May Day Alert: De-Unionization Hurts Women, Especially Latinas

The 30-year assault on unions has hurt all working Americans, but some groups have felt more pain than others.
Although women have made many gains since the 1960s, they must still catch up with men when it comes to equal pay and the benefits that generally accompany it, like educational attainment and access to health insurance, paid leave and other benefits. This is particularly true for women of color, who have the highest levels of disparities in income in comparison to men. In 2006, women overall made 77 percent of men's annual earnings.

The wage gap is stark irrespective of one's ethnic group, but for Latinas it is singularly startling. Latinas earn only 52.4 percent when compared with men. In industries that are job-typed, such as teaching and nursing, where many Latina workers are concentrated, unions have fostered change in closing the pay gap and given Latinas access to health insurance and other benefits. We must assess the remaining barriers to economic equality and push hard for policies that are even-handed and diminish gender and racial inequities. If ever there was an argument for joining a union, then this would be it. And if ever there was an argument for having the capacity to bargain collectively without retribution, this would definitely be it.

Women are struggling. As a result, their families are also facing challenges. Women are the foundation for family decisions and unfortunately, more and more, they carry the primary responsibility and are the sole decision makers in their children's welfare. Latinas also often uphold their family and cultural traditions to take care of their elders. Women's role as caretakers in our society is one factor in pay inequity. Absent strong government-provided safety nets, like quality affordable day care, women will continue to be forced to choose between their families and their jobs.

Not everything is at the federal level. States have an important role to play in the shifts of women from poverty to economic prosperity. States can implement innovative programs that assist women by providing educational and training programs to maximize women's earning potential, or alternatively, they could set their own minimum wage laws and strengthen pay equity at the state level. Yet, local, state and national policies continue to lag behind the changing realities of women's lives as they struggle to balance the need to work with their obligations to care for their families.

At the federal level, there is legislation in Congress that could potentially address part of the solution toward pay equity, and that is the Employee Free Choice Act. EFCA would restore workers' freedom to form unions and collectively bargain, while strengthening penalties for companies that coerce or intimidate employees. It is critical that women be allowed to form unions and be part of a process where they can express an opinion by the simple but deliberate signing of an authorization card. Union women earn 31 percent more in their median weekly earnings than those without a union, which translates into $758 per month in comparison to $579 without a union.

The freedom to join a union is a fundamental right protected by our country's constitutional freedom of association, its labor laws and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Yet, this right continues to be eroded, and as a result, more and more women have become the victims of harassment, discrimination and even termination for attempting to improve their lives by forming unions.

Clearly, women have the right to improve their economic well-being and the welfare of their families. By so doing, they also help to strengthen the communities they live in by being able to contribute more to their local and state economies. On this Equal Pay Day, government and employers have a unique opportunity to come together with workers to both create a better environment in the workplace and improve economic equality.
Linda Chavez-Thompson is executive vice president of the AFL-CIO. Gabriela Lemus is executive director of the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement.
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