The Multinational Monitor



Women and Labor

Forty-five percent of the wage and salaried workers in the United States are women, up from 38 percent in 1970. Today, union membership is beginning to reflect this new work force. Women make up more than a third of overall union membership and 40 percent of the members of professional unions. Unfortunately, this growth in female membership has not been paralleled by an increase in the number of women holding national leadership positions in the country's unions. In 1988, surveys showed that in unions where 45 percent or more of the members were women, women held fewer than 10 percent of the national executive board positions.

In the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union, where 49 percent of the rank and file members are women, 37 out of the 40 executive board members are men. The head of women's affairs for the International points to the one woman regional director among 11 men in such positions as a "breakthrough." The proportions are only slightly better in professional unions. The national executive board of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), for example, has a 68 percent male majority, yet only 40 percent of the union's membership is male.

This gender imbalance is not unique to the UFCW and the AFT, and the inequality in labor unions reflects similar inequalities in government and in the private sector where women are also under- represented. The labor movement, however, has both a responsibility and a need to lead in advancing women's rights.

With union membership falling and the proportions of women in the work force growing, organizing women and making unions appealing to women should be a high priority for U.S. Iabor. The Department of Labor predicts that 65 percent of the new work force entrants over the next 10 years will be women. In 1986, the number of women in unions increased by 70,000; in 1987, 40,000 women were organized; and in 1988, 140,000 new union members were women. Currently, 20 percent of men in the paid work-force are organized, while only 12.6 percent of the women in wage and salaried jobs are in unions.

If the labor movement is to grow in the United States and elsewhere, unions must do more, not just to recruit women members, not just to deal with issues that affect women's working lives, but also to make unions and union leadership positions more accessible to women. In many unions women are acknowledged to be some of the most active organizers, some of the most involved shop stewards. The Coalition of Labor Union Women reports increases in the number of women who are local officers and acting as shop stewards. But women are not reaching positions in the national leadership of those same organizations to which they devote so much time and energy.

It is true that it takes time for a changing membership to be reflected in the union's leadership. New representatives usually must rise through the ranks of local positions before they are able to reach national office; but studies show a number of attitudinal and practical problems face women who might consider running for leadership posts. In cases where it is not necessary to follow a traditional path, for example where a leader attains a position through the help of a sponsor or mentor, women are at a particular disadvantage. According to Lois Gray of the School of Industrial and Labor Relations of Cornell University, women "may find it more difficult to secure the backing of key power figures who are predominantly male." Gray concludes that "it may appear to women who try to climb the ladder to higher levels of leadership that a few of the rungs are missing."

There is still a strong, if informal, "Old Boy Network" operating at the regional level of many unions which effectively cuts women's chances of building the support they need to be elected to national office. This sort of clubiness is a handicap to the labor movement. Some male union leaders and members actually discourage women from getting involved simply because they are women. Internationals must take an active stand against such sexism.

Many of the women who do get involved in union leadership do so only after their child care responsibilities diminish. Mothers of younger children often are unable to attend meetings because they have no access to child care. Unions could accommodate these women by providing child care for those who wish to attend meetings.

Other women shy away from leadership positions because they lack leadership or governance skills or lack confidence in the skills they have. Meetings which are often numerically and verbally dominated by men are not always hospitable learning grounds. Local unions must provide leadership training for all new members.

The U.S. Iabor movement is flagging. Its leaders are growing increasingly distant from rank and file members. Methods of leadership selection work against women and minorities. If more national leadership positions were selected by direct elections instead of delegate votes at conventions, unions would be more democratic, union officials would be more in touch with the interests and desires of union members and the current gender imbalance in the leadership could be rectified.

With women in the work force in such numbers, there is a strong incentive to increase their presence in the national leadership of unions. Labor leaders must show themselves willing to make the structural adjustments necessary to accommodate women's advancement. Unions are hurting themselves, as well as women, with their superficial commitment to this goal.

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