A guest-post by Sarah Jaffe
So our economy is falling apart, right? And the government keeps bailing out these massive financial firms while talking Very Sternly to the auto company CEOs about how they need to restructure and cut costs. Of course, the number one cost CEOs and reporters love to talk about is the “labor cost,” all the while nicely avoiding mentioning that “labor cost” is what real people make in wages and other benefits.
Unions, in other words, are a convenient bogeyman, yet they do and have done more to improve the living standards of American workers than anything else. And 44% of union workers are women. According to the Center for Economic and Policy Research:
“If the share of women in unions continues to grow at the same rate as it has over the last 25 years, women will be the majority of the unionized workforce by 2020.”
There’s a bill in Congress right now that you’ve probably heard of called the Employee Free Choice Act. Briefly, the bill would allow three things: it would allow workers to form a union simply by signing a card—the so-called “card check” provision; it would provide binding arbitration for employers and workers when they cannot agree on a contract; and it would strengthen penalties against employers who seek to intimidate workers trying to form a union.
And I believe it should be a feminist issue.
Some facts, again from the Center for Economic and Policy Research
*”On average, unionization raised women’s wages by 11.2 percent – about $2.00 per hour – compared to non-union women with similar characteristics.”
*”Among women workers, those in unions were about 19 percentage points more likely to have employer-provided health insurance and about 25 percentage points more likely to have an employer-provided pension.”
*”For the average woman, joining a union has a much larger effect on her probability of having health insurance (an 18.8 percentage-point increase) than finishing a four-year college degree would (an 8.4 percentage-point increase, compared to a woman with similar characteristics who has only a high school diploma).”
Health insurance, child care, and the wage gap are all feminist issues, right? So enabling more women to join unions, which would raise their wages, and their likelihood of health insurance, is something we should be supporting.
Mark Price, a labor economist at the Keystone Research Center, told me:
“Unionization has other benefits, for instance in the child care sector unions help reduce turnover, which saves employers money and improves the quality of care…Unionization not only raises wages but leads to the creation of training programs that lead to higher quality child care.”
Price also said:
“Another important contributing factor to some of the gap between between men’s and women’s wages is the concentration of women in low wage occupations. Unionization of these female dominated occupations can help lift wages in those sectors and in the process close some of the wage gap between men and women.“
But if we’re not in those low-wage occupations, why should we get involved with the fight for workers? When the economy is tanking, I understand as well as anyone the tendency to be concerned with oneself first and foremost. But when we’re talking recovery, it’s important to think about what it will take. Feminist economist Susan Feiner explains:
“We would have to decide on a measure of real well being. I am inclined to use as a first proxy, the level of employment. How many people have jobs? Next is the level of pay and benefits in those jobs. The level of satisfaction? This is a much better proxy than GDP per capita, or the stock market.”
The best explanation for our current economic crisis is a failure of demand: People don’t have enough money to spend to keep businesses going, and so more people are laid off, and hten have no money to spend—we get a vicious cycle. Feiner continues:
“If people have work, then they will spend. Does it matter what their jobs are: are dishwashers, cooks, and waiters in restaurants for the rich as beneficial for society as a whole as are teachers? Of course not. But if the rich have the purchasing power to keep such restaurants in business, and the society does not impose enough in taxes to staff classrooms, then there will be more restaurant employees than teachers.”
The solution must include government spending like the stimulus bill already passed, to create jobs. But once those jobs are created, we need to ensure that people have money to spend to ensure that the economy keeps going. Unions allow people—women–better wages, better job security, and increase support for those people in low-wage jobs—the ones who are most likely to spend money as soon as they get it.
EFCA will contribute to getting out of the current crisis—it is more important now than ever. More importantly, though, it will affect the lives of millions of women in the workforce in the U.S., and improving the real lives of women should be a basic tenet of feminist activism.
Get involved: Sign the Petition
California Nurses Association (more information too)
Most importantly, contact your Senator and tell her or him to support EFCA.
Sarah Jaffe blogs at Alterdestiny and contributes to GlobalComment.com as well as several other publications. She is grateful to the grad students’ union at Temple for her wonderful health care plan, and lives in fear of her graduation date.
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