June 18, 2014

Rosie the Riveter made strong by a voice at work

Women in low-wage jobs need collective bargaining.

Federal contract workers in low-wage service jobs have been calling attention to the need for better wages and working conditions.

These workers, who serve meals to tourists at the Smithsonian Museums and clean offices in the Pentagon, have added their voices to those of the fast-food workers and Walmart employees who walked off the job in recent weeks and months over low wages, abusive scheduling practices, discrimination and retaliation against workers who band together to improve their working conditions.

The push for workplace justice and collective bargaining in low-wage service-sector jobs comes at a critical time, as these sectors remain among the primary job creators in the economy, especially for women.

Too many women are falling behind because they are struggling to support their families with jobs that pay low wages.

Indeed, 35 percent of women’s job gains during the recovery have been in the 10 largest low-wage occupations — those paying $10.10 an hour or less — as compared to 18 percent of men’s. Fully 76 percent of workers in these low-wage jobs are women. And in families with children in the bottom 20 percent of the income distribution, nearly 70 percent of working mothers are either the primary breadwinner or share that responsibility equally with their partners.

In addition to low wages that make supporting a family extremely difficult, women working in these jobs often do not even have a single paid sick day to care for children when they get sick. And all too often, they face sexual harassment and blatant pregnancy discrimination.

Baseline labor standards like a higher minimum wage, paid leave, paid sick days and fair work schedules, shoring up discrimination protections, and policies that strengthen collective bargaining are all necessary to help women succeed.

Our recent analysis, “Union Membership Is Critical for Women’s Wage Equality,” found that allowing women to engage in workplace decision-making through collective bargaining dramatically improves their ability to care for themselves and their families. Unions shrink the wage gap between men and women by 50 percent. They also significantly boost pay especially for women, who earn 33 percent more than their non-union counterparts.

Collective bargaining gives women a seat at the table where important decisions about their working conditions all too often are now made about them without them.

During WWII, an army of women – made famous by the iconic “Rosie the Riveter” image – entered factories and shipyards to take up work for defense contractors. Faced with pay discrimination and other abuses, women joined unions in record numbers and waged strikes to demand a say in working conditions and win improvements on the factory floor.

Unions made a difference in the lives of women industrial workers back then, and they still matter for the women who dominate the low-wage service sector today. In addition to promoting higher pay, collective bargaining also empowers women and men to have a voice about hours, scheduling practices and time off so they can better balance their work and family responsibilities.

Congress and the president should take steps to promote collective bargaining for women in low-wage jobs, including those in the federal contract workforce.

Nancy Duff Campbell is a founder and co-president of the National Women’s Law Center: www.nwlc.org.

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