Stuck to a Sticky Floor
Only a handful of women seemed to notice, but feminism's biggest failing was put on display at the recent Seneca Falls convention.It was an accident of scheduling that did it. Forum '98, a panel of 60 leading feminists, had the tent at Declaration Park from 11 a.m. to 12:30, and the AFL-CIO had it for the following time slot. As it turned out, a lot of labor-union women showed up for the Forum '98 event, but very few of the women from the Forum '98 presentation stuck around for the women of the AFL-CIO.A number of banal factors could explain this discrepancy. It was hot, it was past lunch time, and the AFL's only celebrity guest, Secretary of Labor Alexis Herman, was a no-show due to the UAW strikes in Michigan. Meanwhile, Forum '98 had a celebrity line-up guaranteed to capture the attention of anyone who watches -- or produces -- television news: Betty Friedan, Eleanor Smeal, Donna Shalala, Betsy McCaughey Ross.While these excuses may work for TV reporters and the average audience member, they're a little weak for the people who claim to be champions of America's working women. Even more important than the difference in turnout, however, was the difference in the substance of each event. Comparing the two, it's clear that when it comes to the labor movement, lots of leading feminists just don't get it.There was some mention of the labor movement in the Forum '98 presentation and in the renewed Declaration of Sentiments, but it was scant and parenthetical. Millie Jeffries, former president of the Coalition of Labor Union Women, spoke for a few minutes. But she was far outnumbered by the politicians and policy wonks. The importance of breaking through the "glass ceiling" was given as much weight as organizing rank-and-file workers.In concluding her speech, Secretary of Health Shalala stunned labor women in the audience by crowing that health care is a women's issue, not a class issue. Some of the women who took the Rochester Labor Council's chartered bus to Seneca Falls exchanged looks of amazement at this statement. Does Shalala seriously expect us to believe that adequate health-care coverage is of equal concern to the rich and the poor? Labor unions have won better health-care coverage for more working women than Shalala could dream of attaining as a member of Bill Clinton's cabinet. But she seemed conveniently oblivious to that fact.For all the good that feminist organizations have done, they can't compare to labor unions when it comes to making real change in the lives of women. Without the labor movement we would never have such family-friendly policies as the eight-hour work day, the weekend, and child labor laws. Friedan may have launched the modern feminist movement with the publication of The Feminine Mystique in 1963, but the AFL-CIO called for the establishment of day care for working mothers in 1959 -- four years before Friedan's book came out.And for all of the drum-beating by feminists about equal pay, it's labor unions that have delivered the goods: Department of Labor Statistics show that union women today earn 40 percent more than non-union women in the same jobs. For minority women, union membership is even more important. African-Americans earn 44 percent more than their non-union counterparts, Hispanics 53 percent."I don't want to trash feminists who are concerned about the glass ceiling and equal opportunity for women executives, because I'm behind them on those things 100 percent," says Beth Ayres, a public-sector employee from Rochester who took a vacation day to be in Seneca Falls on Friday. "But it's real naive to say that health care isn't a class issue. The feminist movement today fails to recognize and embrace the achievements of union women.""They talked about the pay gap," says Ayres. "Well, union women have narrowed the pay gap. They talked about health-care coverage for women; we have health-care coverage. We're solving these problems, and we have been for years. The feminist movement keeps trying to re-invent the wheel that we've not only invented, but have been turning for years. That wheel is collective bargaining."Speakers for the Forum '98 event made a big deal about the goal of putting a woman in the White House. Friedan said that even a female Republican candidate would be a significant step forward for all women. Nancy Kleintop, president of the Rush-Henrietta School District's Employees Association, and one of the speakers at the AFL-CIO rally, was clearly not impressed by that goal."I don't care if it's a man or a woman," she told the Seneca Falls crowd. "The important thing is, are they going to do something about public education, about health care?"Kleintop told the audience that she was irked by a lot of the speeches at the Forum '98 event, especially those that extolled the narrowing of the gender pay gap from 40 cents in 1963 to 26 cents in 1998."You want to talk about the narrowing of the pay gap?" she said. "Well, the pay gap between men and women has narrowed because he's earning less. And he's earning less because they have broken the social contract. You want to talk about health care? Well, my union has bargained for 100 percent health-care coverage for all of its members."Cornell University professor of labor studies Kate Bronfenbrenner told the AFL-CIO audience that in spite of the thinner turnout, they were witnessing "the most important event" staged in Seneca Falls that week. "Why?" Bronfenbrenner asked. "Because there is no political justice without economic justice. After all, what good is the right to vote if you can't afford to feed your family?"Bronfenbrenner also pointed out that when it comes to being labor friendly, "there is little difference between men and women in public office." Furthermore, she said, as a labor scholar she is "more concerned about the sticky floor than the glass ceiling," because the pay gap between upper and lower-income women has increased even as the gender gap has decreased.Bronfenbrenner also hinted that the feminist movement has over-emphasized the importance of legislation in correcting social ills."Martin Luther King knew the right to vote was important," she said, "but he knew that social justice was impossible without economic justice -- and that the only route to economic justice was through the labor movement."Declaring yourself to be pro-labor isn't enough. Some upper-class feminists seem to think that progress will be made only when women get better jobs; union feminists want to make the jobs that women already have better. We can't all be corporate executives, entrepreneurs, or political candidates. If feminist organizations truly want to speak for all women, they'd better start doing some consciousness-raising within their own ranks.