Interviews for Resistance: Trump’s “Family Leave” Plan Is a Shell Game

Sarah Jaffe May 25, 2017

A longtime organizer talks about the fight for paid sick days and paid family medical leave insurance. (Ellen Bravo)

Wel­come to Inter­views for Resis­tance. Since elec­tion night 2016, the streets of the Unit­ed States have rung with resis­tance. Peo­ple all over the coun­try have wok­en up with the con­vic­tion that they must do some­thing to fight inequal­i­ty in all its forms. But many are won­der­ing what it is they can do. In this series, we’ll be talk­ing with expe­ri­enced orga­niz­ers, trou­ble­mak­ers and thinkers who have been doing the hard work of fight­ing for a long time. They’ll be shar­ing their insights on what works, what does­n’t, what’s changed and what is still the same. 

Ellen Bra­vo: I am Ellen Bra­vo. I am co-direc­tor of Fam­i­ly Val­ues @ Work. We are a net­work of coali­tions in 24 states win­ning paid sick days and paid fam­i­ly med­ical leave insurance.

Sarah Jaffe: Don­ald Trump’s bud­get, if we can call it a bud­get, has some pro­vi­sions that they are say­ing looks like paid leave. Can you talk about what is in those pro­pos­als and what, per­haps most notably, is not in them?

Ellen: I have been think­ing a lot about shell games. In order to win a shell game, the per­son has to get your eyes on one shell while they are manip­u­lat­ing the oth­ers. That is what this bud­get is. They are hop­ing that by nam­ing paid leave” we won’t notice that they are slash­ing and destroy­ing every­thing from Med­ic­aid to food stamps to child­care to dis­abil­i­ty pay­ments, etc.

Sec­ond­ly, the paid leave itself, they call it paid fam­i­ly leave, but of course it is paid parental leave. It doesn’t deliv­er even for par­ents. The prob­lem is it is rely­ing on an unsus­tain­able fund­ing source, state unem­ploy­ment insur­ance. They are already gross­ly under­fund­ed and leave out large num­bers of peo­ple. The states will get to set the eli­gi­bil­i­ty and amount of pay­ment for your ben­e­fit and it is only for six weeks. So too lit­tle time for too lit­tle mon­ey for too few peo­ple. It is going to be anoth­er shell game to say that the mon­ey will come from reduc­ing fraud in unem­ploy­ment insur­ance, which is great­ly exag­ger­at­ed as a prob­lem. Essen­tial­ly it will mean that states will have to cut unem­ploy­ment ben­e­fits to laid off work­ers in order to have mon­ey for the parental leave and of course it’s the same peo­ple. There will be some­one who needs one and lat­er the oth­er or their part­ner. Then, they get to decide who qual­i­fies. So, if you are an unmar­ried cou­ple, same sex cou­ple, adop­tive par­ents, how do you get cer­ti­fied? Who gets to be con­sid­ered legitimate?

Then, the vast major­i­ty of rea­sons peo­ple need leave isn’t for a new child, it is for your own ill­ness or for car­ing for a loved one. That, of course, isn’t cov­ered. This is a bud­get that deliv­ers only to one group and that is the wealth­i­est cor­po­ra­tions and the wealth­i­est indi­vid­u­als. It slams the rest of us and then tries to use this as a shell to make us think there is some­thing in it for us, but when you look, not even very deep, you see that it is unwork­able and it leaves out the essen­tial ele­ments of the program. 

Sarah: Of course, this was sup­posed to be Ivan­ka Trump’s baby. I remem­ber dur­ing the cam­paign see­ing these ads with Ivan­ka Trump sit­ting on a couch talk­ing about how her dad was going to give us all paid fam­i­ly leave because he cares about some­thing some­thing women some­thing. Ivan­ka has this book out now which is the Ivan­ka Trump ver­sion of Lean In, I guess. It has been fas­ci­nat­ing because there has been this strand of Lean In fem­i­nism that you and I have dis­cussed before in oth­er places that is led from the top and does think about these poli­cies most­ly in terms of women at the top. It has been fas­ci­nat­ing to watch that be co-opt­ed by this very right-wing pres­i­dent. I won­der if you could talk about the way Ivan­ka has been mobi­lized on this issue and what that says in a coun­try where, again, 53 per­cent of white women vot­ed for Don­ald Trump.

