Labor unions have the influence to help workers gain access to flexible schedules but can do more to foster that trend, finds a study led by a Michigan State University scholar.
The findings, published in the research journal ILR Review, counter critics’ claims that unions no longer are relevant, said Peter Berg, professor in MSU’s School of Human Resources and Labor Relations.
Union membership in the United States has fallen to about 11 percent from 20 percent in 1983, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“In the past, unions have been a force for raising wage and benefit standards, but today unions are under attack,” Berg said. “Can unions still play a role? Can they help accommodate people’s increasing preferences for greater flexibility on the job? This study shows, to some degree, that they can.”
Berg and colleagues studied nearly 900 workers at public and private companies across the United States. They found workers in unions highly supportive of work-life flexibility practices – such as flextime, telecommuting and personal and family leave – are more likely to use those benefits. The finding held even after accounting for supervisor support.
However, some unions are focused solely on negotiating pay and health benefits – and this can actually work against getting access to flexible schedules.
“Simply having a more powerful union to negotiate higher wages and benefits does not translate into greater access to flexible schedules,” Berg said.
He said unions can include flexible scheduling in contract negotiations, but should also take a more active approach in supporting work-life flexibility practices. This might include union officials acting as consultants to help employees negotiate flexibility with their supervisor and creating problem-solving groups to find solutions to department-specific flexibility needs.
“Workers’ lives have become so varied that access to various types of flexibility is needed for different types of workers,” the study says. “The non-work demands of a working parent with a preschool child may differ from an older worker who needs to manage elder care or the demands of college-age children.”
Berg’s co-authors were MSU researchers Dale Belman and Kaumudi Misra, and Ellen Ernst Kossek of Purdue University.