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As You Celebrate the 4th, Remember Why America’s Working Families Need Unions to Stay Strong

by Brigid O’Farrell

As you celebrate with your loved ones over the holiday, remember how unions have helped American families secure prosperity and opportunity, and why we should consider unions a basic form of democracy.

The decline of the American labor movement, now representing just 12 percent of the workforce, and the corresponding increase in inequality hurts working families. Whether a home health aide, teacher, electrician, or autoworker, you are less likely to have a voice at work. This means lower wages, fewer benefits, and less ability to care for your family. It also means less democracy in our country.

The union advantage for working families starts with higher wages. On average, union women earn 13 percent more per hour than women not in unions and this is especially true for low-wage jobs women hold. The union advantage for office cleaners, for example, is 28 percent. Collective bargaining also reduces the gender wage gap between women and men by half.

Higher wages are critical to the well being of working families, but not enough. The union advantage also includes better access to higher paying jobs, often through apprenticeship training, as well as access to paid sick days, short-term disability, family leave, better schedules, and child care.

Just last week, President Obama told his White House Summit on Working Families, that, “Family leave, childcare, workplace flexibility, a decent wage—these are not frills, they are basic needs… part of our bottom line as a society.” Labor was in the house: Over 250 union members and allies made their voices heard. Liz Shuler, Secretary-Treasurer of the AFL-CIO, representing 57 unions and over 13 million members, and Mary Kay Henry, president of the 2.1 million member Service Employees International Union (SEIU) highlighted union support for family friendly public policies and collective bargaining as a tried and true method for securing not only decent wages and safe working conditions, but for negotiating flexible schedules and paid leaves. For example:

Kay Thompson is the mother of four daughters who has worked at Macy’s flagship store on Herald Square in New York City for over 20 years. She is a proud member of Local 1-S, Retail, Wholesale & Department Store Union/UFCW. She told the audience that she was able to provide for her family with a flexible yet predictable schedule because of her union contract.

Connie Ashbrook, union elevator constructor and executive director of Oregon Tradeswomen, Inc., focused on the 50 percent of jobs that require science, technology, engineering or math skills (STEM), but don’t require a college degree. Women are capable and interested in skilled trade jobs, but still hold less than 3 percent of these occupations. Outreach, training and enforcing employment discrimination laws are policies that help her work with unions and contractors to increase the number of women in the trades.

Union members also gathered at the AFL-CIO headquarters the day before to share their stories at Working Families Speak Up!

Dina Yarmus is a hotel and restaurant worker who defended her healthcare plan through UNITEHERE Local 274 in Philadelphia. Joanne Hager is a construction laborer from Minneapolis and trainer for LiUNA Local 563. Being a tradeswoman transformed her life—a living wage, a pension plan, a union job. Connie Leak, president of the Coalition of Labor Union Women and UAW member, told other workers that this wasn’t just about boots on the ground, but about “heels, flats, and sneakers heading to the streets” to talk about working family issues and the importance of unions, collective bargaining, and public policy.

Working family polices are often a mix of public and private actions. California provides an example of how unions helped to secure a family friendly state policy that women and men now use to sustain their families, maintain their economic stability, and keep their jobs.

The United States is one of just three countries in the world without a paid family leave policy. California was the first state to take action to address this problem, now joined by New Jersey and Rhode Island.

Under the California Paid Family Leave Act employees pay into the insurance system regardless of the size of their employer and have access to six weeks of paid leave to care for new children or ill family members. Employers do not pay into the system, but have to accommodate the time off. The Labor Project for Working Families helped make paid leave in California a reality. They receive leadership and financial support from many unions and worked for years to help pass this bill. 

In Unfinished Business, Paid Family Leave in California and the Future of U.S. Work-Family Policy, professors Ruth Milkman and Eileen Appelbaum document labor’s role and their finding that there are almost no negative effects on business. Management executives talk about how good the program is for their companies. Many employees, however, are unaware that they pay into the fund and have access to the benefits. This is true in the building and construction industry where any kind of paid leave has not generally been available.

Krista Brooks and Johnathan Brooks, both apprentice electricians with IBEW Local 617 in San Mateo, CA, illustrate how having good apprenticeship jobs and a paid family leave policy are very important to families. Krista, one of the 2.6 percent of women in the skilled trades, just graduated from her apprenticeship program and is completing her work hours to reach journey-level status. Johnathan is a second year apprentice. Both parents were able to spend quality time with their newborn without sacrificing their much needed paychecks or their jobs.

The couple heard about paid family leave from other union members. Krista was able to take disability leave for part of her pregnancy and use paid family leave when her daughter was born. Johnathan was then able to take paid family leave in two phases. First he had two weeks right when the baby was born. A few weeks later when Krista went back to work he was able to take more time to bond with the new baby. The apprentices, their local union, and the contractors worked together maintaining insurance coverage and having jobs when the parents returned. They didn’t have their full salaries and things were tight, but paid family leave made a big difference.

