United States: Race, gender and unions

Kathy Black recently took part in a speaking tour of Australia at the invitation of Sydney's Stop the War Coalition. Black is one of six national conveners of US Labor Against the War and is also the Philadelphia president of the Coalition of Labor Union Women (CLUW), a group affiliated to the AFL-CIO union federation. She spoke to Green Left Weekly's Margarita Windisch about some of the gender and race issues that US unions have to tackle.

"The fact that CLUW exists as an affiliated group within the AFL-CIO union federation indicates that sexism is still prevalent in society and in the broader union movement", Black told Green Left Weekly. CLUW was founded in 1974, not long after the National Organization of Women (NOW). "It became the voice of working women's issues within the broader women's rights movement", Black explained.

CLUW's four basic goals are the promotion of affirmative action in the workplace; strengthening the role of women in unions; organising unorganised women; and increasing the involvement of women in the political and legislative process.


Black said that despite federal legislation outlawing pay discrimination on the basis of gender, business finds ways around it. Some of the more substantial pay equity problems have been around "comparable worth" — "jobs that are primarily held by women are undervalued simply because it's work done by women. This also holds true to some extent for racial minorities, resulting in women of colour being the most economically exploited and poorest sectors [of US society]."

Black explained that a lot of women are concentrated in the lowest-paid jobs and often have two or three part-time jobs to cobble together a living. "Most of the time these jobs do not offer benefits such as health insurance, income protection and sick and holiday leave, which is a massive problem", Black explained.

"Health care is of great concern to women and Americans in general and has become a major issue in the presidential election campaign. We don't have a health safety net except for the very poor, such as the elderly and indigenous population." Black added that the number of uninsured people in the US is increasing daily. According to the US census bureau, there are 47 million uninsured people. "In February alone around 60,000 people lost their jobs and with it their health cover."

Black explained that health cover is overwhelmingly provided by employers and is often supplemented with "co-pays" by employees for the premium itself or at the point of service, such as a doctor visit. These costs have increased astronomically, outstripping the inflation rate.

Union coverage in the US runs at around 13% of workers, a sharp drop from its highest level of 36% in the 1950s. Black blames corporate globalisation and outsourcing for the decimation of many industries in the US, which resulted in a steep decline of the highly unionised manufacturing sector.

'Dropped the ball'

Black said that the union movement didn't respond adequately to these new challenges, and became inward looking and insular. According to Black, unions were slow off the mark to organise the new service sector, which has become a large proportion of the economy.

"We dropped the ball and gave the corporate sector all this time to develop strong anti-union campaigns", she explained. "An entire industry with a strong philosophy based on fighting unions and collective action mushroomed, so that we saw bosses paying anti-union consulting firms more money than what it would cost them in pay rises just so they don't have to bargain with unions.

"On top of that we also have 'right-to-work laws' — we call them 'right-to-work-less laws' — which prohibit closed shops and make organising very difficult. This is combined with national and state labour boards packed with corporate-friendly judges, who in any industrial dispute rule in favour of management."

In the last two years the US has witnessed an increase in immigrant workers organising, culminating in hundreds of thousands of mostly Hispanic immigrant workers protesting on May Day across the country. Protesters called for full legalisation of "illegals" and a halt to immigration raids and deportations.

Black told GLW that the union movement in the US has been supportive of these migrant worker protests, a reflection of a positive move away from a previously very right-wing position on migration issues. "The number of migrant workers is increasing and they are generally the most exploited sector with bosses playing on their fear of being discovered and deported. So these workers have the most to gain by being unionised."

Black said: "Thousands of workers are joining the Service Employees International Union, which has the most advanced organising campaigns because these workers realise that there is safety and security in numbers and collective actions".

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