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Family Values at Work: Social Movements and the Politics of Leave Legislation in the U.S.


The United States lags behind most other nations in the world with respect to job-protected leave and paid leave from work, such as parental leave. The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) of 1993 is the only federal leave policy, and it provides 12 weeks of job-protected leave for personal care or family care to address serious illnesses or health conditions. However, leave under the FMLA is unpaid, and restrictive eligibility requirements prohibit over 40 percent of the workforce from taking advantage of its provisions. Given the FMLA’s shortcomings, states have passed their own leave laws, offering paid leave, covering more workers, lengthening leave durations, or expanding definitions of “family” for the purposes of family caregiving leave. My dissertation applies both quantitative and qualitative analytical approaches to explore relationships between social movements and gender-neutral leave legislation (i.e., paid and/or job-protected family, parental, and sick leave) in U.S. states. It addresses two key questions: First, how and to what extent do union-community coalitions (or social movements) influence state leave legislation? Second, under what conditions do they have influence?

This is the first study to compile state leave legislative histories since the passage of the FMLA in 1993 and the first to empirically test relationships between organized labor and leave policy. My mixed-method approach combines an event history analysis of leave policy adoption in 49 states from 1973 to 2014 with in-depth, case-oriented comparisons between two U.S. states characterized by above-average union densities but very different leave policy provisions: California, which has the most generous leave policies in the country and Pennsylvania, which has no state-level leave provisions. Findings from the case-oriented comparisons are based on state legislative hearing transcripts, news sources, and interviews with 34 union, community, and coalition leaders as well as government staff and elected representatives. For the event history analysis, I constructed my own dataset, organized by state-year, drawing from different government and academic sources to measure union institutional strength and economic and political conditions in each state for each year. Combining these two methodological approaches enabled a comprehensive examination of social movement interventions at different points in the policy-making process: setting legislative agendas, shaping the content of legislation, and achieving policy adoption.

I find that movement activity, union institutional strength, and government allies in the form of Democrats and women in state legislatures facilitated adoption of leave policies. However, under favorable movement and political conditions, weak economic conditions intervened to slow the progress of leave bills. Social movements (or union-community coalitions) exerted most influence at the agenda-setting stage of the policy-making process. While some elected representatives introduced bills independent of movement pressures, these bills only emerged from house committees with attention from movement actors. At the other end of the policy-making process, I find that Democratic majorities in state houses were necessary for a bill to come to a vote and ultimately to pass. At the stage in which the content of legislation is negotiated, an intermediate stage in the policy-making process, I find interaction between movements and political conditions. At this intermediate stage, movement actors are consulted about what they perceive as reasonable compromises, and these potential compromises are weighed against a desire to win support from moderate legislators, which would potentially enable policy adoption.

My research contributes to existing theoretical knowledge regarding social movement outcomes and union contributions to equality. First, I extend social movement theories by arguing that social movements and political conditions interact at the stage in which legislative content is negotiated. My findings confirm previous research showing that social movements have most influence at the early stages in the policy-making process (e.g., bill introduction) rather than later stages (e.g., policy adoption). Political conditions mediate relationships between movements and policy outcomes at the policy adoption stage in the sense that Democratic control of the legislature is a necessary condition for passage of leave legislation. When Democrats are in control, union strength and union-community coalition activity increases the likelihood of policy adoption. At the intermediate stage in which legislative content is negotiated, social movements and political conditions interact to have joint effects on policy outcomes. Second, I introduce the economy as an additional mediator in the relationship between movements and policy outcomes and argue that social movement theories, rather than continuing with political mediation models, should move toward a more generic mediation model of movement outcomes. Finally, I find a significant, positive relationship between union institutional strength and leave policy adoption. Additionally, specify union contributions to coalitions advocating policy change, arguing that unions contribute their relationships with policy-makers and localized knowledge of political conditions. These contributions, I argue, are unique to organized labor. Unions, therefore, facilitate the movement’s access to government decision-makers, an achievement that social movement scholars consider a movement outcome in its own right.

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