Netsy Firestein, Labor Project for Working Famil

(WOMENSENEWS)–As the recession deepens, some union watchers expect leaders to intensify the push for family-friendly benefits to help members cope with financial stress and monetary uncertainty in the economy.

“In these difficult times when workers are under so much stress, flexible hours, child and elder care and other family-friendly benefits are as critical for workers as fair pay, job security and other traditional issues at the bargaining table,” said Netsy Firestein, executive director of the Labor Project for Working Families in Berkeley, Calif.

Firestein said unions often lack research departments to provide information on laws that impact programs or studies that will persuade employers that such programs boost productivity. “Union representatives may also lack experience in bargaining family-friendly benefits,” she added.

To fill the gap, the Labor Project for Working Families–a nonprofit organization that forges collaborations between labor unions and community-based organizations to improve public policies for workers–launched a free online labor, education and resource network on April 6.

Online Help for Unions

The site–LEARN WorkFamily–includes a database of contract language, a family-work curriculum for union activists and bargaining tips.

It also provides case studies of successful negotiations, such as that of Local 1877 of the Service Employees International Union, which represents more than 35,000 janitors and other property service workers in California. About half the members are women.

Local 1877’s master contractors’ agreement, which expires May 1, 2012, permits parents to take unpaid leave from work to attend parent-teacher conferences and other school activities. It also established “parent universities” that provide workshops on communicating with teachers, reading report cards and creating a positive learning environment in the home.

Providing Powerful Examples

Firestein said family-friendly benefits can help organizing campaigns because they are powerful examples of the range of ways a contract can serve members. “We included information about homework hotlines, summer camp subsidies, lactation rooms and other innovative benefits on our Web site because family-friendly benefits are a work in progress and more unions will be negotiating these benefits to meet the needs of their changing memberships.”

Aida Cardenas, executive director of Building Skills Partnership, a nonprofit with offices in Oakland, San Jose and Los Angeles, Calif., says family-friendly benefits can also include adoption assistance, bereavement leave and referral services for elder care.

Building Skills Partnership is a collaboration between Local 1877, community leaders, janitorial contractors and the Building Owners and Managers Association, which provides vocational and life skills training for Local 1877 members.

Like many unions, Cardenas said Local 1877 first surveyed members to determine what family-friendly benefits would be most widely used before they placed them on the bargaining agenda.

Sharon Johnson is a New York freelance writer.

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