Trends in Union Membership Indicate Weak Job Prospects for Women


The American worker, and by extension women’s economic status, continues to face troubling prospects, with the decline of stable public-sector positions as well as weakening labor unions and an uptick in low-wage private sector positions. Trends in women’s union membership reveal this: This month, the Bureau of Labor Statistics released its annual union membership summary, revealing an overall decline in 2012 in the number of workers who belong to unions. In 2011, total U.S. union membership was 11.8 percent and in 2012 that number rested at 11.3 percent.

Women workers have dominated in the decline of union membership. According to the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC), women represent 72 percent of all former union members. Simultaneously, public sector union membership also declined by a full percent.

NWLC posits that these trends are related. “The best we can tell, public sector jobs have been shed recently, and women bore the brunt of that loss,” Emily Martin, NWLC Vice President and General Counsel, told RH Reality Check. “I think what that means among other things is that women who hold steady unionized jobs were losing their jobs. Teaching, public administration, librarians—thats where biggest declines were found.”

Attacks on secure, reliable public sector jobs—and thus many women’s jobs—have been profound and persistent in the past two years. Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin launched a concerted effort in 2011 to limit the collective bargaining rights of public employees, exempting the male-dominated public sector positions (police, firefighters and state troopers). The public sector employees who were hardest hit? Teachers, nurses, child care providers, and other female-dominated professions. NWLC tells us that women represent most of state and local government employees, and collective bargaining can help achieve economic security for these workers.

In Michigan, Governor Rick Snyder stripped collective bargaining rights of home-based child care workers in 2011. The vast majority (94 percent) of all child care workers are women.

Other states proposed similar legislation: Tennessee had similar legislation to restrict teacher collective bargaining. In Ohio, a similar law was repealed in 2011.

Beyond the weakening of unions in numerous states—and arguably at the federal level as well—the number of public sector positions is decreasing, while job opportunities in the low-wage private sector—a sector with relatively weak union power—are increasing.

“In the recession recovery what we have seen is loss of good unionized middle class jobs like teaching and nursing, where women tend to dominate,” Martin said. “And we see increase in jobs in retail, food prep, places where there are very low rates of unionization in general, and there are often other job quality issues associated.”

Proof: UNITE HERE, a union representing hotel, restaurant, textile, laundry and other private-sector workers, have seen an uptick in women members, according to UNITE HERE Communications Director Brenda Carter.

“The industries that we organize are dominated by women, and anytime a new worker joins, it’s likely going to be a women,” Carter told RH Reality Check. “If 200 workers from a hotel join our union, the largest department is usually housekeeping—which is almost always all women.”

Continued state and federal weakening of unions, combined with the decline in public sector union members indicate that secure, stable public sector jobs—many of which are female dominated—may continue to decline, while lower-wage, service-industry positions in the private-sector are seeing an increase in women employees. The minimum wage in some of these sectors such as waitressing is as low as $2.13 per hour. And low-wage private-sector workers can’t always expect the most basic standards, like humane working conditions: last week The Nation reported that employees of Target in Minnesota have told the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) that their employer locks them in overnight.

Workers’ rights activists continue to pound the pavement, but a transformative economic justice effort—that includes changes to state-government leadership—is past due. According to Martin, in the absence of strong unions, “antidiscrimination laws, family medical leave, wage and hour protections need to be stronger and aggressively enforced so there are baseline protections for all workers” but many of these, particularly paid leave, are not available to most workers. Union membership trends are part of a larger narrative, one that systemically weakens the economic prospects of working women and their families.

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