Ellen: One of the things, if you look at the book or reviews of the book, you real­ize imme­di­ate­ly how shal­low and pho­ny it is, full of plat­i­tudes and dis­arm­ing­ly inap­pro­pri­ate quotes like using a quote from Beloved about slav­ery and what it does to you inter­nal­ly and are you real­ly able to be free after­wards of the influ­ence of hav­ing been enslaved. Dar­ing to use such a quote to talk about peo­ple being enslaved to their phones and their calendars.

The oth­er thing that is real­ly clear is this is a per­son who is clue­less about how the major­i­ty of peo­ple live. Sheryl Sand­berg, to her cred­it in Lean In, acknowl­edges from the start that she is priv­i­leged, with resources the major­i­ty of peo­ple don’t [have] and that there is a need for mas­sive changes in pub­lic pol­i­cy for the major­i­ty of women. Ivan­ka is unaware of how the major­i­ty of peo­ple live. There is a great Saman­tha Bee clip where Ivan­ka is say­ing, Well, if your child is sick, there goes your bal­ance because sure­ly you are going to stay home that day.” Saman­tha Bee says, And the next day and the next because your boss who is not your dad at the chick­en pro­cess­ing plant is going to fire you for hav­ing a sick kid. Fol­low your bliss.”

What I have real­ized about Ivan­ka that we have to pay atten­tion to — I don’t care what she thinks in her heart. I am not judg­ing her as an indi­vid­ual. That is not impor­tant to me. But I do think we have to look at her role, and her role dur­ing the cam­paign was to be the pret­ty pack­ag­ing that made a preda­tor palat­able to the elec­torate. And now her role is not to mod­er­ate his extrem­ism, but to cam­ou­flage it. That is par­tic­u­lar­ly dangerous.

Sarah: You have been fight­ing on this front for a very, very long time. Let’s talk about what a real paid fam­i­ly leave plan would look like, what real fam­i­ly pol­i­cy would look like.

Ellen: That is the good news, we know exact­ly what it looks like because we have a pro­pos­al on the table and that pro­pos­al has been spurred by suc­cess­ful pro­grams in three states and two more have now won and five more are on the hori­zon to win.

Here is what we have learned. First of all, we call it an AAA rat­ing. A pro­gram needs to be acces­si­ble, afford­able and ade­quate. Notice I say ade­quate” and not ample” because what we are ask­ing for is mod­est not only com­pared to what fam­i­lies need, but also to what the rest of the world, lit­er­al­ly, offers.

What does that mean? Acces­si­ble means for all fam­i­lies, for all rea­sons for leave, and rec­og­niz­ing that care­giv­ing is a good thing and we shouldn’t pun­ish peo­ple because they are being a good child to their par­ents or a good par­ent to their child or a good part­ner or fol­low­ing doctor’s orders. It should be afford­able for fam­i­lies and for busi­ness­es. Small busi­ness­es don’t want this unem­ploy­ment mod­el because it may well result in high­er tax­es for them and that is hard for them. They want to pro­vide paid leave for their work­ers that can’t afford it on their own social insur­ance pro­gram, which is the mod­el I am describ­ing where you pool very small con­tri­bu­tions and there is enough mon­ey in the pool that work­ers who need leave can draw a good por­tion of their wages while they are out.

That is the next thing, to be afford­able also means that the high­est per­cent of wage replace­ment should go to those who earn the least and that there should be job pro­tec­tion. This is what we have learned from the pro­grams in place, and they are all now going back to improve them. The new ones that are being passed, like in D.C., work­ers who earn up to 150 per­cent of the min­i­mum wage will draw 90 per­cent of their wages while they are out on leave. Wash­ing­ton state is doing that for even a high­er num­ber of peo­ple and so on.

