A Conversation With the AFL-CIO's Karen Nussbaum
Karen Nussbaum is the director of the Working Women's Department of the AFL-CIO. She was a onetime clerical worker who founded 9 to 5, The National Association of Working Women. She went on to become the director at the Women's Bureau at the Department of Labor before she arrived at the new Working Women's Department.How is the Working Women's Department a part of the new labor movement?AFL-CIO President John Sweeney started the Working Women's Department as one of the first initiatives of his new administration. He looked around and noticed that two out of five of our members are women but that no one would think of the labor movement as being a huge working women's organization. We needed to change that by making sure that women were more a part of every aspect of the AFL-CIO and that the AFL-CIO was more a part of working women's concerns. So we're now active in all of the key elements of the work that's done in the labor movement; in organizing, in politics, in policy and in outreach.What do you think are the new labor movement's biggest challenges?Certainly the most important challenge is to organize new members. The problems that we face are a result of representing only a small percentage of working people. It's easy for an individual boss to say I can't give you more because the guy down the street is going to underbid me if labor costs go up here. Unless you represent a majority in an industry than you don't have much influence over what the wages and working conditions are going to be. The first task of the labor movement is to organize and that makes women especially important because women have been organizing in larger numbers than have been in the last twelve years. Most people are aware of the gender gap in politics but there is also a gender gap in organizing. We see it both in the numbers of women who are joining but also when you look at the polling data women are more likely to say that they would join a union tomorrow than are men. They are more likely to think that it's more effective to solve problems by working together rather than solving them on your own. So, women are looking for joining together for organizing as a solution and in fact are doing it more and more.What do you think are the particular needs of unorganized low wage women workers and temporary workers and how will the AFL-CIO respond to those needs?We just asked working women that very question so we would know what they really cared about. We did a survey that 50,000 working women responded to and we also did a scientific telephone poll so that we knew that are answers were in line with what all American working women think. We found that pay is right at the top of their list of concerns. 99 percent of working women say that equal pay is important to them and a full third of them say that they don't have it. Many talk about not having an opportunity for promotion, hitting the glass ceiling, having pay that is just too low, that it is harder to make ends meet than it was five years ago. So issues around pay are very important to women and I think that is because women's pay is so important to their families. 2/3 of working women say that they contribute half or more of their family's income and 41 percent of working women are the sole supports of their families. So when working women talk about equal pay they are not talking about an issue of self esteem as much as they are of an issue of family survival.In my experience organizing childcare workers I find that trust is an important issue for women. How do we make unions and the labor movement "a real home" (a phrase you use in your literature) for women given it's male dominated history and culture in some places?With 40 percent of our membership in the union movement being women that means that we have 5 and a half million members. That makes us the largest working women's organization in the country. Now of course people don't think of us as the largest working women's organization in the country and that because unions haven't acted like that. We need to change what we do, who we talk to and what we say in order to really be a real home for working women, especially women who aren't in unions. How do we genuinely champion the issues that affect most working women and do that in a way that reaches most working women? How do we change our leadership structure so that women see themselves reflected in who the leadership is and who the people in unions are? Those are some of the changes that we need to make and are beginning to be made.So for example coming out of our survey we decided to take up the two issues that women told us were most important to them. One being equal pay and the other being childcare which was especially important to young women, single women and women of color. As we work on an issue like childcare we do that not just through collective bargaining, trying to get more childcare services for union members but also by urging the president to put real money into the budget for childcare and by saying that you can't separate the issue of quality of childcare from the pay for providers. Quality is an important issue for children, for parents and for childcare workers .Those are three constituencies that can't be separated. So that is a way that the labor movement works on issues that are by no means only women's issues but are issues that end up falling on the shoulders of women and doing it in a way that helps solve problems for all working women.You mentioned working legislatively on childcare issues. Hilary and Bill Clinton are currently calling attention to childcare. How is the Working Women's Department involved in that discussion?The Working Women's Department is working with childcare advocates to make sure that this new discussion that is coming up around childcare isn't one that is only about admonishing parents to be better to their children and admonishing workers to be better on the job. This problem of childcare doesn't get solved unless there is real money in the system. Money that you can't extract either from childcare providers or from working parents. There are no solutions along those lines left. That's why we were concerned about the first reports of what the First Lady was talking about when she takes up the issue of childcare was a suggestion that we create a registry for childcare workers so that we could identify not only those who have been convicted of crimes but those who had been fired from previous jobs. This is no way to start a discussion about childcare. You've got to start a discussion about childcare about the real lack of resources that go into the system all together. The greatest predictor for quality in childcare is the pay for providers but parents are understandably concerned whether that means childcare is going to be priced out of their ability to pay for it. That's why business has to pay into childcare. That's why government has to pay into childcare. That's why it needs to be supported from all quarters.There were 1800 women that attended the Working Women's conference in September. What were the outcomes of the conference?It was a conference to set an agenda, to agree that we would work together. And there are four key areas that we're are going to do that in. Two are issues; one is to grapple with the issue of equal pay. Equal pay for equal work but equal pay for work of equal value as well. To do that not through some single piece of legislation but to really get back down into the grassroots and say this problem was not solved. It needs to be solved by lawsuits where we need to, by targeting bad employers where we have to, holding government agencies accountable, stepping up bargaining and providing women with information on equal pay through a toll free number. We're working on childcare and there our goal is to get more money into a system for quality childcare.The ways that we want to do that are through two mechanisms; one is to build a network of working women and not just women who are in unions but any woman who wants to make changes on the job. We start with 50,000 women who have come to us over the last year and we hope to grow from there so that we have a really powerful network of women who are ready to help make change. And then lastly to make sure we are heard in politics. Last year we ran a campaign called working women vote and it was both a statement of fact but it was also a threat. We want every politician to know that we expect to be out there in even bigger numbers than last year and you can't talk about working women's issues unless you are prepared to deliver on them . We want to hold those politicians accountable to say that a working women's agenda is one that is based on helping making ends meet and making families stable and secure and the union movement is behind that.Does the Working Women's Department have state or regional offices?No, but people can contact their local AFL-CIO offices. We also have a toll-free number that people can call if they want to become involved in the network and that number is 1-888-971-9797.