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Who Suffers without Collective Bargaining in Wisconsin? Families.

by Jennifer Clark

(Photo by Michele Dickinson/SEIU)

A new development in the Wisconsin union story occurred a couple nights ago when Wisconsin’s Republican state senators discovered a roundabout way, without any of their Democratic colleagues present, to pass a bill that will strip collective bargaining for public sector employees in the state. The state senators took out the “financial” aspects of the bill and voted to strip collective bargaining rights from public sector employees separate from the budget bill.  But banning collective bargaining will have financial ramifications—especially for family budgets.

Collective bargaining allows for workers to negotiate more effectively for things like higher wages and better benefits. Wisconsin’s bill limits collective bargaining over wages and eliminates the power to collectively bargain over benefits and pensions. Without collective bargaining, workers have fewer options for recourse against unfair wages or low benefits, issues women are more likely to face. As has been noted elsewhere, state and local public sector workers are actually paid less than their private sector counterparts, once their qualifications are taken into account, and as we pointed out last week, the majority of public sector workers at the state and local level are women.

Recently, the Wisconsin Women’s Council released a fact sheet showing that a staggering 71 percent of Wisconsin’s women with children under the age of six are working. This means that there are a lot of working mothers in Wisconsin–more than the national average of 60 percent. Not all of them work in the public sector, of course, but the same fact sheet also showed that the 56 percent of state government workers and 58 percent of local government workers in Wisconsin are women, and women exceed 60 percent of the state government workforce in 12 counties.

In a projection for NBC News, IWPR estimated that it will take 45 more years to close the gender wage gap.

In general, lower women’s wages hurt families that rely on their earnings. Women workers still face a stagnant wage gap–regardless of private or public sector employment. But collective bargaining gives women a collective—and thus, effective—voice in wage disputes. In a recent projection for NBC News, IWPR estimated that it will take until 2056—45 years from today—until women’s wages catch up with men’s. The same NBC story noted that women represent the primary breadwinners in 40 percent of U.S. households, underscoring the importance of women’s wages to family economic security.

If this trend to eliminate public sector workers’ collective bargaining power spreads to other states, the bills will have a disproportionate affect on families of color as well. Nationally, more than one in five black workers are public sector employees, compared to 17 percent of white workers. Although black women in the public sector have the lowest wages, the gender wage gap is actually five percentage points narrower in government (81 percent) than in the private sector (76 percent), according to the U.S. Census Bureau.  (The racial wage gap, as it happens, is also narrower in the public sector.) And five percentage points is not insignificant; remember that it has taken about 16 years (since 1993) to narrow the overall gender wage gap by five percentage points.

Families are already facing an uphill battle with the persistent gender wage gap affecting their household finances. In Wisconsin, female-dominated public sector professions will take the biggest hit from the new legislation and many of the women affected will be working mothers. The last thing these Wisconsin families need is one less way to improve women’s wages.

Jennifer Clark is the Development Coordinator with the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

This post was updated March 11, 2011, at 2:25.

What’s at Stake for Women Workers in Wisconsin and Beyond

by Jennifer Clark

Protests at the Wisconsin State Capitol. Photo courtesy of CindyH Photography

The budget battles in Wisconsin, Indiana, and across the Midwestern United States have inspired a barrage of commentary about what the successful passage of the proposed state laws to strip public sector unions of their collective bargaining power would mean for public sector workers (not good), black workers (really not good), and the future of the labor movement (really, really not good). Another group with a significant stake in the outcome of these debates over public sector union bargaining power is women.

First, let’s review a few facts about women and labor unions in general. Although unionized women earn more than non-unionized women on average and have access to more benefits, such as paid leave and health insurance, public sector employees are actually paid less than their private sector counterparts, once their qualifications are taken into account. An IWPR report on job retention and low-income mothers found that union membership contributed to keeping moms on the job. In 2010, across race and ethnic groups, male union membership is lowest for Asian men, but Asian women have the highest membership rate of all groups of unionized women.  Black men have the highest union membership, but black women are also more likely than white women to be unionized.  Hispanic women have the lowest rate of union membership compared to other groups of women.

Although male workers are still the majority of union membership, the gap between unionized men and women over the last 25 years has narrowed considerably, with women representing the majority of new workers organized during that time. (For more on women and unions, visit IWPR’s Women in Unions initiative page.)

(Click to enlarge)

Public sector unions like the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) and the American Federation of Teachers, however, have a majority female membership (52 percent and 60 percent, respectively), which makes the legislative outcome of public sector union bargaining power of particular interest to women workers. Furthermore, as you can see in the figure at left, women are 52 percent of the state public sector workforce and a whopping 61 percent of public workers at the local level (Figure 1).

If we focus on public sector employees at the local level, it becomes clear that women and their families will receive the brunt of the effects of these anti-union bills floating around state capitols in the Midwest. The most common occupation for local public sector women workers is elementary and middle school teachers (22 percent).  The most common occupation for local public sector male workers? Police and sheriff’s patrol officers, a group whose union representatives would be excluded from proposed legislation.

This isn’t to say that men won’t be impacted by any effort to strip public sector unions of their bargaining rights. At the state level, three of the five most common public sector occupations for men are in teaching fields.  Indeed, fire fighters and police unions have come out to protest in support of public sector employees–a blow to public sector union rights is a blow to all union rights.

As more women become breadwinners, women’s families will also feel the effects of any proposed legislation that affects women’s wages. In the U.S. workforce, four in ten women work in female-dominated professions. For example, elementary and middle school teachers–the occupation that is most common for local public sector women–are 81 percent female. Moreover, women earn less than men in 104 out of 108 of the occupational categories, including teaching, for which there is enough data to calculate the wage gap.

With so many women in the public sector at the state and local level, and with a proposed budget bill that would strip public sector unions—especially those representing female-dominated professions—of their bargaining rights, what is the outlook for women workers in Wisconsin and beyond?  Not good.

(This post was updated March 3, 2011)

Jennifer Clark is the Development Coordinator with the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

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