While the number of women in the workforce has reached an historic proportion and more men are opting to stay home with children, the problems are not new. In 1963 President Kennedy released American Women, the report of his President’s Commission on the Status of Women. Fifty years ago the report noted that 70 other western industrialized countries offered paid maternity leave and called for the U.S. to do the same. They documented the urgent need for quality, affordable child care. The commission cited the concentration of women in low-wage jobs as the primary cause of the wage difference between women and men. They called for improved vocational education, counseling for non-traditional jobs, and an end employment discrimination against women.

The Commission stressed that the value of unions and collective bargaining had already been well established and secured through the National Labor Relations Act. They called for states to do the same. Eleanor Roosevelt, chair of the President’s Commission, wrote that “There are only two ways to bring about protection of the workers…legislation and unionization.” She later told the United Nations Human Rights Commission that “the right to form and join trades unions [is] an essential element of freedom.” For her, unions represented democracy in the workplace, with all of its strengths and weaknesses, and were a model for democracy in the country and around the world. 

Maybe it’s time for a summit on the importance of unions and collective bargaining for working families and for our democracy. But in Eleanor Roosevelt’s words, “We can’t just talk. We have got to act.” 

This post originally appeared on AlterNet. Brigid O’Farrell’s most recent book is She Was One of Us:  Eleanor Roosevelt and the American Worker.  With Betty Freidan she edited Beyond Gender: The New Politics of Work and Family. See www.bofarrell.net.

Don’t Know Much About Mentoring? Here’s How You Learn More

By Kenneth Quinnell

This article was originally posted on the AFL-CIO website.

New Union Mentoring Guide Helps Build Future Leaders

January is National Mentoring Month 2013, and the Institute for Women’s Policy Research and the Berger-Marks Foundation continue to encourage unions to expand their mentoring efforts and institutionalize mentoring as part of their training efforts. The two organizations produced The Next Generation: A Handbook for Mentoring Future Union Leaders and are producing a series of workshops to help introduce mentoring concepts and help unions put together mentoring programs.

The first workshop, “Mentoring 101,” is available from the foundation and introduces mentoring, explaining what it is and what it isn’t; what it can do and what it can’t do. It also provides tools to help activists introduce the concept to leadership and to start to put together real-world mentoring programs. “Mentoring 102,” which will be available soon, helps unions put together specific mentoring programs.

President Obama’s proclamation explains the importance of mentoring:

A supportive mentor can mean the difference between struggle and success. As we mark this important occasion, I encourage all Americans to spend time as a mentor and help lift our next generation toward their hopes and dreams.

The Next Generation: A Handbook for Mentoring Future Union Leaders is available in print or online from the Berger-Marks Foundation. Contact the foundation at bergermarks@gmail.com, for more information about obtaining single or multiple copies.

Encouraging Diversity in Leadership: A New Handbook Describes Promising Practices for Mentoring

By Caroline Dobuzinskis

Mentoring is an essential tool for moving organizations forward: young members learn new leadership skills and are given a lay of the land when it comes to their working environment. A new handbook by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR), produced with funding and support from the Berger-Marks Foundation, provides valuable tools and information for developing and implementing mentoring programs for union members and staff.

The handbook, The Next Generation: A Handbook for Mentoring Future Union Leaders, defines and describes various types of mentoring, outlines strategies for addressing potential obstacles or roadblocks in the mentoring process, and includes methods for making mentoring programs sustainable. It also includes worksheets to help mentors and mentees get the most out of their mentoring relationship, and to enable union leaders to identify the strengths of their mentoring programs and possible areas for improvement. The guide can be used to begin a new mentoring program or to shore up one that’s already in place.

Mentoring can especially help women and people of color, who face specific challenges in advancing their careers. These programs can help women build professional networks and make connections—opportunities that are often otherwise not readily available. And mentoring programs can help unions cultivate more diverse leadership. Interviews with respondents who participated in union mentorship programs—as mentors or mentees—shed light on the benefits that mentoring had for these respondents  and others in their unions.

“[As a result of the mentoring,] I ended up being very successful…the program that I was running ended up being held up as a model,” said one former union mentee. “And our international union has really recognized the work that I was doing. And that, I’m sure, would not have happened if I hadn’t gotten the help that I needed to be really successful.”

Caroline Dobuzinskis is the Communications Manager with the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

A Partial Fix for Closing the Wage Gap: End Segregation in the Labor Market

by Barbara Gault

So, the wage gap is still going strong, even though women have surpassed men in terms of number of higher degrees received. Women are now more likely than men to get bachelors’ degrees, master’s degrees, and Ph.D.’s. Is it just a matter of needing time to catch up?

