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Hillary Clinton Isn't the Only One Fighting for Paid Leave

Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/Getty

Democratic presidential candidates are striving to out-do each other with the most buzz-worthy paid family leave plans. Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Martin O'Malley are all calling for 12 weeks of paid leave for new parents, setting a new bar for a policy that Clinton as recently as 2014 said may not be "politically feasible." Republicans, meanwhile, are trying to calm private businesses by assuring them that they will be left to their own devices.

It would appear that the choice on this issue is clear. But politicians don't have a monopoly on paid leave. The AFL-CIO is busy taking a third approach to spreading access to such policies: going directly to women, and teaching them how to negotiate for what they want.

The AFL-CIO hopes to show women in the workforce how to bargain with their employers and make corporate policies more transparent. The goal is to help women advocate for the pay raises and benefits policies that could improve their lives and the economy. It’s a strategy straight out of the union playbook, and it’s one that works: Union-affiliated women already have a 40 percent smaller wage gap than their non-union counterparts.

To gather a baseline of information on the challenges facing working women, the group has launched a national survey that will be used to shape a united policy agenda to improve pay, shift scheduling, and secure more family leave—even for women who are likely to never have union representation. “I understand that unions are not available for everyone,” said Liz Shuler, AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer, in a speech given in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday. “The small-business owner, the middle manager, and the independent contractor need a way forward too.”

So do women in harshly anti-union environments such as Walmart, where part-time employees, like 88 percent of the private workforce in America, have no paid leave beyond the standard unpaid leave guaranteed by the Family and Medical Leave Act.

If the United States hopes to ever be on par with the rest of the developed world in terms of paid leave, women and families must embrace the grassroots activism that the AFL-CIO is trying to build. The enactment of benefits from the top-down—like President Obama’s executive action mandating paid sick leave for federal contractors, the District of Columbia's plan for 16 weeks of paid family leave, and the proposed FAMILY Act—is also essential. But the two approaches are not mutually exclusive.

Polls show that voters already widely support paid leave, but the public doesn’t vote for the CEO of Walmart, and legislative gridlock has threatened even voter-led ballot initiatives. In places like New Jersey and Pennsylvania, paid leave policies have passed at the local level only to face opposition from state legislators or governors. Not all women will be successful in advocating for change at their small business or Fortune 500 company, which is why federal legislation is crucial. But being able to ask for it, as the likely next House speaker recently did, is a start.

“We are going to train, cajole, encourage, support, and inspire women,” said Shuler. “We refuse to leave anyone behind.”