NPR on work-life balance and shift work: Not bad, but what about unions?

National Public Radio’s Jennifer Ludden just concluded her very good three-part series on work-life balance with a segment on shift work.  Ludden’s piece opens with the story of Vickie Underwood, who had a stellar 22-year work record for an Atlanta-area printing plant until problems erupted when, at the end of her shift, she was asked to work overtime:

When she got off at 3 that afternoon, Underwood needed to hurry home to register her kids at two different schools and sign up the youngest for aftercare. The county was holding a one time all-day registration, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., to accommodate working parents — which is ironic, considering what happened at 2, with an hour to go in Underwood’s shift.

“I was asked to work three hours mandatory overtime. I mentioned to them that I had to register my kids for school, and they told me that I couldn’t leave,” Underwood says.

Underwood had worked last-minute overtime dozens of times before, but on this day she said no. Since school registration is mandatory, she didn’t really think she’d get in trouble. In fact, her bosses skipped right over any disciplinary measure and fired her.

Benefits of Family-Friendly Scheduling

The segment goes on to examine the benefits of providing lower wage shift workers with family-friendly scheduling support, referencing an ongoing study by the National Institutes of Health:

The NIH wanted to know whether this kind of flexibility at work can improve employee health, so they matched manager flexibility against various measures of employee well-being. [Study co-leader Ellen Kossek] says those with the most accommodating managers “had better physical health reports, better sleep quality, higher job satisfaction, and less stress over work-life conflicts.”

What about Unions?

Too many examinations of work-life balance concentrate on professional and executive workers, so kudos to NPR and Ludden for devoting a segment to shift workers.  However, in examining possible responses to the challenges workers face in navigating work and family, it would have been good to focus on the role of unions in negotiating family-friendly working arrangements for their members, rather than centering almost solely on management discretion.

By leaving it up to managers to offer such arrangements, workers are at the mercy of their employers.  Fortunately, Vickie Underwood was not in such a position:

Underwood fought a year without pay before finally getting her job back, and she was lucky to have a union backing her up.

Maybe the real message behind the story should’ve been the central roles that unions can play in negotiating working conditions for their members and supporting them when things go wrong.

Link to NPR story

5 responses

  1. I just found your blog through your comment posted on the NPR article. This is a great resource that I plan to investigate further. Thank you for this contribution.

    Honestly, I’ve always been put off by unions. Yes, they have served a wonderful purpose to institute and continue workers’ rights in America, but when I think union these days, I think overpaid workers, high pensions, and costs to modern businesses. I’m an HR Manager for a small manufacturing business, and we rely on hourly workers. We offer competitive wages with a comprehensive benefits package, but I struggle with trying to make sure we maintain a level of flexibility to encourage family oriented and/or young workers to join and stick with our team. Fortunately, we have a high retention rate, with most of our employees having worked with us for over four years. But, as our society changes and everyone’s focus is more on family (or just personal interests) and less on the old-fashioned 9 to 5 routine this leaves rigid shift work in a strange spot. I am hoping to find new and innovative ways to help our production staff have a flexible work schedule, without promoting an unproductive atmosphere, which is a problem we’ve had in the past.

    I look forward to reading more of your research.

    • Thank you for your response to my post.

      Although I acknowledge some of the negative perceptions of unions, I believe that unions remain the last best hope for low wage workers in the service and retail sectors to get an even break when it comes to earnings, benefits, and working conditions. Many of those negative perceptions relate to pockets of the public sector workforce. But barely 7 percent of the private sector workforce is unionized, hardly sufficient to start a stampede toward bloated wages and overly generous pensions. The overwhelming majority of private companies don’t have to negotiate with unions and are free to set wages and benefits at their discretion.

      That said, I also recognize the challenges facing management when it comes to family-friendly policies and practices. We’ve all seen when well-meaning policies go too far — the negative impact on productivity and morale is palpable. And the changing attitudes of some (not all!) of today’s younger workers toward work can be maddening to even the most fair-minded and understanding managers.

      Anyway, thanks for your comments, and I hope you’ll continue to visit here.

  2. Pingback: Wake Up, Ivory Tower: We Need You! « The Mama Bee

  3. I found your post via The Mama Bee today in her excellent post on the NPR series follow-up. As a blogger on work life issues who is all too aware (and a guilty party) of the emphasis on higher wage/white collar knowledge workers in the work life discussion, I greatly value your perspective and insight into what unions are doing and how the practical application of flexibility is being experienced by membership at large. This is THE gaping whole not only in the dialogue, but in the research and data. I’ll be checking in regularly and look forward to more.

    • Chrysula, thanks for your kind words. I’m glad there are others out there who recognize the importance of the labor movement in providing decent compensation and working conditions. I hope you’ll enjoy following this blog and comment when the spirit moves you — agreeing or disagreeing!

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