What Women Want
votes could seal
Kim Hayward, a veteran waitress in Chicago, knows without hesitation what she wants candidates to address in this year's campaigns. "Health care," she says. "If you're poor, you can get it, and if you're rich, you can afford it. I've worked off and on for 20 years and still don't have it."
But Hayward is disappointed with all the presidential candidates. "They're not focused on real life, like the minimum wage, paying people enough to live," she says.
Hayward is typical of many working women, according to a survey released by the AFL-CIO in conjunction with a conference of about 5,000 unionized women held here in March. More than four-fifths of working women surveyed expressed strong interest in solutions to basic economic issues - pay, health care, Social Security, pensions and paid leave - to deal with family needs. Many of these issues could influence the votes of working women and men. The big question is whether the presidential candidates - Al Gore in particular - will pay much attention to these survey results.
Besides finding strong support for affirmative action, fair pay for part-time and temporary work, and improved childcare, the AFL-CIO survey also discovered that many women work long or irregular hours that could intensify stress and make family life more difficult. Two-thirds of working women with children who were surveyed work at least 40 hours a week. Women - especially those who are either young, single, low-paid or have only a high school education - are especially likely to work irregular hours. Women also moonlight on second jobs now nearly as frequently as men do.
Women are driven to work the hours and schedules they do in large part because many are paid so poorly, argues Karen Nussbaum, director of the Working Women's Department of the AFL-CIO. Although the gap between men's and women's wages has narrowed in recent decades, most of the change has come from declines in men's pay. Women still make 73 cents on average for every dollar that men make, sometimes because of overt discrimination but more often because women are still concentrated in jobs stereotyped as female.
Advocates for working women now seek federal legislation that would extend existing anti-discrimination laws to guarantee equal pay for jobs of comparable worth. "The big overlooked solution [to the stress in working women's lives] is equal pay," Nussbaum says. "The reason they're working all the extra hours or off hours is because they're not hopeful about getting other solutions."
Nussbaum thinks that fewer women (70 percent) set childcare as a top priority compared to equal pay (87 percent) because of a sense of powerlessness. "Childcare is a big solution, but it doesn't come up as much as it could, because many women think, 'If I can't get paid sick leave for myself, what makes you think my boss would pay for child care?' " Nussbaum says. " Women say, 'Pay me more, and I'll find my own solution.' "
One new issue to emerge from the latest survey is paid leave. The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), one of Bill Clinton's first legislative successes, has been popular. Overall women took three-fifths of all leaves (6 percent of those leaves are for childbirth). But the biggest single reason people gave for not taking leave from work was that they couldn't afford it - a sentiment of 64 percent of all people who needed a leave. While 22 percent of women with family incomes over $75,000 took a leave for childbirth, only 13 percent of women with family incomes under $20,000 did. As a result, there is strong support among both men and women for paid family leave. A February poll reported that 68 percent of women and 56 percent of men were more likely to vote for a candidate who supported expanding the FMLA.
Although there are distinct women's dimensions to many of these economic issues, most are also broad class or union issues. Indeed, two out of three new union members last year were women.
With the exception of affirmative action, men are often nearly as supportive of these "working women's issues" as women are. "Nothing here will drive men away," says Guy Molyneux, vice president of Hart Research, which does much of the AFL-CIO polling. "Even with pay equity, where you might think there could be a downside, men tend to give a pretty strong favorable reaction." Because of their obvious popularity, Nussbaum doesn't understand why so few candidates stress these issues. "It's a puzzle," she says. "Pay equity has been such a consistent issue. It's not a government program. Why do they not deal with it? If Democrats did, maybe they wouldn't be a minority in the House and Senate."
While Gore has supported better enforcement of laws requiring equal pay for women and men doing the same job, he has not endorsed equal pay for jobs of comparable worth, Nussbaum says. The Clinton-Gore administration has proposed a regulation allowing states to use unemployment insurance funds to pay for family and medical leave.
After trailing George W. Bush significantly last fall, Gore's current position in the polls owes a lot to women's support. A Pew Research Center survey in mid-February showed Bush and Gore in a dead heat, with women favoring Gore by 50 to 43 percent, and men favoring Bush 50 to 40 percent. But Gore did far better with older women than with women under 50, who make up a larger share of working women and prefer Bush 48 to 46 percent.
At the AFL-CIO conference, the energetic crowd enthusiastically cheered Gore, who made a brief appearance. But privately, many expressed lukewarm sentiments, ranging from a wish that his speechwriters would come up with new jokes to puzzlement about why they should actually support a candidate who was so much at odds with them on trade and other global economic issues.
Jane Porter, an Indiana activist with AFSCME, the public employees' union, was dutifully cheering and wearing her "Working Women for Gore" sticker. But when asked if she would be working hard for the vice president this fall, she answered, "I haven't decided at this point." The decision of women like Porter will make a big difference to Gore's fate.
David Moberg is a senior editor of In These Times.
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