When my friend Mike started a job at a labor union last month, he sent an email around to friends announcing his new position. He wrote, “80 years ago, my grandfather was arrested while organizing and picketing for his union. When this happened, he called his friend Leon Davis, who had founded the union, to bail him out of jail. That union was 1199.”
I was thrilled for him and for his new employer, excited about the work he’d be doing to promote safe working conditions and fair labor practices. But it also got me thinking about how the labor movement has changed over the last eighty years. Unions used to be for white men who worked in factories, trying to earn enough to support their families. Union jobs were good jobs, and the right to organize and speak out have become known as cornerstones in the American labor movement. A commitment to the values we hold as a nation of workers.
Nowadays, much has changed. It’s not just that unions are under renewed attack in cities and states across the country. But also that the movement itself has changed. Unions are no longer solely comprised of white men. Women have increasingly joined the work force over the last fifty years, and they’ve had an enormous impact on the demographic of the labor movement.
At the same time, union participation has changed the lives of its female members. When Nafissatou Diallo accused Dominique Strauss-Kahn of assaulting her in a New York hotel room, it was membership in the UNITE HERE! union that gave her the protection to do so. Sexual assault is just one of the many dangers faced by female workers, and being a part of a union provides a safe space for seeking protection and assistance when you have nowhere else to turn.
Here are some interesting facts about women in the labor movement:
* Nearly 6.9 million working women are union members, representing 11.1% of employed women in the United States.
* In 2009, union women earned 24.6% higher weekly wages than non union women.
* Almost half of union workers are employed in the public sector, jobs often filled by women.
* Experts predict that by 2020, women will comprise over 50% of union membership.
The progressive movement is often accused of tripping over itself. Every member of the movement has its own priorities, from immigration reform to universal health care to bargaining rights to access to reproductive health. This is, of course, because there are so many causes that are worthy of our time, attention, and resources. But just as often, progressive values transcend specific, individual causes, and instead tie us together as we work across demographics and barriers to move our country forward. Uniting the women’s movement and the labor movement is one such symbiotic tie.
That’s why tomorrow, Wednesday Sept. 14 at 2PM EST, Fem2.0 is going to be co-hosting a #UnionWomen Tweet Chat with UNITE HERE to talk about the unique role women play in unions, and how these two movements can benefit by supporting one another.
We’ll be speaking with special guest Janel Charles, a Hyatt housekeeper who is on strike this week in Chicago to protest the treatment of housekeepers and other hotel workers. Join us, and invite all your friends who are feminists, union supporters, progressives, or even just Americans, to talk about women, labor, and a more collaborative, progressive future for America.