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'Lean In' All You Want -- But If You Want a Better Job, Unionize! (What the CEOS of Facebook and Yahoo! Won't Tell You)

Women at companies should consider spending their time organizing to have a say in their workplace.

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By 1965, Betty Freidan was frustrated that things were moving too slowly. Implementation of new laws like the Equal Pay Act of 1963 and Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibiting sex discrimination in employment needed powerful forces for change. When the National Organization of Women was formed, Caroline Davis and Dorothy Haener of the United Automobile Workers and Catherine Conroy of the Communication Workers of America were at the table. For the first year and a half the UAW provided an office and support services for NOW.

There were differences over goals and strategies. Many labor feminists left NOW and in 1973, over 3,000 union women met in Chicago and formed the Coalition of Labor Union Women. Olga Madar, UAW, was elected president. Addie Wyatt, the first African American woman elected vice-president of a major union, the Amalgamated Meat Cutters Union, became first vice-president. Joyce Miller, Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, became CLUW president in 1979 and was the first woman to take a seat on the AFL-CIO executive council.

These women were not coming late to the women’s movement. They were continuing on a path started at the end of World War II. Their goal was equality, but this meant respecting their differences as well. There were still disagreements among them, but according to Cobble, “they wanted equality and special treatment, and they did not think of the two as incompatible.” They fought at the bargaining table and in the legislature for equal pay, family and medical leave, childcare, and an end to discrimination and sexual harassment.

The union road has not been smooth. Unions have not always been at the forefront of struggles for gender equity and several unions have been sued for discrimination along with the employers. When women entered the male world of construction work, for example, their triumphs of mastering a trade and the all too familiar stories of a hostile work place, often dangerously so, were documented by tradeswomen like Molly Martin ( Hard Hatted Women) and Susan Eisenberg ( We’ll Call You If We Need You). 

Today, women are almost half of all union members. Liz Shuler of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers serves as the first woman and the youngest person to become secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO. Mary Kay Henry, a healthcare organizer, is president of the 1.9-million-member Service Employees International Union. Randy Weingarten, a lawyer and educator, is president of the 1.5-million-member American Federation of Teachers. Rose Ann DeMoro, director of National Nurses United, was ranked one of the 100 most influential people in the healthcare field by the industry publication Modern Healthcare.

New organizations are also emerging and working with unions using multiple strategies and approaches. Ai-jen Poo leads the National Domestic Workers Alliance. Organizing the women who care for our children, parents, neighbors, and homes, she championed the New York State Domestic Workers Bill of Rights. Saru Jayaraman co-founded Restaurant Opportunities Centers-United, works with community groups and unions to bring justice and respect to workers in the low-wage restaurant industry. Seven of 10 lowest paying jobs in the country are found in the food service industry.

Next month over 500 tradeswomen will gather in Sacramento for the annual “Women Building California and the Nation Conference” with workshops and strategy sessions: carpenters, iron workers, electricians, green job technicians. One of the organizers is Carolyn Williams, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, and a pioneer tradeswoman who chairs the AFL-CIO Building and Construction Trades Department Committee on Women in the Trades. Yet women remain less than 3% of the skilled trades. Tradeswomen need enforcement of the existing laws prohibiting discrimination in employment, banning sexual harassment, establishing hiring goals, and expanding outreach and training programs especially for government contractors.