In the summer of 1881, the washerwomen of Atlanta were working long hours for meager wages, in harrowing working conditions. These were very poor, mostly black women, and their work was essential to sustain their families. Despite their endless hours of hard work, their wages stagnated over time, and most struggled to make ends meet. Then on July 20, women who'd had enough came together to form a trade organization called the Washing Society. They launched a grassroots citywide campaign and strike for higher wages and better working conditions. Together, they knocked on the doors of nearly every worker in the city, asking them to get involved. The Washing Society did not rest until employers and government listened to them. Their campaign ultimately raised wages and improved workplace standards for thousands of Atlanta washerwomen.
The Atlanta washerwomen knew they were more powerful united than they were apart. This history--the history of collective action--is a recurring theme in women's history, and it's exactly what we should be celebrating this Women's History Month. Our greatest victories for women's rights have resulted from collective struggles, and that remains true today with so many of the battles for women's equality being fought in the workplace.
Women today make up half the workforce, but we still struggle to get ahead and build financial security. We continue to face obstacles to fair wages, basic benefits, pensions, or paid time off to help us meet the dual demands of work and family. The light at the end of the tunnel? Women who come together in unions have access to better pay, greater benefits, and upward mobility that far eclipses that of non-union women.
The Download file">Center for Economic and Policy Research reports that union women's wages are 11.2% higher than non-union women's wages. Women workers in unions are an astounding 19% more likely to have medical benefits provided by their employer, and 25% more likely to have an employer-provided pension. In fact, being a member of a union has a greater positive impact on wages and benefits than a college degree. What unions do to put women on equal footing is good for women and good for the families who depend on them.
This Women's History Month, we are seeing an unprecedented push for the Employee Free Choice Act, which would make it significantly easier for workers who want to form unions to do so. The timing may be a coincidence, but it shouldn't be: the Employee Free Choice Act would be a landmark victory for women, paving the way for greater economic security. Most women's rights advocates, President Obama and the Labor Secretary Solis support the legislation. It remains to be seen, however, if Congress will pass it.
Women's History Month reminds us to celebrate our history, which is filled with examples of collective action bringing meaningful victories that make life better for women and their families. Let's be sure we learn from it, and apply its lessons to our struggles today. Women need to be able to exercise our collective power to achieve better pay and benefits at work. The Employee Free Choice Act would help us do just that.
To urge your Senators and Representative to support the Employee Free Choice Act, please visit www.nationalpartnership.org/FreeChoice.
A Peaceful Revolution is a blog about innovative ideas to strengthen America's families through public policies, business practices, and cultural change. Done in collaboration with MomsRising.org, read a new post here each week.