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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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OK, Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg didn’t say “join a union.” But that’s the message the vast majority of working women should be considering this Women’s History Month. The best way for the most women to improve their working lives is through a union.   

The new PBS documentary Makers: Women Who Make America shows how the women's movement changed the workplace for women, men and families. Two of the young Makers highlighted in the film, Sheryl Sandberg at Facebook and Marissa Mayer at Yahoo, now dominate the news. Here's what neither of them tell you: union women earn more than non-union women and have better benefits and working conditions.

Women at Facebook and Yahoo should consider spending their time organizing to have a say in their workplace.

Lean In: Women, Work And The Will To Lead is in the bookstores and online this week. Author Sheryl Sandberg is chief operating officer of Facebook, a multi-millionaire, and the mother of two small children. She leaves work around 5pm to have dinner with her family. She wants to jumpstart the women’s movement, and her focus is on what women, especially those headed for the executive track, can do to remove internal barriers to their own success. Marissa Mayer, 37-year-old chief executive officer of Yahoo and new mother, answered the childcare question by adding a nursery next to her office. She also just ended telecommuting for Yahoo employees. 

Sandberg's book rollout is indicative of just how far women have come: New York Times front-page story, “60 Minutes” interview, Time magazine cover spread, Cosmopolitan supplement, a book party hosted by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. She has generated so much debate that there is already a review of the discussion in the New Yorker. During this 50th-anniversary year of The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan would be proud.

Mayer has stirred a renewed debate on the benefits and costs of employees having flexibility over their hours at work and the ability to work away from the office, considered an important policy advance especially for single mothers and dual career parents. The current debate centers around productivity, possibly improved by telecommuting, and innovation, said to be harmed by the absence of face time, collaboration and casual office interaction.

These smart, competent, extraordinarily successful women are reenergizing an important discussion about women at work. They are a welcome addition to a renewed commitment to women’s equality in the workplace. But dignity and respect, as well as programs and policies that fit the needs of diverse women, will not likely come from women in the executive suite, any more than they have come from men in the front office. They will come from women workers, backed by strong legislation, joining together in unions and negotiating for themselves. We need to seize this opportunity.

Women have a right to equal access and treatment in the most elite jobs, but their issues, barriers and strategies for change differ from those for women striving to become electricians and firefighters or for home health aides and waitresses working their way out of poverty. As labor historian Dorothy Sue Cobble has eloquently documented, in the 1960s there was the “other women’s movement” led by labor feminists. Betty Freidan built the National Organization of Women not only on The Feminine Mystique, but on decades of work by union women who advocated on their agenda for the creation of President Kennedy’s Commission on the Status of Women. Led by union women, the American Women Report was issued in 1963 and documented the issues women faced including employment discrimination, lack of childcare services, and race discrimination.