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Is the Labor Movement Speaking for Its Female Members?

08/20/2010 01:57 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Karen Nausbamm, the director of the AFL-CIO's Working America, has a penchant for pointing out that the AFL-CIO is the largest women's organization in the country. In fact, the AFL-CIO comprises about six million dues-paying women, who represent 45 percent of the organization's membership. By 2020, women will constitute the majority of union members.

Why, then, did the AFL-CIO refuse to assume a position on the Stupak amendment to the Affordable Health Care for America Act - the health care reform bill negotiated earlier this year - which restricts women from using health insurance plans toward the cost of abortions? As my colleague Roger Bybee chronicled last spring, Michigan AFL-CIO President Mark Gaffner refused to put any pressure on strongly labor-supported Bart Stupak to drop the measure.

For lower-income working women, the ability to pay for an abortion is often a very important issue. Had the issue been banning insurance coverage for colonoscopies, a medical service that affects men directly, the AFL-CIO would have been up in arms.Disproportionate to the high percentage of female members, the executive council of the AFL-CIO is 80 percent male.

The right to choice frankly tends to be less important to men than it is to women. As a pro-choice male, I remember thinking at the time that the goal of passing any version of health reform trumped the importance of the bill's restrictions on women's right to choice. For years, my position as a labor activist was that it was fine in socially conservative areas to elect pro-life Democrats as long as they were pro-labor. It was my belief that improvement in economic standards of living would result in women being less likely to have abortions.

Then, one day, it hit me: the purpose of the labor movement is to give workers control over their own livelihoods.

The labor movement, at its core, is about class struggle - the working class overcoming the power of the owning class in order to take control over their own lives. For women, class struggle historically has centered on overcoming the oppression of men who want to have control over their lives. Workers struggle to overcome superiors who want to control their lives.

Both struggles are about power and determination over one's own life. The labor movement cannot advocate for economic self-determination without challenging the status quo for those who cannot determine their own lives due to issues related to gender, race, sexual orientation, disability etc. When we advocate for workers having control over their lives in the workplace without fighting for women to have control over their personal lives, it can make women feel like junior partners in the labor movement.

Indeed, women are increasingly less attracted to the labor movement and more to movements that speak directly to their issues. An in-depth report by the Berger-Marks Foundation published last month argues that labor is at "a tipping point" of losing women unless the labor movement becomes more responsive and inclusive to women's needs. The popularity of US unions is at a 70-year low; a Pew survey this year showed that unions had a favorability rating of 41 percent, down dramatically from 58 percent in 2007.

A must-read report by Karla Walter and David Madland of the Center for American Progress cited opinion polls showing that the popularity of organized labor is declining because the public feels that labor advocates for its members' narrow interests and not those of the larger community.

Imagine had the labor movement, during health care reform negotiations, advocated as strongly for family planning issues as they did on the taxation of "Cadillac" health care plans.

Women may well have rallied to support labor's position on taxing health care plans, instead of remaining largely indifferent.

Had labor been an equally strong proponent of women's choice, Democrats would have had to face a greater range of issues during health care negotiations, and the movement would have had more leverage to extract better deals

Instead, the interests of labor were detached from the interests of women, and both groups were defeated. It was the perfect example of how divided we fall.

Many in the labor movement avoid the issue of choice because they see it as a contentious social issue that could potentially divide their male and Catholic members

By not speaking louder on this right and the issue of power over one's life, we allow choice to continue to be a socially divisive issue. The labor movement has done an outstanding job swaying demographics that typically support Republicans to vote for Democrats through voter education and outreach. In 2008, Obama won by 23 points among white, noncollege graduates who belong to a union, even as he lost by 18 points among all white, noncollege voters.

This demographic shift is due to the long-term efforts of the labor movement to educate its members to vote for their class interests first. A similar educational effort could be launched to educate male labor members on the importance of supporting women's control over their own bodies. An intensive effort to educate male union members on the importance of choice could reduce the number of pro-life voters in this country, thus, making choice less of a wedge issue for working class voters.

Unfortunately, the labor movement avoids these issues and has trouble staying relevant to issues at the core of women's lives. If we wish to build a vibrant movement that advocates for workers having control over their own lives, we must advocate for women having control over their lives.

Special thanks to Christina Anglin for her contributions on this piece.