Its no accident that 60% of the AFL-CIOs new recruits in 1999 were working women. Issues such as pay equity, child care, job discrimination and paid family leave resonate with unorganized women, who often work for low wages and few benefits. Theyre impressed when they learn that women in unions who do the same kind of work earn an average of $157 a week (or 40%) more than they do, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Women have been streaming into unions at a record rate. They now account for 40% of the AFL-CIO membership. The presence of 5.5 million union women in the ranks has transformed the federations leadership, organizing and collective bargaining.
Linda Chavez-Thompson, who was born in Mexico, has been the executive vice-president of the AFL-CIO (its third highest post), since 1995. Of the 54 Executive Council members, seven are women. Ten of the AFL-CIOs 20 national departments are headed by women, as are three international unions Teachers, Flight Attendants and Television and Radio Artists. Women are the presidents of state AFL-CIOs in Florida, Illinois and South Carolina. More than 100 women occupy top leadership positions with central labor councils and thousands more are leading local unions.
Only two decades ago, very few women worked as full-time union organizers; today, hundreds are in charge of campaigns at hospitals, supermarkets, hotels, high-tech companies and other workplaces. Their natural empathy for female workers is a precious asset that few male organizers possess. It is estimated that one of every five lead organizers is a woman, and their numbers are growing.
During contract negotiations, womens issues used to be accorded a low priority. Now, whenever bargaining and legislative goals are considered, women unionists emphasize such concerns as affordable child care, paid family leave and flexible work schedules.
The AFL-CIO Working Womens Dept., established in 1995, has been a major catalyst. In 1997, its director, Karen Nussbaum, initiated a national survey, Ask a Working Woman, in which 94% of 50,000 respondents rated the need for equal pay as most important. The issue has come to the forefront as working families have grown more dependent on womens earnings to put food on the table and pay the bills.
Twenty years ago, women earned 63 cents for every dollar a man earned for work of equal value. Its now 74 cents. However, the decline in mens wages, not the increase in womens pay, has been a larger contributor to closing the wage gap.
In Congress, working women are vigorously supporting bills that would impose strong penalties on employers who deny women equal pay. One current proposal would enable women to sue for compensatory and punitive damages, in addition to back pay. The Working Womens Dept. has lobbied extensively in more than 30 state legislatures where 68 bills concerning equal pay have been introduced.
Its not clear how much support male-dominated unions will lend to these legislative campaigns for pay equity. In unionized workplaces, employers are already required to pay women the same wage rates as men in the same job classifications. But far too many unions still ignore sexist attitudes among their members and leaders.
The progress that union women have made in building their unions has been achieved largely through their own efforts. As their numbers increase, theyll become an even greater force within the labor movement.
This new weekly column, Inside the AFL-CIO, can be viewed every Tuesday at www.laboreducator.org. LaborTalk will continue to appear on Monday.