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Women to Be Majority in Labor Union Movement, So Here's the Job Ahead

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A study released last week put the spotlight on a workplace demographic shift that is occurring: women are expected to become a majority of labor union workers within the next decade. This is an important fact that is also a reminder of the important job ahead of us.

The new report by John Schmitt and Kris Warner of the Center for Economic and Policy Research received national media attention with the Associated Press focusing on the clout it could afford women. This topic has been on the minds of many for decades as women have played increasingly important roles in the labor movement in particular and the even broader American workforce in general. Women already comprise the majority of the workforce in management, professional and related fields according to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics.

Labor unions are central players, in fact leaders, in many of the more significant workplace victories for women over the years. But it does raise hopes that issues of family/work balance will finally come to the forefront of much needed and long-overdue workplace change.

Even for women employed by labor unions, there are big issues to resolve. Sadly, many of these could have -- and should have -- been resolved long ago. These include greater flexibility around job sharing, paid sick leave (suddenly a labor issue even top national media will tune into as the H1N1 virus has put so many people out of work for extended periods), maternity leave, the ability to come back into the job market after leave, childcare, fair and equal wages along with the ability for women to advance in the workplace.

All these issues and more must move from the margins to the mainstream of collective bargaining. Despite political rhetoric, work/family balance issues remain on the periphery of workplace issues to be addressed. We really cannot wait -- and shouldn't wait ten years -- for work-life balance issues to become a priority of collective bargaining.

In spite of growing female participation in the workplace, America's labor market policies need a major overhaul. In 1933, Frances Perkins was named Secretary of Labor in the Roosevelt administration, making her the first woman to hold this position and the first woman to hold a cabinet position. Since then we've received sagely advice for years from Netsy Firestein of the Labor Project for Working Families, Karen Nussbaum, President and Founder of 9 to 5, the National Association of Working Women and Professor Eileen Appelbaum of the Center For Women and Work at Rutgers University. These activists and researchers have been at the forefront of women's labor market issues and they have made important contributions within the labor movement and nationally at large. We should listen to what they have to say.

If there is one institution that has the values and the political clout to create family friendly workplace policies, it's the American labor movement. Yet, women continue to drop out of labor market participation because too often it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to work full-time while providing stewardship for our families and nurturing and sustenance for our children. I certainly am not the first female labor leader to call for immediate action on these important issues, but I am one of many women who drop out of significant leadership positions in the labor movement due to the difficulty in balancing movement work and family obligations.

Unless we are willing to eliminate 50% of the talent, skills and unique styles of leadership that woman bring to institutional life, then we need an overhaul of America's labor market policies so that they reflect the realities of today's working families, not the lifestyles of the 1930's when the majority of today's labor laws were adopted.

The American labor movement needs to put these issues on the front burner of its political and advocacy agenda. Let us hope with the growing number of woman in significant leadership roles like Liz Shuler, the Secretary-Treasurer, and Arlene Holt Baker, the Executive Vice President, of the AFL-CIO, and Anna Burger, the top ranking officer of SEIU and chair of Change to Win, that the issues of family friendly policies will move center stage in today's labor movement and as a consequence in today's workplaces.

Let us not wait 10 more years for these long over due issues to be addressed with common sense and courage.