Final­ly, it should be ade­quate time. Time that is decent for bond­ing or for heal­ing. We know from the Amer­i­can Acad­e­my of Pedi­atrics, for exam­ple, that means at least 12 weeks, see­ing 12 weeks as a basic min­i­mum for bond­ing with infants and sure­ly for peo­ple recov­er­ing from can­cer surgery, etc. Even a C‑section, the time that Trump plan sets is six weeks. You have a C‑section, your doc­tor says you need at least eight weeks, maybe 12 weeks. [The Trump plan] is com­plete­ly wrong.

Sarah: Right now, because the admin­is­tra­tion is obvi­ous­ly not going to give us much in the way of real fam­i­ly pol­i­cy, a lot of these strug­gles are going on in the states and have been going on in the states for decades. Talk about where some of the local strug­gles have been suc­cess­ful. Where are some of the local strug­gles going on right now? And how can peo­ple get plugged into build­ing fam­i­ly poli­cies that work wher­ev­er they are?

Ellen: We encour­age all the peo­ple who are lis­ten­ing or read­ing this to go to Fam​i​ly​Val​ue​sAt​Work​.org and sign up. We will plug you in wher­ev­er there are strug­gles going on or help you start new ones.

The good news is that there are lots of states that are involved in this and they include states that are on the brink of win­ning it, like Mass­a­chu­setts and Con­necti­cut and Ore­gon and Wash­ing­ton and oth­ers. They also include states, like Mon­tana and Wis­con­sin, where it is going to be a much hard­er strug­gle, but where they are build­ing these broad and diverse coali­tions bring­ing togeth­er peo­ple who care about end­ing pover­ty, care about pub­lic health, care about mater­nal mor­tal­i­ty and infant mor­tal­i­ty rates, care about breast feed­ing, care about child devel­op­ment and about seniors and so on.

We like to talk about the intend­ed con­se­quences of what we are win­ning. One of those intend­ed con­se­quences is get­ting peo­ple to see that change is pos­si­ble and that they are the agents of that change and under­stand­ing what hap­pens to us, that we have been told is up to us to fix, in fact, is a sys­temic prob­lem. Togeth­er we can come up with a solu­tion. There is, by the way, a fed­er­al bill, the FAM­I­LY Act, that is inspired by these state wins spon­sored by Sen. [Kirsten] Gilli­brand and Rep. [Rosa] DeLau­ro. We are help­ing build sup­port for it and mak­ing it an issue.

We should see the elec­tions in 2018 and 2020 as a, which side are you on?” moment and get peo­ple to pony up. Will they sup­port the things that work­ing fam­i­lies need? Are they real­ly valu­ing fam­i­lies? Do they real­ly care about women’s equal­i­ty? Do they real­ly care about end­ing racial dis­crim­i­na­tion? These are the kind of poli­cies we need and we need to see where they stand.

Sarah: The move­ment for paid sick leave, paid fam­i­ly leave, things like this, has real­ly grown along­side the move­ment for high­er wages, along­side the Fight for $15. We have seen the poli­cies go hand-in-hand in a lot of places where they will raise wages or they will do paid sick days and they will do the next thing and then they will look for the next thing. It has been inter­est­ing to me to watch the devel­op­ment of these ques­tions and poli­cies around time and time off. There are these fair sched­ul­ing acts, as well, that are mov­ing for­ward in a lot of places. Right now, we are look­ing at a Trump [Nation­al] Labor Rela­tions Board that is not going to be ter­ri­bly friend­ly to work­ers’ rights, but it is inter­est­ing to see, nonethe­less, the way the move­ment is devel­op­ing its thought on cer­tain issues. I won­der if you want to talk about the way that thought and orga­niz­ing around time and time off has been devel­op­ing over the years you have been work­ing on this.

