The Family and Medical Leave Act passed by Congress is headed straight into a veto from President Bush, who knows his campaign coffers are filled by business interests and not by contributions from America's working men and women. All you have to do is look at the White House dinner guest lists to know that.
The folks working two jobs to pay the medical bills of an uninsured child aren't on that guest list either. But these are the people who are contributing to the country's productivity -- they are not crooks and lousy business people who raised bad loans to a high art form and the savings and loan industry into bankruptcy. Nor are they the bankers who followed like lemmings into an inflated real estate market and who listened to the multibillion-dollar schemes of air merchants such as Donald Trump. But it's the business lobby that President Bush is listening to when it comes to actions that could benefit America's working families. He listens to America's working families only during the campaigns.
"We need to assure that women don't have to worry about getting their jobs back after having a child or caring for a child during serious illness," said Bush in 1988. On May 8, 1990, White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater recast those campaign assurances into something that makes you wonder what fairy tale he's living in: "We believe parental-leave benefits should be provided, but they should be provided voluntarily or through negotiations with the unions, or with employers and employees."
Like Social Security was negotiated? Or the minimum wage? Or unemployment compensation? Or bans on child labor?
If your friendly employer doesn't agree to let you take leave to care for a sick family member or a new baby, Fitzwater suggested that people "should look for other jobs." That's the kind of understanding America's workers get from the Bush White House. This is the same White House that does everything possible to ban abortions and push adoption -- and yet won't sign a bill that would guarantee America's workers up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to stay home and care for a newborn child or newly adopted child.
What's behind the veto is the business lobby, which is whining that it doesn't want the government to dictate benefits. The business lobby tries to couch its fear in various free-market arguments, but what terrifies it is the prospect that the Family Leave Act will serve as precedent for the government to require employers to provide health insurance benefits.
There are at present about 35 million Americans who are not covered by health insurance and the business community is understandably scared that it is going to be forced to follow the lead of large corporations and provide health benefits to many employees who are currently unprotected.
If either political party were capable of real leadership, it would be using the Family and Medical Leave Act as leverage to get support from the business community for the kind of national health care program that has made Canadians the envy of the world. Canadians are not swamped with forms from insurance companies, Medicaid and Medicare, and they are not ripped off by employer-based insurance programs that deliver far less than they promise. Canadians are not impoverished by health care costs in their old age.
Canadians choose their own doctors and the bills are paid by the 10 provincial governments, which are billed directly. They pay for all the care a person needs from birth to death. Canada's health care costs are 8.8 percent of its gross national product. America's cumbersome and ineffective system amounts to 11.1 percent of GNP.
There's no great mystery about how to cure America's fatally ill health care system. We need only look north. What is also needed is leadership and a president who is not a pawn of the business lobby, but one who can provide a vision of a better way of life for both business owners and working families.
Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) has called the Family and Medical Leave Act "another nail in the coffin in which we'll bury competitiveness and productivity." That's the business lobby's current mantra for anything that smacks of progressive change. Nothing, however, could be further from the truth.
The American Productivity and Quality Center's latest index puts the United States in first place in productivity, followed by Canada, but Canada's growth rate is 1.3 percent compared with 1.1 percent for the United States. Canadian workers get 15 weeks at 60 percent pay for family leave. West Germany and Japan, our most feared competitors, get 14 weeks of leave with pay.
The nail in the coffin isn't family leave. It's a lack of leadership and vision of what American working families need.