Most of us have seen the picture at the top, the Rosie the Riveter poster that represented women helping in manufacturing plants during World War II but it also is a good representation of women in general and what women will do to get a job done! And that applies to roles they have played in the union movement. In fact, if you visit the American Postal Workers Union site, you’ll see women union members and retirees doing their version of the poster!
We’ve blogged about unions before but nothing specifically about the role of women in unions. The history of women involved in the union movement goes way back to the 1830s in the textile mills of Massachusetts when women formed a union to get better working conditions. Girls as young as 10 were working an average of 14 hours a day. Conditions were not always good, and the Mill Girls, as they were called, were seen as being at the very lowest rung of the ladder. The occupation was not viewed favorably. When they were threatened with a wage reduction, the women decided it was time to take action. They went on strike, not just once but twice. Nothing came out of it other than they did form their own union and it was a beginning of workers raising attention to workplace issues.
According to Institute for Women’s Policy Research, there is a greater wage advantage for women working in unionized jobs than for men working in unions. That difference is a little more than 10%. A woman working in a unionized job can make an average weekly, full-time wage of $899 compared to a non-unionized weekly, full-time job of $687. In other words, unions help women earn more! In addition, women also have much better benefits. These include healthcare and other benefits which could also include pension benefits. In addition, the working environment may be much better!
This can help to ease the stress for a single mother who may not have had the ability to go on to college. She’s able to have the strong support in child care because her wages help to cover the costs and the increases that go along with it. A mother working in a unionized facility can take care of the medical needs of herself and her children, and she can have a better work-life balance than the mother who has to work multiple jobs to make ends meet which helps to encourage strong family values. So much pressure is removed from that single mother when she knows she has a good financial foundation to help raise her family.
Today’s women in unions are not much different than the Mill Girls. They fight not just for workplace injustices but community injustices, too. According to an article from The Nation women union leaders also look at issues impacting women even if they work in non-union organizations. Domestic violence, child care and housing are some of the social issues they’ve tackled.
For example, one leader wanted to find out more about domestic workers. Some of the workers were being abused and they couldn’t leave their abusers because they didn’t make enough money to support themselves and their children so the leader worked at improving wages that could help women be on their own and live without the fear of abuse.
Another strong union leader was able to negotiate better wages for the employees in one workplace only to find out the building where many of them lived was going to be demolished. The increase in wages wasn’t going to help because many of them planned to leave the community for more affordable housing. The building also was the home of other non-union workers. Because of this woman’s strong leadership efforts, she was able to coordinate community leaders to save the building and make improvements to it. In addition, she also was able to gain even more union members as the non-union occupants of the building asked her to help organize a union in their workplaces.
In the past, unions have focused more on wages and benefits thinking those were the most important issues and ignoring other issues they deemed less important. One example that has been very important with many workers is the issue of flex-time. Many workers want the ability to see their children off to school or go to an after-school event. Flex-time issues have sometimes been ignored because it was deemed better to negotiate on the wage and benefit issues.
While wages and benefits are important, to some workers the flex-time issue has equal or more importance. Women union leaders appear to have a better understanding of that need and other worker needs that have become more relevant now to society. They have seen or been part of the women’s movement so they are much more aware of the non workplace issues that impact people that can directly or indirectly play a role in the workplace. It could be the domestic violence or housing issues like the examples above, or it could be child care needs that can be an important issue to many people.
Because these women have a better understanding of the needs they also seem to do better at increasing union membership. When women are in key leadership roles for their unions, they do better by about 10% than their male counterparts in organizing efforts according to The Nation article. However, this is not to say women are the only answer to union problems as far as sustainability but the issues that are being addressed by women and how they go about addressing societal needs can help unions for the future.
NOTE: It’s important to know that some of these causes women have been fighting for, such as domestic workers or restaurant workers, are not necessarily traditional unions but are labor movements that are fighting in areas traditional unions could assist. For example, the Fight for $15 movement has received assistance from Service Employees International Union. Traditional unions can help make their issues more enforceable.