Can a Resurgence in Labor Unions Help Working Women?
By John Budd | March 8, 2021
John Budd is a professor of work and organizations at the University of Minnesota.
First came the wave of teacher strikes led by women fighting the devaluing of their work, then Google employees walked out in protest of its handling of sexual harassment and (later) formed the Alphabet Workers Union, and now racial justice is a central theme as Amazon warehouse workers in Alabama vote on whether to unionize. In between have been innumerable other actions of protest, solidarity, and collective action spurred by concerns with racial justice, the she-cession and other pandemic-induced inequalities, and feelings of powerlessness.
Despite numerous obstacles, this newfound energy could lead to increased unionization. The prospects of a resurgence in labor unions would be dramatically magnified if Congress passes the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act. The PRO Act brings together pieces of failed legislation over the past three decades and would drastically re-shape labor law by removing numerous employer advantages over unions and workers, making it easier for workers to form unions and giving them greater bargaining power.
Greater unionization could result in important benefits for working women. Here’s why.
Boosting Women’s Pay
Perhaps the most obvious thing that unions typically do is negotiate for higher pay and better benefits. Recent research indicates that, on average, unionized women earn 12 percent more than similar nonunion women in the U.S. private sector. Unionization appears to increase pay for white women and Black women to a similar degree.
Recent research indicates that, on average, unionized women earn 12 percent more than similar nonunion women in the U.S. private sector.
So if more women become unionized, we’d expect their pay, on average, to increase. The union wage premium for women could even conceivably increase with the passage of the PRO Act because of its potential to increase union power. There could also be spillover effects that increase the pay of other working women because the threat of unionization can cause employers to preemptively increase pay.
Some things that labor unions commonly do—such as raise pay more aggressively among lower-paid workers, negotiate standardized pay rates and strong grievance procedures, and combat pay secrecy—could also close the gender pay gap. Indeed, when Wisconsin weakened teacher unions and allowed greater individual wage-setting, the gender pay gap increased. But systematically closing the gender pay gap requires greater intentionality among unions because men have a higher union pay advantage than women in the U.S. private sector, so increased unionization could benefit men even more than women without a more explicit focus on the gender pay gap.
Benefits Workers Can Use
Union contracts typically address wide-ranging issues relating to benefits, scheduling, and time off which are beneficial for individual and community well-being. Many of these can be particularly beneficial for working mothers trying to juggle multiple roles, though research paints a mixed picture with union members more likely to have stable hours but also more likely to have nonstandard schedules. Research from the UK highlights three ways in which unions help workers balance work and family: bargaining for policies that directly help working mothers, such as paid parental leave, job sharing or onsite child care; reducing the frequency of excessively long working hours, and fighting the typical manager’s belief that balancing work and family is solely the worker’s responsibility.
But bargaining for policies is not enough; workers need to be able to actually use them. This dynamic is captured by the four A’s: availability, awareness, affordability, and assurance. In other words, for a new mother, for example, to take paid parental leave: 1) the policy needs to be available, 2) if available, the worker needs to be aware of it, 3) even if aware of an existing policy, the worker needs to believe she can afford a leave, and 4) even if affordable, the worker needs to have assurances against negative consequences that might result from taking a leave (e.g., missing out on a promotion).
So beyond negotiating for better policies (availability), unions can also significantly help women use these policies—they can help spread awareness through newsletters, one-to-one interactions, and the like; make leaves more affordable through higher wages and better insurance coverage; and combat reprisals through bargaining, grievance procedures, and other means.
Beyond negotiating for better policies, unions can also significantly help women use these policies—I label this the “facilitation effect” of labor unions.
In my own research, I label this the “facilitation effect” of labor unions. Through these various channels, union-represented new mothers are more than 15 percent more likely to use paid maternity leave than are comparable non-union mothers.
This facilitation role of labor unions can also help working women navigate the complex maze of federal, state, and local public policies on work. For example, in the first years after the passage of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), hourly unionized workers were much more likely than others to have heard about the FMLA, and were significantly less worried about losing their seniority or their job if taking a family or medical leave. Eligible workers are more likely to receive unemployment insurance benefits if they were in union jobs, and unions help enforce workplace safety and reduce other labor rights violations. This assistance is likely particularly important for marginalized workers who otherwise don’t have the resources and connections to counter employer transgressions.
Ripple Effects on the Policy Environment
Unions also lobby for legislative protections for workers. The labor movement supports the $15 minimum wage that was controversially excluded from the federal stimulus bill last week. An increase in the federal minimum wage would particularly benefit women, workers of color, and especially women of color (though these workers are also disproportionately excluded from coverage). Passage of the PRO Act could further boost union influence that results in more favorable public policies for workers and working women. Right-to-work laws that allow union-represented workers to not pay union dues or fees weaken unions financially and politically, resulting in more conservative lawmakers and lawmaking. The PRO Act would abolish right-to-work laws, perhaps prompting the reverse cycle.
At an individual level, labor unions help equip members with advocacy skills and norms that translate into greater political and civic engagement.
At an individual level, labor unions help equip members with advocacy skills and norms that translate into greater political and civic engagement. If more women are represented by unions in the future, these empowerment skills and norms could potentially translate to other areas of their lives, too, such as running for political office or negotiating the allocation of household responsibilities.
Putting the PRO Act in Context
A resurgence in labor unions, perhaps supported by the PRO Act, could have important benefits for working women—but there are multiple qualifications. What happens in any particular bargaining unit can reflect contested political dynamics that are not guaranteed to prioritize the concerns of working women or of workers with other identities. Also, even if the PRO Act is enacted, increased unionized would still require workers to successfully organize.
Additionally, the PRO Act would only apply to the private sector, where less than 6 percent of women are unionized; 60 percent of women union members work in the public sector, where most are subject to state-level regulation which is often unfavorable in conservative states. The PRO Act also fails to address labor law’s racist and sexist roots that excluded agricultural and domestic service workers from its protections.
As good as the PRO Act might be for some women workers, it’s only one piece of a broader set of policy interventions and new norms that we need to fully respect the dignity of labor.