Ellen: When we start­ed Fam­i­ly Val­ues @ Work in late 2003, the peo­ple who were part of fight­ing for good jobs, did not think about time to care. The peo­ple who were fight­ing pover­ty didn’t think about work, they just thought about safe­ty nets. The peo­ple who talked about work­ing fam­i­lies didn’t talk about low wage work­ers, they just talked about pro­fes­sion­als and main­ly women. The can­di­dates weren’t talk­ing about these issues and large­ly the women’s move­ment wasn’t either.

All of those things have changed now. Peo­ple who put out pro­pos­als for good jobs under­stand that it doesn’t mat­ter if it is $15 an hour if you get zero dol­lars an hour because your kid is sick or because you have a baby. Peo­ple who are look­ing for local hir­ing real­ize that you can’t get a decent job and then be kicked out of it just because you are doing exact­ly what we tell you to do as a soci­ety in terms of being a respon­si­ble par­ent, etc. That has real­ly been excit­ing to see. Clear­ly, there has been a lot of effort to make those con­nec­tions, but there is a lot more cross-sec­tor move­ment work going on.

Anoth­er exam­ple of that is mak­ing sure that our def­i­n­i­tion of fam­i­ly” is as broad as pos­si­ble in both the paid sick days, because paid sick is just a few days a year for reach­ing ill­ness that hap­pens to every­body where paid fam­i­ly and med­ical leave is for the longer leave, you are a patient or need [it] for wel­com­ing a new child or for a seri­ous per­son­al or fam­i­ly ill­ness. Peo­ple are real­iz­ing that we have to make sure the def­i­n­i­tion of fam­i­ly” includes all fam­i­lies, LGBT fam­i­lies and cho­sen fam­i­lies and immi­grants and oth­ers who have extend­ed fam­i­lies. That has been real­ly great see­ing those kinds of part­ner­ship develop.

Sarah: Obvi­ous­ly, the biggest response to the elec­tion of Trump was the Women’s March. It has been inter­est­ing to watch the devel­op­ment of this resis­tance move­ment as some­thing that is often defined very specif­i­cal­ly as fem­i­nist. There have been some strug­gles around this, obvi­ous­ly. We can talk about the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty still strug­gling with whether or not it is going to make abor­tion access cen­tral, but, I was struck by the rise of both the Women’s March as this real­ly mas­sive — pos­si­bly the biggest demon­stra­tion in U.S. his­to­ry — and then some of the actions that have fol­lowed that. I won­der what you think about all of this as, again, some­body who has been watch­ing the tides of fem­i­nism shift in this coun­try for a lit­tle while.

Ellen: What was so great about the Women’s March was the inten­tion­al efforts that were wel­com­ing to the vast major­i­ty of peo­ple there to link move­ments and issues and to say, Can we talk about women with­out talk­ing about all women?” If we are talk­ing about all women then we have to real­ize that what hap­pens to you if you are Black or Pales­tin­ian or an immi­grant or a les­bian, etc., that mat­ters also to your life as a female. That is one thing.

I think some peo­ple real­ized a deep­er way of look­ing at it is also that what hurts some­one else, one of these groups, strength­ens the hand of those who would deny women equal­i­ty. We have to under­stand who we are talk­ing about, who the oppo­si­tion is, and go beyond the broad vague sense of men” to the peo­ple who real­ly do ben­e­fit from dis­crim­i­na­tion and talk about pow­er and talk about sys­temic change.

I think there were a lot of peo­ple for whom this was new. They just hadn’t encoun­tered it much before. It was a lot of jubi­la­tion and rage mixed togeth­er at the march. So, it is not sur­pris­ing to me that so many peo­ple went back and said, I can’t not con­tin­ue doing this. I have to find ways to stay active and involved and I have to think about if they do a Mus­lim reg­istry, I will be the first in line to reg­is­ter even though I am not a Mus­lim. I will not let this hap­pen.” There are peo­ple who have nev­er thought much about immi­gra­tion who are real­iz­ing, I need to be part of watch groups and oth­ers who try to do every­thing we can to make our city wel­com­ing and safe and to fight efforts to use law enforce­ment in this puni­tive way.”

