Labor unions adapt

These centuries-old institutions are slowly being reshaped as more women take leadership roles

Britta Higginbotham, a member of AFSCME Local 404, leads a session on generational issues at the Union Women’s Leadership Retreat. Photo courtesy of Minnesota Barb Kucera

Despite the growing number of women in the workforce worldwide, we earn on average 30 percent less than men, while continuing to be the primary caregivers and doing the majority of work in the home.

One avenue for change is labor unions. These centuries-old institutions are slowly being reshaped as more women take leadership roles.

Women in leadership
In the 1980s, it was not uncommon for me to be the only woman at meetings of union leaders and activists. Today, fortunately, the picture has changed dramatically, with women stepping up at several levels.

A handful of women hold top national positions in key labor organizations (Mary Kay Henry at Service Employees International Union (SEIU); Rose Ann DeMoro at National Nurses United). While the AFL-CIO, the nation’s largest labor federation, is headed by a man, the vice president and secretary-treasurer are women.

Here in Minnesota, the AFL-CIO has its first-ever female president-Shar Knutson-and women are at the helm of large unions like SEIU Healthcare Minnesota and Teamsters Local 320.

Issues and obstacles
On average, women covered by a union contract earn almost 34 percent more than those who are not, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Unions have advocated for policies such as compar-able worth-equal pay for jobs of equal value-that benefit women.

Unions must change if they are to attract younger activists, particularly women, who have the potential to revitalize the labor movement, according to the Berger-Marks Foundation. In a 2010 report, the foundation identified several obstacles to participation by young women, including union agendas that don’t incorporate their concerns, closed-minded approaches to communicating and lack of access to leadership opportunities.

“The struggle for social justice and workers’ rights appeals to the righteous sensibilities of these younger women,” the Berger-Marks report states. “But unions must begin to make changes now or today’s young activists-and their even younger sisters attending college and high school-will abandon the labor movement and pursue social justice in other organizations with more welcoming cultures and values.”

Gathering of union women
Such calls to action were what led the University of Minnesota Labor Education Service (LES) to offer our first Minnesota Union Women’s Leadership Retreat in 2009. The three-day event was a blend of formal workshops and opportunities for informal networking involving some 140 women.

What I learned was that women who are active in their unions do see the labor movement as a vehicle to improve their lives and some do have the opportunity to take on leadership roles. But they may lack the skills-and sometimes the confidence-needed to exercise power in their workplaces. And, perhaps unlike men, they crave a community of other, like-minded women to share ideas and serve as sounding boards. Since that first program, LES has sponsored other half-day events, a regional women workers’ conference and a second retreat this spring, with plans to continue. In addition to offering education, the events model progressive policies by providing child care and English-Spanish interpretation.

A highlight of the most recent retreat, for which we made a special effort to recruit younger women, was a lively discussion of generational issues and how stereotypes about “Millennials,” “Gen Xers” and “Baby Boomers” can be barriers to solidarity. At an evening program, women of all ages shared their stories of how and why they got involved in the labor movement.

While we’ve got a long way to go, many participants voiced reasons for hope: “To be connected with like-minded others, encouraging one another, listening and sharing, to realize that I am not alone in the struggle, gives me courage and strength to reach out and speak out for justice.”

Barb Kucera has worked with the labor movement in Minnesota for more than 25 years, first as editor of The Union Advocate, the AFL-CIO’s publication in St. Paul, and now as a staff member and director of the University of Minnesota Labor Education Service.


See the Berger-Marks Foundation’s 2010 report on obstacles to younger women participating in unions at