According to recent IWPR statistics, at the current rate of change it will take until 2056, or 45 more years, until we see equality. How do we accelerate change? One method is to equalize access to high paying jobs.

As IWPR’s new fact sheet, shows, the most common jobs for men and women are quite different. Of the ten most common jobs for men and women, there is overlap in only one. The best paid professions which are more common to  men are Chief Executive Officer (CEO), computer software engineer, and manager; the best paid professions more common for women are accountants, registered nurses, and elementary and middle school teachers. In the ten lowest paid occupations, close to two-thirds of workers are women, and in the highest paid occupations, two-thirds of workers are men. The proportion of women who are machinists, carpenters, and electricians hovered at below 10 percent between 1972 and 2009. Fewer than 10 percent of civil engineers were women in 2009.

And sex segregation is not improving. The index of dissimilarity, a tool that economists use to measure the degree of sex segregation overall in the labor market, found that in the 37 year period between 1972 and 2009 we saw progress in this area for the first 25 years, and then progress essentially dropped off starting in 1996 and continues to stagnate.

Women’s representation in some high paying fields, notably computer science, has actually gotten worse. Segregation in the labor force is a natural by-product of sex segregation in educational focus. Whereas in 1989 women were more than 30.2 percent of computer science bachelor degree recipients, in 2008 they were only 17.6 percent. Similarly, the proportion of math bachelor degree recipients that were women dropped in that same time period, from 46 to 43 percent. Engineering bachelor degrees increased, but only slightly, from 15.2 to 18.5 percent. On the other hand, women receive more than 70 percent of psychology degrees, and they are also the vast majority of degree holders in education.

We see the same gendered patterns in receipt of associates’ degrees. The percentage of women receiving associates degrees in computer and information sciences, engineering and engineering technology, and math and science, all dropped between 1997 and 2007.

An analysis released by IWPR yesterday found that of 111 occupations for which we had sufficient data, women earned less than men in 107 of them. These within-occupation wage gaps do reflect pure discrimination, but sex segregation can of course occur even within occupations. One of the largest wage gaps we found was in retail sales, where women only earn 64.7 percent of what men earn. 

In the Walmart vs. Betty Dukes case currently before the Supreme Court we hear stories of differential retail sales assignments being used as a justification for paying men more (men work in the tools department, which pays more, and women work in the cosmetics department, which pays less).

To end occupational segregation and the wage gap, there are clear steps that employers, policymakers, and even teachers and parents can take:

  • Education: Encourage girls and women to go into nontraditional, higher paying jobs.   The National Girls Collaborative provides access to an array of programs encouraging girls to pursue careers in fields of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM).
  • Unionization: Improve access to unions.  Unionized jobs have lower wage gaps.
  • Enforcement: Address issues contributing to hostile work environments through Department of Labor and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) interventions in order to eradicate this problem. Investigate common occupations with the highest sex segregation, and those with most profound wage gaps, as these are likely to be hotbeds of harassment and hostility.
  • Awareness: Address the unequal division of caregiving work.  The recent White House Women in America report found that women still do more housework and child care work, allowing men to spend more time at paid work and leisure.  IWPR’s research found that even teen girls shoulder an unfair burden of care for siblings and housework, while boys spend more time at leisure.
  • Support: Build greater family supports for workers and learners, including expanding support for student parents, who make up roughly a quarter of students at colleges and universities.
  • Development: Think of ending inequality as a key component of sustainable community development by working to make communities family friendly: include child care as a part of city and state economic development plans, and co-locate child care with public transportation and housing.  For ideas like these, check out the Cornell University’s website on child care and economic development with useful tools including those for assessing the economic development importance of child care to communities.
  • Advocacy: We need a whole new wave of kitchen table advocacy and consciousness-raising on the pervasiveness of sex discrimination.   Some argue that Walmart shouldn’t be held responsible for sex discrimination because the problem is too widespread throughout the whole society.  We somehow managed to desegregate schools and universities even though segregation was widespread at one point in our history. We need to approach unequal pay the same way.
  • Communication: The Paycheck Fairness Act was not passed this year, which would have outlawed retribution for sharing salary information – but we can use the anonymity of the Internet to share such information with one another through discussion forums, blogs and social media.  Also, women need to join forces to address the unequal distribution of labor within the home.
  • Negotiation: And we do need to negotiate, but not because it will make us any allies in the short term, but as a form of advocacy.  When women negotiate like men, it is not always met with a warm reception.  Negotiate as an act of solidarity, so that  we’ll all get used to it, and gradually shift our stereotypes of how nice women workers are supposed to act.

Barbara Gault is the Executive Director and Vice President of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

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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