That has been real­ly excit­ing to see. And just all of our coali­tions have had lots more activists and peo­ple want­i­ng to get involved. I think the Women’s March was the spark that showed peo­ple how much pow­er and sense of urgency and pos­si­bil­i­ty we can make hap­pen and it has helped make sure that continues.

Sarah: In par­tic­u­lar, there was around Inter­na­tion­al Women’s Day, the women’s strike explic­it­ly called for a fem­i­nism of the 99% and called peo­ple to think about what the con­tent of their fem­i­nism is in a way that was not com­fort­able for a lot of peo­ple. There was some resis­tance to this, but it was also a deeply nec­es­sary conversation.

Ellen: Absolute­ly. You see it in the con­flict about How do we deal with Trump vot­ers?” On the one hand, the impor­tant acknowl­edge­ment that there are peo­ple who feel unseen and feel looked down upon and the hurt in their lives is not paid atten­tion to. That is important.

On the oth­er hand, a lot of those folks were moti­vat­ed by bla­tant racism and if we don’t name that and fig­ure out what to do about it, we are nev­er going to win. If we say, Well, for­get those peo­ple, we don’t care,” we are just feed­ing fas­cism in this coun­try and white suprema­cy. We can­not do that. On the oth­er hand, we can’t win over those peo­ple by ignor­ing issues of race.

I have writ­ten this song, I am try­ing to find some­one to make it into a song called Who Taught You to Think That?” I feel like that is a real­ly impor­tant ques­tion that we have to ask peo­ple. The choice isn’t between ignor­ing race or yelling at peo­ple. The ques­tion is real­ly get­ting peo­ple to think about, Who made me think that the rea­son my job got shipped over­seas was because of refugees or the rea­son I can’t pay my rent is because of immi­grants or LGBT peo­ple or who uses the bath­room?” The more we get peo­ple to think about that and real­ize who ben­e­fits when they think that, and who gets off the hook and who they should be direct­ing that anger at, the bet­ter off we will be.

Sarah: How can peo­ple keep up with you? You already men­tioned the Fam­i­ly Val­ues @ Work web­site, but how can peo­ple keep up with some of these local cam­paigns and how can they keep up with you and your work?

Ellen: They can fol­low us at Face­book at Fam­i­ly Val­ues @ Work. But, the good news is, every­body in their city, there are groups sprout­ing up all over the place. There are Indi­vis­i­ble groups, there are groups that you should fol­low. You should fol­low groups that are part of Black Lives Mat­ter. You should fol­low groups that are part of immi­grant rights. You should fol­low groups that are part of the labor move­ment. The labor move­ment is under pro­found attack and they need your sup­port, the right to orga­nize and col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing. And there are peo­ple who are learn­ing to run for office and want­i­ng to get involved in vot­er reg­is­tra­tion and vot­er engage­ment, fight­ing for vot­er rights.

What mat­ters, I think, is find­ing some­thing and going deep if you can and bring­ing in peo­ple you know who feel the same way and real­ize it is not just about show­ing up at as many demon­stra­tions as you can. It is real­ly about find­ing a niche that feels right to you, that speaks to your life, that rec­og­nizes issues you are deal­ing with, but also con­nects to these oth­er move­ments in the way that we have to march arm in arm, but we can only do that if we have each other’s back and we can only have each other’s back if we under­stand how these var­i­ous forms of oppres­sion wind up strength­en­ing the peo­ple who are block­ing what we need, too.

Inter­views for Resis­tance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assis­tance from Lau­ra Feuille­bois and sup­port from the Nation Insti­tute. It is also avail­able as a pod­cast on iTunes. Not to be reprint­ed with­out permission. 

Sarah Jaffe is a for­mer staff writer at In These Times and author of Nec­es­sary Trou­ble: Amer­i­cans in Revolt , which Robin D.G. Kel­ley called The most com­pelling social and polit­i­cal por­trait of our age.” You can fol­low her on Twit­ter @sarahljaffe.
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