Unions @ Work

The Future of the Labor Movement is Feminine

By Tim Murphy

I am a bit of a soccer nut, so I hope you are enjoying the  Women’s World Cup because I am. Soccer is also on my mind because I poached the title of this blog from a quote from former world soccer boss Joseph “Sepp” Blatter, who announced in 1995 that, “The future of football is feminine.” Lest you mistake him for a feminist, Blatter also suggested that more people would watch women’s soccer if players wore volleyball-style shorts. But I digress…

Women have had a significant role in the American labor movement since its earliest days even if, too often, their role and successes have been behind the scenes. But by 2025, most U.S. union members will be women. Whether women will then come to lead the labor movement is uncertain, but there are signs that they will.

For instance, women have led many recent successes for workers from the front. More than three-quarters of this country’s teachers are women. Last year, thousands of non-union teachers went on strike around the country over pay and working conditions. The strikes worked as teachers won pay concessions and public support.  

Also, in 2018, from Boston to Honolulu, thousands of Unite Here hotel workers—a majority of them women—went on strike for better health care and pay and protection from sexual harassment. They got much of what they wanted after weeks of striking.

Finally, many people credit a woman—not named Nancy Pelosi—with effectively ending last winter’s long federal government shutdown. Sara Nelson, president of the 50,000-strong flight attendants union, was the first labor leader to publicly call for a “general strike” to end the shutdown. Her leadership had a big impact, especially among transportation workers, and the threat that air travel would grind to halt or a catastrophe might result pushed the President to make a deal to end the shutdown.

Several big established unions are already led by women. Many of them are suffering the same membership declines as unions led by men. In the face of the decline of labor union membership and influence, a number of organizations have been founded to advocate for the rights of workers. Commonly referred to as “alt-labor,” these organizations are not traditional labor unions. Jobs for Justice is one of the most well-known alt-labor organizations. It is led by women. Coworker.org, an online petition organization, has had remarkable success helping non-union workers join together to pressure their employers to improve their workplaces. It was co-founded by Michelle Miller and Jess Kutch.

“Whatever the fight, don’t be ladylike,” is a quote attributed to Mary “Mother Jones” Harris (1837-1930), the legendary labor and community organizer. If the labor movement is to be revitalized, it may be women—like Mother Jones—who do it.

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