What Do Unions Do for Mothers?

Tae-Youn Park of Vanderbilt University, Eun-Suk Lee of Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, and John W. Budd of the University of Minnesota recently published in article in the ILR Review entitled, “What Do Unions Do for Mothers? Paid Maternity Leave Use and the Multifaceted Roles of Labor Unions,” which is free to read for a limited time. Below they discuss the motivations and challenges of this research.

Paid parental leave is an important issue around the globe. In countries with long histories of universal maternity leave, there is concern with usage rates and with extending this to fathers. In the United States—the lone industrialized country without universal paid leave for new parents (though there are now a very small number of state-based programs and many employer-provided plans)—the central debate is over whether and how to enact such a policy. But a key motivating fact for this research is that simply enacting or offering a paid parental leave plan does not automatically mean that workers will take a leave. So we need to better understand the factors that prevent workers from taking a leave, and ways to reduce these barriers.

One of the challenges with research into these issues, however, is that the decision to take a leave is very complex. So in this project we focus on one important institution: labor unions. Labor unions are popularly associated with higher wages and restrictive work rules, but in reality unions can have many effects in the workplace. We derive a model in which a worker’s decision to take a leave is broken down into four steps: 1) the policy needs to be available, 2) if available, the worker needs to be aware of it, 3) given awareness, the worker needs to believe she can afford to take a leave, and 4) even if affordable, the worker needs to have implicit or explicit assurances that potential negative consequences that make the leave unattractive are unlikely. Based on broad research on what unions do, we discuss how unions have the potential to positively affect all four of these key steps.

To empirically analyze at least part of this framework, we analyze 15 years of data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1997 (NLSY97), which is a nationally-representative sample. We are only able to analyze mothers’ decisions to take a paid maternity leave, and our final data set has 27,472 observations from 4,108 female workers across a 15-year period. Ultimately we find that union-represented workers are at least 17 percent more likely to use paid maternity leave than comparable nonunion workers, and that unions facilitate this leave-taking through the availability, awareness, and affordability channels. We also find that mothers who take a paid maternity leave experience a post-leave penalty such that their wage growth is slower when compared to those who did not take a leave. Surprisingly, we did not find that labor unions lessen this penalty. We hope this theorizing and these results spur others to continue to deepen our understanding of the barriers that prevent new parents from taking a paid leave, and help identify ways to reduce these barriers.

Keep in contact with the authors by reaching out to them on twitter: @JohnWBudd!

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