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Category: Politics, Economy, Health

For Wage-Earning Women—A 21st Century Answer

| September 4, 2009

Seal of the Women’s Trade Union League, formed because most men’s unions excluded women workers.

Employed women have a wide variety of needs—equitable wages, reliable benefits, regular hours and flexible schedules—the very issues that unions can address through collective bargaining. Passage of the Employee Free Choice Act can help.

The 127th Labor Day in the United States arrives on Monday with women still having the most to gain from belonging to a union. The struggle for fair pay, work-life balance, healthy and safe work conditions, and against discrimination has brought forth women leaders throughout the nation’s history.

Just as they stood up for the eight-hour workday and safety in the sweatshops and factories of the 19th and 20th centuries, women today are stepping up for passage of the Employee Free Choice Act by Congress.

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data show that women who belong to unions receive 32 percent more in salaries than wage-earning women who do not have a union. Last year, the median weekly earnings for women were $809 for union women and $615 for nonunion women. And occupations with high concentrations of women workers are where many unions are focusing efforts to organize. Expanding collective bargaining rights can close the wage gap between men and women and reduce the concentration of wealth that shuts the door to middle class living for all workers.

Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of labor education research at Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations, told the American Prospect magazine earlier this year, “Women have a great deal to gain from unionization. Industries like health care, hospitality, and retail [are] all sectors where the union density is not high, and yet when women workers do organize, there are dramatic changes—and not just in economic issues but also in the whole way the workplace is structured. Schedules become regular, workers get health and welfare benefits, the ability to know what time you are going home at the end of the day, to be able to make a schedule in terms of your child care, to have access to promotions.”

It’s clearly in women’s interest to restore union organizing rights that have been eroded by the forces that concentrated more than 6 percent of income in this country in 0.01 percent of U.S. households in 2007. The Employee Free Choice Act is designed to give workers a fair chance to organize unions.

That’s why EFCA faces such fierce opposition from businesses that want to put short-term profit first. On this Labor Day as on the first one in 1882 in New York, the dominant business interests want the most work for the least pay. They contend that raising wages, offering benefits, cutting the amount of time they want people on the job will endanger their ability to compete in the marketplace.

Although not punctuated by physical violence, the opposition’s argument essentially is the same today as it was when Mary Harris Jones traveled from one dangerous assignment to another organizing miners. It is the same argument that Augusta Lewis rebutted by forming the Working Women’s Association and then the Women’s Typographical Union in New York City in 1868. It is the same anti-worker belief that led to the 1911 infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Co. inferno, which allied Rose Schneiderman and upper-class reformers in New York to shape what became the New Deal’s sweeping labor reforms.

In the public sector, low-wage, high-responsibility jobs led workers such as women teachers to organize the American Federation of Teachers. The union rose on the leadership of its first three presidents, Margaret Haley of Chicago, Florence Rood of St. Paul and Mary Barker of Atlanta.

With health care reform now consuming Washington, the Employee Free Choice Act is waiting in the wings on Labor Day 2009. Opponents are whacking away. Proponents in the house of labor are organized and determined. Women can make a difference for themselves and for other women by standing up for the right to organize fairly. After all, we have the most to gain.