Campaign grows for employer-paid maternity leave

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Australian unions are waging a battle for a national, paid-leave maternity plan. Most comparable countries provide workers two to 12 months of paid leave at 80-100 percent of previous earnings. Australia’s mothers-to-be, however, are entitled to 12 months of leave and employers must keep their jobs open, but paid leave is not compulsory. Only one in three women is eligible for paid maternity leave and, for most, the duration — usually 6-14 weeks — is inadequate.

Australia and the U.S. are the only two developed countries that don’t provide some kind of national paid parental leave. They share a shabby record of making child-raising a private matter and responsibility.

But society as a whole has a profound interest in raising healthy, secure children. And corporations have a direct financial interest since the next generation of workers is provided through parents’ labor and income.

Under Australia’s current system, women bear the entire weight of children’s physical, emotional, and psychological needs at no cost to employers or stockholders. Their unpaid labor is a mainstay of the economic structure.

How much and who pays? Many Australian workers hoped for change with the November 2007 election of the Australian Labor Party (ALP) government, led by Kevin Rudd. During his campaign, Rudd promised to deliver for “working families,” but the ALP dropped the commitment to paid maternity leave from its platform.

Instead, it promised merely to look at the issue by establishing a Productivity Commission inquiry into Paid Maternity, Paternity and Parental Leave to “investigate the cost effectiveness of different models, their likely impact on business and interaction with the social security system.” The commission is seeking input and its report is due out in February 2009.

In its proposal to the commission, Unions NSW (a body equivalent to a U.S. labor council) argues for a government-run scheme, funded by an employer levy, to provide 26 weeks’ paid maternity leave, at the minimum wage, for all women. For those who earn more than the minimum wage, employers would make up the difference.

In contrast, the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) has teamed up with business lobby groups to argue for only 14 weeks of leave, at the minimum wage — and funded by the taxpayers. They claim that 26 weeks of paid leave is “unaffordable.”

Radical Women’s (RW) submission argues for 12 months of leave on full pay funded by employers through “a national fund paid into in proportion to an employer’s capacity,” i.e., the size of their profits. Large corporations would pay the bulk, and, regardless of ability to contribute, the smallest businesses and poorest not-for-profits could still provide paid maternity leave to their employees. Writes RW:

“Paid maternity leave, free childcare and equal pay should be industrial rights and entitlements for all working women; economic independence must be a social right and entitlement for all woThe wealth exists to provide this.”

Winning what we need. Thanks to vigorous campaigning by the National Tertiary Education Union, some universities now pay up to a full year of leave. Federal public employees won 12 weeks of leave 35 years ago. Now their union, the Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU) is campaigning for 26 weeks of paid maternity leave by 2013.

The ACTU undercut the CPSU’s campaign by calling this target an “ambit claim,” meaning an unrealistically high bid to open negotiations with. But CPSU members see their demand as something to be achieved, and when launching the campaign, the CPSU governing council made it clear that 26 weeks was the goal.

That said, without an organized and widely supported campaign, the leadership could well retreat to the ACTU position. All across the public-service spectrum, democratic campaign committees are urgently needed. And the fight should be expanded to demand a national employer-funded program of paid leave for all Australian workers, mothers and fathers, and in every job.

The union Web site shows that members solidly back the CPSU campaign. A woman named Julie writes, “Why should women have to bear such a financial burden in having a baby?” K.D. agrees, saying, “It infuriates me when people say that having children is a lifestyle choice.” Justine responds to those who say 26 weeks of leave is unaffordable: “When the 12-week paid leave was introduced in the 1970s there was a similar objection, but the end of the world did not come and the Commonwealth provision was the model for other women to get similar paid leave.”

Union movement campaigns that take up the fight for what workers really need are a breath of fresh air. In stark contrast, the ACTU presents itself as “economically responsible” — meaning that their scheme would let employers pay nothing, and yet benefit hugely.

Meanwhile, even the ACTU admits that women’s pay — which averages only 83 of what men earn — drops by an average of 28 percent when they have one child or more!

Change in leave policy is even more sorely needed in the U.S. The Family Leave and MediAct allows parents just 12 weeks of unpaid leave to care for a new child. And this only applies to workplaces with more than 50 employees, thus excluding 43 percent of U.S. workers — about 48.1 million people.

Recently, California, Washington and New Jersey passed laws to provide five or six weeks of paid leave through temporary disability insurance programs. Benefits range from Califor’s maximum of $882 per week to Washington state’s miserable $250 per week. Only the California plan, funded by a levy on workers, is operational; the other two programs are due to begin in October 2009.

Chid-raising is priority union business! Needed now are:

• One year of employer-funded paid leave that can be accessed by either parent;

• Free, 24-hour, community-controlled childcare, funded by industry and government;

• Equal pay for all women for equal or comparable work;

• Economic independence for all: raise welfare to a liveable wage!

If other countries can afford to pay 12 months of leave to either parent, Australia and the U.S. can, too. Trade unions and the feminist movement in both Australia and the U.S. have a job ahead. But it is one working parents know must be won.
Alison Thorne, a CPSU and reproductive rights activist, can be contacted at alison.

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