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Women Union Members - The Changing Face of Union Membership

In a Faltering Economy, Unions Critical to Women - Especially Low-Wage Workers


Updated December 17, 2008
Not every woman can go to college, and for those who work in the expanding service sector, union membership can close the wage gap between workers with four-year diplomas and those without. John Schmitt, a Senior Economist at the Center for Economic Policy and Research (CEPF) and author of the study, "Unions and Upward Mobility for Women Workers" has studied the earning potential of both union and non-union women; he sees union membership as essential for women in the workforce, especially those in low-wage jobs.

"A Private Sector Solution"

Schmitt notes that in the past three decades, the typical US worker has seen stagnating or declining income levels. The severe economic downturn in recent months has compounded the woes of working women and men.

How to reverse the trend? Schmitt says unions are an essential piece of the puzzle: "Unionization is one way to have a very quick impact on workers' wages, insurance and pension plans. Many believe that education is the way to long-term economic development, but the problem is that somewhere between two-thirds and 70% of adult workers in the US don't have a college degree. The single mother raising two kids on her own or the 60-year-old man who's worked in manufacturing all his life - those workers aren't going to be able to go back and finish college. It would be ideal if they could, but it's not realistic in terms of social policy. There's a one-hundred percent private sector solution for declining earnings - a union that's going to negotiate better wages for workers."

Perils of Privatization

Adjusting for inflation, Schmitt points out that the minimum wage is much lower today than in previous years. Part of the reason for stagnating earnings has to do with the shift in bargaining power from the workers to the employers. This power shift has been heavily influenced by privatization. Many low-wage jobs that women have traditionally held over the years have become privatized. In the past, women who were cafeteria workers or bus drivers were employed by the schools. Now school districts frequently contract out to private companies for food service and transportation workers, and these employees are paid lower wages for these same jobs.

As the Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics identified in its 2007 Union Members Summary, "The union membership rate for public sector workers (35.9 percent) was substantially higher than for private industry workers (7.5 percent)."

Deregulation Equals Drop in Earnings

Another factor resulting in lower earnings is deregulation across a number of industries. According to Schmitt, "A lot of those jobs have experienced declining wages. As individuals, these people don't have a lot of bargaining power because of education or personal circumstances. Consider the single mom with two kids who takes a job near her house because it's flexible and enables her to be home after school. She won't quibble about her wages because she needs to keep that job. Or the foreign born worker who struggles with English. Neither woman is in a position to bargain individually for higher wages." Low-skilled workers such as these women have little recourse; if either one loses her job, employers know there's another woman right behind her in the employment line eager to take her place.

Re-envisioning the Typical Union Member

To understand the changing face of union membership, one must consider the images of these two women. The American public holds onto what is rapidly becoming an outdated stereotype of the typical union member - a white male in his 50s earning a hefty income in the manufacturing sector somewhere in the Midwest. But Schmitt wants to supplant that image with one that's more accurate: "We've seen a big increase over the last quarter century of women in unions, particularly as the unionization of the service sector expands," he states. "The perception that unions are great for white guys in their 50s is false. We've compiled reports on African Americans, Latinos, young people, and most recently on women to try and emphasize the widespread benefits of unions on non-traditional constituencies. The fastest growth in union membership is among Latinos, and there's a bigger share of African Americans in unions than in the workforce as a whole. There's a lot of change in the movement."

Women Workers - a Major Economic Development

As an economist, Schmitt cites women workers in the labor market as the single most important economic development. "Women working outside the home in greater numbers has brought with it enormous demands for change. The reality is that when women entered the paid workforce, their responsibilities at home as wives and mothers didn't change all that much. Social expectations have not diminished, and that puts working women at a huge disadvantage. "

"A Democratic Voice in the Workplace"

Although Schmitt acknowledges that many average Americans unfamiliar with unions may regard them as "exotic and difficult-to-understand," he explains their essential role in the fabric of American culture: "Unions are basically a social institution that have been around in the US for 150 years, and provide a way for workers to legally organize themselves so they can bargain as a group. Unions offer a common-sense approach; they are a democratic voice in the workplace for a wide variety of employees, from low-skilled positions to highly technical engineering jobs."

Unions have been instrumental in promoting the concept of paid sick days and paid vacation time, yet Schmitt observes that a quarter of all US employees do not have paid vacation, half do not have paid sick days, and about half are not eligible for under the Family and Medical Leave Act.

As the percentage of women members in unions increases, change may come out of necessity. In 2007, 45% of union members were female; and if trends hold steady, by 2020 the majority of union members will be female.

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