When the Republican leader of the Susan G. Komen for the Cure breast cancer foundation decided to cut funds to Planned Parenthood, the federation’s supporters replaced that canceled $700,000 in a couple of days. Mayor Michael Bloomberg kicked in $250,000. What if we had seen a similar explosion of generosity when Governor Rick Snyder signed Michigan’s new “right to work” laws weakening unions? What if there had been a similar national outcry (instead of a muted gasp) when California’s liberal Democratic governor, Jerry Brown, vetoed AB 889, the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights?
Outgoing Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, herself the daughter of a domestic worker, was a strong supporter of extending the Fair Labor Standards Act’s protections. She delivered the keynote speech at the first national convention of Caring Across Generations, a coalition project led by Poo and Sarita Gupta of Jobs With Justice, with AFL-CIO and SEIU support. Her sudden departure strips the cabinet of its strongest supporter of women’s economic rights.
Women are 34 percent more likely to be poor than men—and that number has been going up, according to the last census. President Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which restored employees’ rights to challenge discriminatory rates of pay, but it left many issues related to obtaining equal pay unaddressed. The Paycheck Fairness Act would strengthen laws against wage discrimination by protecting employees who share pay information with colleagues and by fully compensating victims of pay discrimination. The act was blocked by the GOP last year. The president says he supports it, but he hasn’t fought for it. Meanwhile, he could issue an executive order forbidding retaliation against federal employees who ask questions about one another’s compensation. But he hasn’t even done that.
In the end, the single best protection for “choice” is affluence, so reducing poverty would help. In the last three decades, the real value of the minimum wage has gone down. For wage workers today, it stands at $7.25 per hour; for tipped workers, it is $2.13, and women hold two-thirds of those jobs. That’s not enough to make it out of poverty working full-time. Raising the minimum wage to $9.80 per hour, as proposed under the Fair Minimum Wage Act, would boost earnings for more than 28 million workers, nearly 55 percent of them women, and help close the wage gap—and the “choice” gap.
Collective bargaining also helps women. In 2008, the Center for Economic and Policy Research reported that unionization raises the wages of the typical woman worker by 11.2 percent compared with her nonunion peers. Wages are brought into the open in union negotiations. A concerted effort to oppose “right to work” attacks and build union strength for workers would empower more women than a pile of petitions for presidential executive orders. Moreover, as Jane McAlevey describes in her book Raising Expectations (and Raising Hell), given the right sort of leaders, strong unions can contribute muscle and leadership-building savvy to an entire community. That’s good for a world of fights, from healthcare layoffs to school closings to “fetal protection” laws that result in pregnant women being locked up. They might even be able to confront the lingering “confusion,” let’s call it, that in 2012 caused 56 percent of white women to vote for Mitt Romney. Unions did more than any other entity in 2008, and again in 2012, to talk to voters in swing states, white person to white person, about race.
American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten says that her workers, and unions, have never experienced such a vicious attack as the one they recently endured. “The moment you press against austerity and budget priorities is the moment it starts getting ugly, especially in tough economic times,” she says. “What happens is, you get demonized, denigrated, defamed in order to divide you from your community—and then defunded.”
That’s what makes victories like the Chicago Teachers Union’s so important. The union is 87 percent female, and a progressive slate of candidates, having built power within their own organization, won the union’s leadership. The members then worked with their community to build a sense of common interest such that when they took on a powerful Democrat, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, they won what many thought was an impossible fight. As CTU vice president Jesse Sharkey told the smart new journal Jacobin, “We know that we don’t have real friends in high places. So we should stop depending on them.” It’s probably the best advice anyone could give the women’s movement.
Editor's Note: This piece originally stated, "Fifty-five percent of women (including 96 percent of African-American women and 67 percent of single women) voted for President Barack Obama this past November." These statistics refer to women voters, not women in the general population. We have corrected the text to reflect that.
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Aura Bogado: “Dreamers Fight Deportations”
Mark Hertsgaard: “Climate Activists Put the Heat on Obama”
Kristen Gwynne: “Who Will Legalize Pot Next?”
John Nichols: “The Election Reform Moment?”