Ninety-five years ago today, women were granted the right to vote in this country. It’s amazing how much has changed in a relatively short time. But those changes didn’t just happen. Our grandmothers and great-grandmothers fought tooth and nail for the basic rights that women enjoy today, like the right to vote, the right to own property, and the right to be treated fairly at work.
This Women’s Equality Day, I want to spend a little time talking about that last one, because it’s a right that we are still fighting for. Long before women had the right to vote, we were organizing in the workplace and taking on leadership roles in the labor movement.
“An attack on unions is an attack on women.”
Today we have the right to make our voices heard in the voting booth, but what about our right to speak up at work? The workplace is becoming less democratic as big business interests continue to attack our ability to organize and negotiate contracts. During its upcoming term, the Supreme Court will hear a case called Friedrichs vs. California Teachers Association. The case could put our most basic bargaining rights at risk. That’s bad news for all working people. But it’s especially bad news for women.
An attack on unions is an attack on women. Sometimes we stereotype union members as men working in heavy industry, but the truth is that nearly half of all union members are women, and our share is growing. In fact, more than half of the members of my union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, are women.
Women still face many obstacles in the workplace, but unions are our best bet for overcoming them. The wage gap is 40 percent smaller in union workplaces, because we bargain for wage increases as a group instead of hoping that management will make fair and unbiased decisions behind closed doors. Collective bargaining has the most profound effect on the wages of women of color, with Latina union members making 46 percent more and African American women making 34 percent more than their non-union counterparts.
“Collective bargaining has the most profound effect on the wages of women of color…”
When a woman has a union standing behind her, she has a better chance of resolving problems like discrimination, harassment, or violence in the workplace. Unions have taken the lead on issues like preventing workplace violence and helping women navigate situations involving domestic abuse.
In addition to negotiating for fair wages and workplace protections, unions are leading the charge for more paid leave and maternity leave for all American families. Only 13 percent of American workers can take paid time off to care for an ill family member and only nine percent can take fully paid maternity leave. That leaves a whole lot of working women who are disproportionately forced to make tough decisions between paying their bills and taking care of a sick child or recovering after having a baby.
“In addition to negotiating for fair wages and workplace protections, unions are leading the charge for more paid leave and maternity leave for all American families.”
Right now, special interests and courts are trying to make it so that we can’t demand fair pay or safe working conditions. But the women I know don’t back down. As union members, we are constantly making our voices heard. And we’re going to keep doing it, just like the women of decades past kept fighting for the right to vote.
On this anniversary of women’s suffrage, let’s pause to remember not just how far we’ve come, but how we got here. When we have the means to express our demands, whether it’s a ballot or a union card, we can move mountains.
Walthene Primus is Chairwoman of AFSCME’s National Women’s Advisory Committee