5 Advocacy Lessons from the FMLA Campaign

Twenty years ago today, 60 people stood in the White House Rose Garden while President Clinton signed the first law of his administration, the Family and Medical Leave Act.  I was there because I worked for passage of FMLA from my post as government relations director of the National Association of Social Workers.

The author at the signing of FMLA in 1993.

The author shaking hands with the president at the signing of FMLA in 1993.

At the time, my thoughts were focused mainly on the families throughout the country that would be helped by the law and on how we had triumphed over much more powerful interests. Little did I know how much the campaign for FMLA had taught me about effective advocacy and how frequently I would cite it as an example in training over the next two decades.

The FMLA required, for the first time, that businesses of a certain size resist from firing people for taking leave to care for an ill family member, a new baby, or themselves when sick.  The Chamber of Commerce, National Business Association, National Association of Manufacturers, among others fought hard against the proposal. The path to the Rose Garden took almost a decade: building coalitions, educating the public and lawmakers, and attending congressional hearings. It survived compromises and two Bush vetoes before finally becoming law on February 5, 1993.

Here’s what I learned during that long fight:

1. Success is in the mix. A combination of advocacy approaches can be extremely effective. The FMLA campaign advanced along multiple avenues: litigation in California courts to prevent pregnant women from being fired, education of candidates for election at all levels about the value of the proposal, a vigorous legislative fight, and influencing administrative regulations to implement the new law once passed. The coalition of groups pushing for the FMLA found that we built progress by targeting different avenues for change as needed.

2. Strategic coalitions with strong leadership make the difference.  The FMLA coalition consisted of over 100 organizations working together. The leadership of Judy Lichtman and Donna Lenhoff at the National Partnership for Women and Families kept us coordinated and moving forward in a planful way.

3. Count contribution, not attribution. If we had had to show that each group involved in the coalition was responsible for the campaign’s progress and eventual outcomes, we would have all failed.  Who knows where the tipping point was?  But we could show, for example, that members from my organization, the National of Association Social Workers, lobbied certain members of Congress in favor of the proposal, and our board of directors at the time understood the importance of that contribution.

4. Long-term campaigns require capacity building. It took nearly 10 years to obtain the federal law, demanding great persistence from groups in the coalition. Organizations belonging to the FMLA coalition kept at it by becoming more knowledgeable, influencing a greater number of decision makers, and gaining more partners each year.  We were building our capacity for advocacy. And we could feel how the slow strengthening was bringing us closer and closer to our goal over time.

5. Individual stories bring the issues home. While all of us in the Rose Garden 20 years ago were very happy at the FMLA’s success, it was the story Vicki Yandle shared of losing her job to care for her daughter who had cancer that not only brought tears to our eyes, but also a greater understanding of the law’s impact, and attention from the media.

Twenty years and hundreds of advocacy trainings later, I’m very appreciative of all who worked on this important policy, not only for what we all accomplished, but for what I learned.