases women’s wages by 11%; and their likelihood of having employer-provided health insurance by about 25 percentage points.)

*“We are at a once every-other-generation moment” in terms of opportunity to transform laws that regulate workers’ rights to unions, Schmitt argued. And this means that the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), which is currently being examined in Congressional hearings, has an especially good chance of passing. What is EFCA? In short, EFCA would make it much easier for private-sector workers to form a union at their workplace. Current law is one of the main obstacles to unionization (for example, about 40% of public sector workers are in a union, where the applicable law is not nearly so stacked in favor of employers, compared to only 8% of workers in the private-sector, where existing law is so one-sided). As Schmitt has argued in a recent series of papers, more union membership=better wages and benefits=better conditions for women, African-American, Latino, young, and low-wage workers, and their families.

Boushey and Schmitt sent us home with three big messages:

  1. All our work family policies must be much more inclusive than in the past, Boushey stated. That means new legislation should be careful not to exempt small firms, or exclude workers with a short time on the job (a situation that is common for many low-wage women workers who most need benefits such as paid sick days and paid parental leave)
  2. All those working on work and family issues are advised to recognize that unions are a powerful aid to their cause, per Schmitt. A 10% increase in union membership can change the well-being of working families in and out of unions, and it can also change our political landscape writ large in ways that are good for families and the men and women in them. Since unions need the Employee Free Choice Act to expand, EFCA is an important de facto piece of work-family legislation.
  3. This was my favorite: When naysayers say “we can’t afford it,” Schmitt implored that work/family issues advocates be relentless at making what is the most obvious point in the world right now: those work family policy opponents are the same ones who ran our economy into the ground with their discredited and bankrupt economic theories. In Schmitt’s words, tell them, “You have no credibility. Please step back.”

Virginia Rutter