NEEDHAM, MASS. — Joanne and Paul Nickerson, like many working couples, find it increasingly difficult to piece together "family time."
"My girlfriend calls me a 'work widow,' " laments Mrs. Nickerson, who lives in Brockton, Mass., and holds a full-time job. Her husband, a production worker for Coca-Cola Bottling Co. of New England, often puts in six-day weeks. "We can't make weekend plans," she says." He's too tired."
But Mr. Nickerson and other production and delivery workers at three Boston-area Coca-Cola plants recently decided to fight back. Faced with a company plan to require most employees to work on Veterans Day and Patriot's Day, a state holiday - they staged a "family values" strike. The 525 drivers, bottlers, and machinists also wanted less forced overtime and better pensions.
They achieved partial victory. On Feb. 1, the company agreed to give them Veterans Day off with two-months' advance request, and strikers ratified a three-year contract.
With its emphasis on family, the walkout illustrates the changing nature of American labor issues. Economic security remains a priority. But some time-short workers are increasingly focused on quality-of-life concerns that center more on the clock than the checkbook. Such issues become more complicated in industrial and service jobs, where shifts and production lines require more rigid conditions.
"It's not as much a wage issue as it is a question of the ability to control your own lives and your ability to take care of your families," says David Mertz, a spokesman for Local 513 of the Retail Wholesale Department Store Union, which represents the workers. "There's a lack of concern for the fact that these are mothers and fathers. They're also sons and daughters who may have parents who need help."
Plant workers will get two personal days in compensation for the holiday hours.
Defending the need for holiday shifts, Bob Lanz, Coca-Cola's vice president for public affairs in Needham, says, "Almost 100 percent of the places that purchase product from us are open on those two holidays. We have to service our customers." Workers lost Columbus Day and President's Day in contract changes three years ago.
As for forced overtime, Mr. Lanz says, "We've got a lot of people who ... ask for overtime."
But Tom Moskaluk, a driver and a shop steward for Local 513, calls overtime "an ongoing problem." Some employees, he says, regularly log 60- or 70-hour weeks.
"A lot of people don't mind some overtime, because the extra money helps," says a worker who asks that his name not be used. "But it's just blood money after a while. You run into family problems because of long hours."
Far more than 9 to 5
Dave Devenish, a route loader, adds, "Even though you've got your check, and it's a good check, you work yourself into exhaustion, and the normal human elements of family, friends, and social life are sacrificed. Every three years we'll push more family values, because companies are trying to erode these values." He adds, "This issue is huge."
Karen Nussbaum, director of the Working Women's Department at the AFL-CIO in Washington, agrees.
"This strike is a heartbreaking story of how stressed families are," she says. "You wouldn't have seen a strike about changing a holiday to a personal day 25 years ago."
Twenty years ago, Ms. Nussbaum explains, people typically viewed long hours as "an issue of individual exhaustion on the part of a largely male work force." Today, she says, as more women hold jobs and as more men take responsibility for families, that attitude is no longer tenable.
One-third of dual-wage-earning parents with young children work separate shifts, Nussbaum says, calling that "the most amazing thing I've run across in the past two years." She adds, "These families are stretched to the absolute limit. To have a family life that they've patched together threatened by the loss of holidays stretches them even more."
"As companies try to increase production without increasing the work force, they demand more overtime," Nussbaum continues. "It's all part of the same picture, getting workers to work more hours, because even with overtime pay it's still cheaper than hiring others."
In Berkeley, Calif., another group, the nonprofit Labor Project for Working Families, also helps unions develop workplace policies for families.
"People think unions have never paid attention to these issues, but they have," says Netsy Firestein, director. She notes that in the 1960s, some unions began setting up child-care centers in the workplace.
Child care again became a rallying point in the 1980s when employees at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., were organizing the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers. In the union's 10-year existence, says organizer Kris Rondeau, work-family issues "have been more front-burner than we could have imagined."
Three years ago, the hotel workers' union in San Francisco negotiated for a child-care and elder-care fund. Thirty-seven hotels contribute money to help employees pay for such care.
At the United Auto Workers union, job security and income security remain the top areas of concern, says spokesman Karl Mantyla in Detroit. Yet he acknowledges a growing focus on quality-of-life issues. The Big Three auto manufacturers all provide child-care programs run by the companies and the UAW.
Seeking the nontraditional
Still, the need to raise awareness among corporate managers and union leaders goes on.
"A lot of these newer kinds of nontraditional benefits are important to the union constituency but maybe not to the top levels of management in the union environment," says Lisa Levey, a consultant for WFD (Work Family Directions) in Boston, who studies shift workers' needs. "It's parallel to the corporate environment, where top decisionmakers may not always truly understand the work-life issues of employees."
Flexible work arrangements in particular challenge "some basic tenets of union thinking," Ms. Levey says. "Flexibility always has to be aligned with what the job is, and what makes sense in a broader context. You have to go with reasonable expectations."
Although she sees progress, Levey adds, "It's going to take a lot of creativity, because there are valid reasons in a production facility why it's more difficult to provide flexibility than in an office setting. It's really thinking about a different way to work. That's a process that doesn't happen overnight."
For Mrs. Nickerson, hastening that process remains central. "You become unattached if you don't spend time as a family," she says. "A family needs to be nourished by staying together and knowing what everybody else is thinking and doing."