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Working In These Times

Wednesday, Jul 28, 2010, 9:09 am

Gender Inclusiveness? Women, Young Workers May Abandon Labor, Report Says

BY Akito Yoshikane

A new report says labor is at the “tipping point” of losing women and young workers unless unions make changes to become more inclusive and responsive to their needs.

The details were released last Friday by the Berger-Marks Foundation, a nonprofit that helps women join unions. It warns that female constituents may leave the labor movement in favor of social justice organizations that are more welcoming.

The report says that “unions must begin to make changes now or today’s young activists — and their even younger sisters attending college and high school — will abandon the labor movement and pursue social justice in other organizations with more welcoming cultures and values.”

“Stepping Up, Stepping Back: Women Activists ‘Talk Union’ Across Generations,” outlines the frank discussions held in New Orleans in March of this year by 30 women from at least 20 labor organizations in an effort to improve labor’s alignment with women's issues.

While women who join unions enjoy better wages, pension and insurance benefits than their non-union counterparts, the survey shows that the economic virtues are tempered by shortcomings in providing job growth and workplace tolerance.

The women, including those over and under 35 years of age, discussed everything from sexual harassment, to better outreach strategies, and infrastructure changes such as term limits to make way for young women to become tomorrow’s labor leaders. Comments were unattributed in order to create a “safe space,” the report said.

The candid advice comes at a time when overall union membership continues to decline, even as union demographics project larger female participation. Women, who now represent 45 percent of union members, are increasingly being dubbed as the new “face of labor” and are expected to become the majority of the labor workforce by 2020.

Yet despite the steady rise of women, the participants expressed frustration with the machismo climate that hearkens back to decades ago when the typical union member was a white male.

The report said “nearly every participant” had a story that included harassment, bullying, or some sort of intimidation. One of the ten suggestions in the report expressed the need to create “safe spaces” where women can talk freely without fear of being marginalized.

Participants said unions should adopt a “more feminist agenda” to work with other coalitions in building a broader message based on core socioeconomic values. Unions emphasized workers’ rights (wage, health, pension) but, not enough on women's issues like the intersections with child rearing and domestic violence. Balancing the demands of their job with their family was especially pressing for women over 35 with kids or elderly parents.

The larger suggestion called for internal changes to allow more inclusion of young women in the decision making process. The top rungs of the labor ladder have been in leadership positions for too long and the report notes that term limits or expanding seats on union governing boards would allow for greater opportunities.

It should be noted that  women are in leadership positions at some of the largest American unions. Randi Weingarten is the president of the American Federation of Teachers; Mary Kay Henry succeeded Andy Stern to head the Service Employees International Union; and Liz Schuler is the Secretary-Treasurer of the AFL-CIO. AFL-CIO blogger James Parks has noted some initiatives and resolutions the union federation has passed in an effort to include women and minorities.

Although there have been clear improvements relative to women and unions during the last few decades, American unions currently face the tough tasks of halting declining membership while grappling with changing demographics. Whether the labor movement will be able to both retain and gain members in the future depends on how well its agenda aligns with the needs of their constituents. 

Akito Yoshikane is a freelance writer based in Chicago. He can be reached at akitoyoshikane [at] gmail.com

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