Cassandra Engeman, Ph D in sociology at the Swedish Institute for Social Research (SOFI). Photo: Daniel Rossetti/Stockholm Univeristy


“I find that the states where a higher proportion of the work force are union members are faster to adopt leave policy. States that have democratic majorities in both the state houses also adopt the policies faster, but the effect of the union membership remains even when I compare states with different majorities”, said Cassandra Engeman, Ph.D. in Sociology and researcher at the Swedish Institute for Social Research at Stockholm University.

She has studied the development for different types of parental and family leave policies throughout 49 states in the US, comparing how fast the new legislation is passed through state legislatures. This study is the first to compile state leave legislative histories.

“On the federal level there is a right to 12 weeks of unpaid leave, where you are protected from losing your job. But at the state level there is a big variation, and the different states have been adopting their own leave rights for quite some time, for example, offering paid, job-protected leave”, said Cassandra Engeman.

The unions affect the policies – not just the voters

Because of the large variation between states, where some have between 6 and 12 weeks of paid leave and some only the federal minimum unpaid leave, it is possible to study what circumstances affect when and how the policies are adopted.

“Previous studies have shown that union membership can influence the way people vote or activate people to be more involved in politics. It can also influence how an individual lawmaker votes, or encourage members to run for office. But these effects are all on an individual level. This new study shows how the trade unions can also have an effect on the actual policy” says Cassandra Engeman.

Union membership in the public sector matters, especially

It is states with a high level of union membership in the public sector that show an effect on the timing of leave policy adoption. Engeman does not find the same effect for states with a high the level of membership in the private sector, and there are a few potential explanations for the difference, she said.

“Unions in the private sector may be too weak institutionally to influence policy. In the public sector, union membership has remained at a third of the workforce on average across states and over time” said Cassandra Engeman.

Unlike the private sector, a majority of union members in the public sector are women, which might affect the development. Women union members and leaders may push their unions to prioritize family policy issues. Public sector unions might also engage more in politics compared to private sector unions.

Engeman also interviewed policy advocates and politicians in the two states California and Pennsylvania, who at the time had different political majorities, about the process of adopting new social policies.

“I found that some trade unions were actually involved in the policy issue, advocating for the policy change. They are often linking up the community organizations with the lawmakers. The unions have a long institutional knowledge of how policy is adopted.”


How the study was carried out

The study isolates gender-neutral leave policies, which grant job-protected, caregiving leave to employees regardless of the employee’s gender. It analyses the union effects, considers changes over time, and includes states that failed to adopt leave policies.
The unique policy data comes from multiple government, legal, academic, and civil society publications, and the data set consists of 1 321 state-year observations.
Using an event history analysis, the study examines the impact of union institutional strength on the timing of leave policy adoption in 49 states from 1983 to 2016, controlling for other state characteristics.


Read more about this research:

Cassandra Engeman, When Do Unions Matter to Social Policy? Organized Labor and Leave Legislation in US States, Social Forces,


Cassandra Engeman, PhD in Sociology, Research fellow at Swedish institute for social research (SOFI), Stockholm University.
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