Women in Unions

Read the briefing paper, The Union Advantage for Women, for data on women’s union representation and how much union and nonunion women and men earn in each state.

Photo credit: Jim West

Photo credit: Jim West; courtesy of the AFL-CIO

Employment and Earnings

Poverty and Opportunity

Labor Unions and Women’s Leadership

The Employment and Earnings of Women in Unions

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The Union Advantage for Women
Union representation brings wage setting into the open and helps ensure that employers set wages based on objective criteria, such as skill, effort, and responsibility. Research shows that labor unions tend to raise wages and improve benefits for all represented workers, especially those at the middle and bottom of the wage distribution, who are disproportionately women (Jones, Schmitt, and Woo 2014).

  • Among full-time workers aged 16 and older, women represented by labor unions earn an average of $212, or 30.9 percent, more per week than women in nonunion jobs.6 Men of the same age range who are represented by unions earn, on average, $173 more per week (or 20.6 percent) than those without union representation (Table 2.3).
  • Union women experience a small gender wage gap. Women who are represented by unions earn 88.7 cents on the dollar compared with their male counterparts, a considerably higher earnings ratio than the earnings ratio between all women and men in the United States.
  • Among the racial and ethnic groups shown in Table 2.3, the difference in earnings between those with and without union representation is largest for Hispanics.
    Hispanic women represented by unions have median weekly earnings that are 42.1 percent higher than those without union representation. Hispanic men with union representation have earnings that are 40.6 percent higher than their nonunion counterparts.
  • “Right-to-work” laws—which give employees the benefits of a union contract without paying dues—are associated with lower wages for all workers (both union and nonunion), especially women. In rightto- work states, wages are about 4.4 percent lower for full-time, year-round female workers and 1.7 percent lower for full-time, year-round male workers than in non-right-to-work states (Shierholz and Gould

Poverty and Opportunity Among Women in Unions

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Labor Unions and Women’s Leadership

The labor movement spearheaded many of the basic workplace protections we enjoy today, such as the minimum wage, the 40-hour work week, overtime pay, and adequate workplace health and safety. Unions play an important role in collective bargaining for workers’ rights, and in raising issues to the forefront of the national agenda. On many policy issues, labor unions have taken the lead in both national and state policy development.

Women’s participation in unions is beneficial for several reasons. Unionized women have greater earnings—$212, or 30.9 percent more per week—and higher rates of health insurance coverage than non unionized women (see chapters two and four). Women’s leadership is also critical to promoting issues of importance to women and families—including paycheck fairness, access to affordable child care, raising the minimum wage, and expanding access to paid sick days—and raising these issues to the forefront of unions’ agendas. Women make up a large proportion of union members and have been closing the gender gap in union membership. In 2004, 57.4 percent of members were male, while 42.6 percent were female (U.S. Department of Labor 2005). By 2014, women were 45.5 percent, or 6.6 million of 14.6 million union members (U.S. Department of Labor 2015a). Of wage and salary workers overall in the United States, 11.7 percent of men and 10.5 percent of women are members of unions, with public sector workers five time as likely to belong to a union as private sector workers (35.7 percent compared with 6.6 percent; U.S. Department of Labor 2015b).

Women are also working toward better representation within union leadership. Women are 18.2 percent (10 out of 55) of the Executive Council of the AFL-CIO, 25.7 percent (9 of 35) of the International Vice Presidents of AFSCME, 38.1 percent (8 of 21) of the Executive Board of the CWA, 42.9 percent (18 of 42) of the AFT Vice Presidents, 50.0 percent (4 of 8) of the leadership of SEIU, and 60.0 percent (3 of 5) of the General Officers of UNITE (AFL-CIO 2015; AFSCME 2015; AFT 2015; CWA 2015; SEIU 2015;  UNITE HERE 2015). While these numbers do not provide information about the leadership of the local chapters of these unions, they do speak to the composition of their national union leaderships. Several obstacles often make it difficult for women to get involved in union leadership. One qualitative study of women union activists identified six barriers that women face in union work: women experience difficulty making room for the time demands of union leadership, especially given their competing family obligations; women and people of color have an acute fear of retribution by employers; few women serve at the top of union leadership, where they could serve as role models to other women activists; women express discomfort with public authority based on an understanding that this is not a female role; women are not aware of how union leadership may benefit their lives as workers; and unions place inadequate emphasis on the priorities and concerns of women (Caiazza 2007). The report also identified seven strategies for promoting women’s leadership within unions. Unions can highlight the importance of women’s contributions; provide trainings on effective ways to mobilize women; encourage and support more women in leadership positions both nationally and locally; create and strengthen mentoring programs for women; provide dedicated space for women to voice their concerns; address women’s priorities by using imagery and language that reflects their experiences; and provide flexible options for involvement by finding creative times and places to meet and providing supports such as childcare (Caiazza 2007).

These strategies encourage women’s activism and strengthen unions by enabling them to be more inclusive of the needs and priorities of all their members.