By Phillip Henderson | President, Surdna Foundation

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“Don’t boo. Vote!”

 

That was President Obama’s spirited response at Monday’s White House Summit on Working Families to the crowd’s opinion of the obstructionist Congress—a Congress that has blocked his every attempt to pass paid maternity leave and other family-friendly legislation

 

The President was reminding this group—a full house of hundreds and hundreds of activists, business leaders, foundations, labor leaders, experts, local and national elected officials and others—that to convince legislators to adopt family-friendly policies in the workplace means the democratic process must kick into high gear. 

The President then electrified the room when he implored Americans to join the rest of the industrialized world and offer paid leave for mothers of newborns. "Many women can't even get a paid day off to give birth—now that's a pretty low bar.”

 

It’s such a straightforward, nonpartisan decision, he said, that “If France can figure this out, we can figure this out." I don’t think the Ambassador from France was in the room.

 

Some media skeptics dismissed President Obama’s emphasis on working family issues as a ploy to attract “women’s votes” during the upcoming mid-term elections. But he cut these critics off with irrefutable demographics: “At a time when women are nearly half of our workforce, anything that makes life harder for women, makes life harder for families, and makes life harder for children. There’s no such thing as a women’s issue; this is a family issue. This is an American issue.”


Surdna, one of Summit’s sponsors, has been supporting federal and state efforts to raise the minimum wage and ensure that paid sick days and paid family leave for low-wage workers becomes the norm. We’re also working to advance the conversation on quality jobs and activate the voice of businesses to promote fair wages, benefits, and career training.

 

A few of our grantees made significant contributions to the Summit:

 

Makini Howell, proprietor of Plum Bistro in Seattle and member of the Surdna-supported Main Street Alliance talked about the benefits to her business and employees of higher wages and paid sick days. As a food service entrepreneur, she cited public health as the number one reason she supported Seattle’s Paid Sick Days law, saying “I don’t want to serve you a cheap contagious flu with your sweet potato fries.”  She added that the costs, which run “pennies per plate,” are more than made up for in improved retention, employee morale and customer good will.

 

On the subject of Seattle’s first-in-the-nation $15 minimum wage law, Howell discussed how small businesses would benefit from increased consumer demand.  ”My business’ employees are another business’ customers.” 

 

Another Surdna partner, Ellen Bravo, who leads Family Values @ Work and took the stage immediately after President Obama, spoke passionately about the many tragic cases of employers turning their backs on employees in need and actually increasing their pain and distress. She revealed the people behind some staggering numbers: 40 percent of American workers don’t earn a single paid sick day; millions who do can’t use the time to care  for a sick family member. These women and men illustrate the huge financial loss and strain for families, but also for our entire economy. She spoke of the indelible human costs—the spread of sickness, the consequences of not seeing a doctor, and the utter heartbreak of a child alone in a hospital room.

 

And Ai-jen Poo, the charismatic leader of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, reminded all of us about the “invisible” workers in our society—a mostly female workforce—who care for our children, our parents, and tend to our families’ needs. But these women  are systematically excluded from the protections afforded the rest of the labor force. Call it what you will –caregiving, domestic work, homecare—it’s the work that makes all other work possible. Yet it’s been devalued both because of who does it—women, originally African Americans, and today mostly immigrants.

 

It was remarkable to hear the President, First Lady, the Vice President, the Secretary of Labor, the House Minority Leader, and many other high-profile speakers voice emphatic support for addressing the many needs of working families.  But the most moving moments of the Summit, the ones that captured the hopes and dreams of all the committed people in the room, came from advocates like our grantees. Nonprofit warriors working in the trenches of this movement. They helped to ground all of us in the realities of what’s happening in communities across the United States.  It was a message both uplifting and sobering. We’ve come a long, long way, but there is so much more to be done. 

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I was again reminded of that message—work yet to be done—in conversations during the Summit with Neera Tanden President of the Center for American Progress, the event’s host, and with some Ford Foundation program staff, and Surdna’s own amazing staff. We agreed that the Summit must serve as a leaping off point for progress on issues from flexible scheduling, paid maternity and paternity leave, to a higher minimum wage, paid sick leave, and so much more. 

 

While the full weight of the White House was on display, it will take a broad and deep movement to keep the pressure on, both in Congress and in state houses across the country.  Now it’s time to seize on the momentum to create a better future for working families.

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