While unions are often seen as largely white and male, it’s Hispanic women that stand to gain the most from membership in the US today.
Women that are members of unions or covered by union contracts have gender pay gaps that are half the size of those outside. Union women are paid 90 cents for every dollar paid to unionised working men, compared with 81 cents for non-union women as a share of the non-union male dollar.
Unionised women are also more likely to have access to paid leave — enabling them to balance work and family obligations — and to have employer-provided health insurance and a pension plan. Overall, they earn 30% more than non-union women workers.
Despite this, union membership is still less popular among women than men in the US. So where do the benefits come from, and why don’t more women take advantage of them?
Why the comparative union advantage?
“The reasons we believe the wage gap is narrower are similar to the reasons it is in government jobs. The greater pay transparency is important: you’re in a pay band, and your personal or demographic characteristics don’t really matter — you’re just pay grade three. And there’s a clear path for promotion and advancement,” said Julie Anderson, Senior Research Associate at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, and author of a recent study on the topic.
“Union jobs have very clear ladders associated with pay, no matter who is filling the job”
“Union jobs have very clear ladders associated with pay, no matter who is filling the job, which just eliminates that squishy factor of discrimination that can’t be explained by anything else like education, hours worked, or seniority,” she said.
“If just once someone is undervalued in a non-union job and then their next job says, ‘What was your previous salary, we’ll up that a little bit,’ they may continue to be underpaid throughout their career,” Anderson continued, “It’s frankly because of both racial and gender discrimination in hiring.”
Non-union private sector jobs in the US often have pay secrecy regulations, where employees are not allowed to discuss pay with each other, making it hard for women to find out if they’re being treated fairly.
The availability of formal grievance processes and representation to help tackle wage complaints likely also contributes to women’s union advantage.
“That just eliminates that squishy factor of discrimination”
And research shows that women are not as confident negotiating their salary as men. One study of graduating MBA students found half of the men had negotiated their job offers, compared to only an eighth of the women.
Many states and cities are trying to deal with these issues head on — Boston is providing free salary negotiation classes for women, and a ground-breaking series of recent changes to equal pay laws in California, New York, and Massachusetts now allow all employees to discuss wages with each other.
But unions have long led the way. They have been instrumental in providing many policies that particularly benefit women with families, including the 40-hour working week, a minimum wage, overtime pay, and, more recently, paid sick and family leave.
If the benefits are so clear, why aren’t more women joining?
Despite these advantages, women are not exactly joining unions in droves. In fact, the share of American women who are members of a union even fell slightly from 10.2% to 10% between 2016 and 2017.
“There just is a real decline in unions in the US — membership of men and women is going down,” said Anderson. The long-term explanations are familiar: sweeping industrial change, shifts in social attitudes, more outsourcing and offshoring, and anti-union legislation.
“Increasingly, as people don’t grow up in union towns or have family members in traditionally union-heavy occupations, they just don’t know about the benefits and why it would be an advantage for them as a woman to join,” she said.
“As people don’t grow up in union towns or have family members in traditionally union-heavy occupations, they just don’t know about the benefits”
”And, there’s a lot of effort to discourage unionisation within certain states. The ‘right to work’ states don’t allow unions to charge membership fees to workers who aren’t members but still benefit from union-negotiated contracts — that has a very crippling effect on unions’ finances there,” she added.
Twenty-eight US states have these ‘right to work’ policies, and the Supreme Court recently concluded their hearing on the landmark Janus v. AFSCME case. The ruling, which has been described as “devastating blow against public sector unions,” prohibits unions across the entire country from charging non-members who see the advantage of the higher wages unions negotiate with employers.
While unions are declining overall, there has still been a broad trend of women breaking their traditional male dominance. Women’s membership as a share of overall union membership increased from 34% to 46% from 1984 to 2014, and women are projected to be the majority of American union members by 2025.
Contrary to stereotypes, the average union member in the UK is now a woman in her 40s in the public sector.
“As women rise up the ranks… they can band together and deal with some of the cultural aspects”
These women are, however, still much less likely to hold union leadership positions — partly because of the persistence of male-dominated culture. “Sectors like manufacturing have traditionally had men in the job, which is part of the issue getting women into leadership positions,” said Anderson.
“But as women rise up the ranks, other women can see themselves in positions of authority, and can band together and deal with some of the cultural aspects, particularly of non-traditional sectors that discourage women from going in in the first place,” she said.
More women in leadership roles could help unions push even further in tackling the inequality that still remains. While the gender pay gap is narrower for women in unions, it doesn’t disappear, after all.
(Picture credit: Flickr/Kheel Center)