Women Donors: What Can You Do to Support Women in Union Jobs?

women workers
Women workers belonging to unions earn more money. How can feminist philanthropists support unionized women? (Image courtesy of National Nurses United.)

As I scour the internet in my never-ending quest to know more about feminist strategies in philanthropy, I don’t often come across union support as a primary strategy. It seems women workers as a cause is not often on the front burner of women donor activists’ minds.

The Ms. Foundation for Women does some work in this area with its support of the Miami Worker’s Center and the Restaurant Opportunity Centers United, but supporting unions like the American Federation of Teachers or National Nurses United does not appear to be a primary focus of most feminist philanthropy strategies.

Consequently, this article on Apolitical by Odette Chalaby garnered my attention as one that progressive women donors might want to read and think about in terms of how they are aligning their strategy with union activity. There are many potential benefits for women’s empowerment to supporting unions that are primarily comprised of women.

First, some background on the problem:

Women Workers in Unions Have Gender Pay Gaps that are Half the Size

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.

A similar effect on the pay gap has also been found in many other countries, including Canada and the UK.

The pay gap with white men is narrowed even further for women of colour. Unionised hispanic women earn $264 more weekly than those not in a union — a 47% increase.

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?

The article goes on to explain that union jobs have greater pay transparency and there is generally a more recognizable path to getting promoted or advancing into leadership.  Julie Anderson (Senior Research Associate at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, and author of a recent study on the topic) cited race and gender discrimination in non-union jobs as contributing to the depressed pay for women.

Required secrecy around pay in non-union jobs is contributing further, with employers having strict regulations about whether or not employees can discuss pay. In addition, unions give workers the ability to participate in a grievance process and a representative who addresses wage complaints, making it easier for employees to question and remedy a wage gap.

The article also talks about examples of compelling interventions to deal with the pay gap:

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. 

One more important point for women donors to think about: While union membership in the US has been on the decline for decades, there is a silver lining for women:

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.

Unions may provide a great way to work with large swaths of professional women to enact major feminist goals, including access to reproductive rights, passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, legislation to mandate testing of rape kits, and laws to end female genital mutilation.

Feminist philanthropists can also support growing the women’s leadership pipeline for unions, so that more women make it into the top brass of these organizations that primarily represent women. Strategies to do this might include providing mentoring, education, and leadership development programs for union women.


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Author: Kiersten Marek

Kiersten Marek, LICSW, is the founder of Philanthropy Women. She practices clinical social work and writes about how women donors and their allies are advancing social change.

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