Monday, May 07, 2001

Women gain influence in unions

Their issues now are family issues

By Janet L. Fix
Detroit Free Press

        WASHINGTON — With more women than men joining labor unions and more women in leadership roles, the face of labor in America is changing and so are the issues labor cares about.

        Issues once considered women's concerns have been recast as “working family issues” and are just as important to men with families.

        But they remain key to Michigan women such as Tina Abbott, a top union leader, and Valerie Seabrooks, a new union recruit, and to women across the nation.

        As a result, pay equity, sexual harassment, child care, paid leave, flexible schedules, ergonomic safety, health care and retirement benefits will become even bigger issues for collective bargaining, labor leaders and experts say.

        “Women in unions are making sure that their issues get on the table,” said Linda Chavez-Thompson, the AFL-CIO's executive vice president and the labor movement's highest-ranking Hispanic and woman.

        Now in contract talks, “it's not just about how much increase in pay there will be,” she said. “It's, "What about a portion of the contract subsidizing or establishing child care?'”

        Immigrants and Hispanic women, like Ms. Chavez-Thompson, who at age 10 weeded cotton fields beside migrant farm workers, and women of color, like Ms. Seabrooks, are joining unions in record numbers and are redefining the nation's work force.

        They also are prompting unions and Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao to re-evaluate the rules that affect those workers.

        Recently Ms. Chao, the nation's top workplace regulator, said she would host a summit of labor and government leaders this spring. They'll study structural changes in the work force and how workplace laws — many of which were adopted in the 1930s, before women started working in great numbers — might be altered to fit workers today.

Juggling roles
               Ms. Seabrooks and other women are counting on unions to bring about the changes they want.

        She and nearly 400 other workers — more than half of them women — at Cingular Wireless voted on Feb. 27 to be represented by the Communication Workers of America.

        “I need the union to make the playing field fair,” said Ms. Seabrooks, who works at Cingular's office in Farmington Hills. “I don't want the person next to me to get a $2 raise when I get 50 cents just because they eat lunch with the boss or are a friend.”

        While Ms. Seabrooks is helping to bolster the lower ranks of unions, Ms. Abbott and others are organizing recruitment drives, shaping union policy and serving as role models.

        Ms. Abbott is a member of United Auto Workers Local 6000. She also serves as secretary treasurer of the Michigan State AFL-CIO, which represents 600,000 workers statewide. In that role, she is the second-highest ranking elected union official in Michigan. Another Detroit woman, Elizabeth Bunn, is vice president of the International UAW and is the highest ranking female officer in that organization.

        Ms. Abbott has struggled to juggle the demands of her job, three children, a husband, a home and ever-increasing union responsibilities.

        Now she is determined to help her grown daughters, one a Detroit school teacher, the other a UAW worker at Ford Motor Co., and other women juggle their way into more profitable and prominent roles in the nation's work force and in unions.

        “Life is flexible,” Ms. Abbott said, “and if you want women as employees you have to be flexible.”

Work force changing
               The growing number of female union recruits and labor leaders reflects the dramatic shift in the work force, although men still outnumber women in the top ranks of labor.

        In 1999, women made up 46 percent of the work force, according to U.S. Labor Department data. More than 60 percent of women with children under age 6 worked in 1999, up sharply from 40 percent in 1980.

        And during the past two decades women have made up the majority of new union members. In 1999, women made up nearly 60 percent of recruits, according to Kate Bronfenbrenner, professor of labor education research at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.

        In that way, the current generation of labor leaders are following in the footsteps of Myra Wolfgang, Olga Madar and Mary Ellen Riordan. These and other women led Detroit unions in decades past and helped to redefine the nation's labor movement.

        “They paved the way for me in the same way Rosa Parks paved the way for blacks,” Ms. Abbott said.

        Last year, Ms. Abbott met Ms. Riordan, who was president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers for 20 years before her retirement in 1980.

        “She's an icon,” Ms. Abbott said. “She was somebody you always knew was there for the people.”

        Ms. Riordan said more women would be in top labor jobs today “if there weren't so many hurdles for women and so many burdens at home.” Ms. Riordan was a childless widow when she fought her way to the top of her union.

        Ms. Abbott's advice to employers is: Get with the times.

        “No longer is it a question of whether the bosses want us in the work force,” Ms. Abbott said. “We've proved ourselves to be great workers because we multitask so well. We work, we get the babies settled, get dinner on the table, keep the house clean, help Johnny with the homework, try to make it to parent-teacher conferences — and we run unions.”

Ironing Board Brigade
               Ms. Abbott and others are reaching out to women. During last year's presidential election they launched what they called the Ironing Board Brigade. They took ironing boards to malls and other places and used them as tables to sign up female voters.

        Karen Nussbaum, director of the AFL-CIO's working women's department, said the effort “brought a women's touch to organizing.”

        Increasingly, women are doing the organizing, said Ms. Bronfenbrenner. She says 21 percent of top union organizers are women.

        More women also are being appointed to top jobs, including Peg Seminario, the AFL-CIO's safety director, Karen Ackerman, deputy director of the group's political department, and Marilyn Sneiderman, director of field mobilization, one of the largest departments at the AFL-CIO.

        Only three women have been elected president at the nation's biggest unions. Sandra Feldman leads the American Federation of Teachers, the nation's fourth-biggest union. Pat Friend heads the Association of Flight Attendants and Shelby Scott runs the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists.

        “We've come a long way,” said Ms. Chavez-Thompson. “But we still have a long way to go because we're not where we should be.”


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