Date: Sun, 22 Mar 98 02:50:02 CST
From: Michael Eisenscher <>
Subject: Union leaders say women rejuvenating labor movement
Article: 30564
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Union leaders say women rejuvenating labor movement

By Kieran Murray, Reuters, 19 March 1998 04:30 p.m Eastern

LAS VEGAS, Nev (Reuters)—For all their talk of equality, America’s labor bosses used to run one of the most closed boys clubs in the nation. They now say those days are fast coming to an end.

Weakened by a steady decline in members from traditional, male-dominated industries, unions are turning more and more toward women to help rejuvenate the labor movement.

Leaders of the AFL-CIO who gathered in Las Vegas this week for an executive council meeting said Thursday that women now make up 40 percent of the nation’s trade union membership and more are joining while the number of male unionists is falling.

Unveiling a study that shows women are more likely than men to join unions, they said organizing workers in women-dominated, often lowly-paid industries like health care, catering and other services is a top priority for the unions.

Women are about the most exploited and angry workers in the country. We have got to recruit them, said Richard Bensinger, director of the department of organization of the AFL-CIO, which represents 78 unions with 13 million members.

Karen Nussbaum, who heads the union federation’s unit in charge of the new push, said the AFL-CIO’s study showed that 49 percent of women who do not have a union said they would vote to have one, as opposed to just 40 percent of men.

Nussbaum said some of labor’s biggest victories in the last year have been scored in industries with a heavy presence of women, including the unionization of 10,000 airline reservationists and 15,000 nursing home workers across the country as well as thousands of teachers in Texas and home health workers in California.

The true face of the unions is not now a man in a hard hat as much as it is a woman in a classroom or in cleaning smocks, Nussbaum told Reuters.

She said the shift in union membership was inevitable after women began pouring into the workforce in the 1970s but that they were largely silent within the labor movement until recently. It is a huge change which began a few years ago but we are only beginning to see it now, she said.

Union chiefs admit that part of the new focus on women is inspired by an old-fashioned survival instinct.

Union membership numbers have declined steadily since peaking in the 1960s and last year fell another 159,000 to 16.1 million, just 14.1 percent of the U.S. work force. Women have stopped the decline becoming even steeper.

In the last 10 years, the number of male union members has dropped almost 12 percent to 9.76 million while women unionists have risen 8.6 percent to 6.35 million over the same period.

It’s a game of numbers. They look at the numbers and they see where the growth is, said Jennifer Grondahl, a lead organizer of health care workers for the Laborer’s International Union of North America.

She said work conditions are key concerns of women as well as catching up with the salaries of men who do the same work but get paid more. Equal pay for equal work is always the largest issue, wherever you go.

With their numbers rising, women are expected to gain more clout inside labor groups that traditonally were bastions of male chauvinism.

The AFL-CIO’s 54-member executive council still has only seven women but they now head 10 of its 20 departments and union leaders said they expect the numbers at the top level of the union bureaucracy to rise sharply in the next few years.

This is a big boat and it doesn’t turn around all at once. But it is turning, Nussbaum said.