Maria Elena Durazo

(WOMENSNEWS)–The first increase in union membership in a quarter of a century was recorded in 2007 with employment sectors traditionally dominated by women driving the turnaround.

Nearly two-thirds of new union members last year were women, who now represent 44 percent of union membership, an all-time high.

Amid signs that union membership declines are bottoming out, Maria Elena Durazo, executive secretary-treasurer of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO, which represents over 800,000 workers, is cautiously optimistic about the future for unions as well as for organizing more female workers.

“We face greater challenges than ever because we are up against powerful multinational corporations,” said Durazo, whose union represents workers in the hotel, apparel and food service industries. “But I’m confident that we can meet the challenges because the best recruiting tool is a satisfied union member.”

After recording erosion in union membership for 25 years, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in late January that union membership rose by 311,000 to 15.7 million in 2007.

That gives unions a 12 percent share of the work force, way down from around 20 percent in 1983 but still highly significant for workers who are in them, such as Jan Clausen, an adjunct professor at the Eugene Lang College of the New School for the Liberal Arts in New York City.

“Like many women who became teachers, nurses and social workers, I assumed that unions were for men employed in heavy industry,” says Clausen, whose 2,000-member union, UAW local 7902, was founded in 2002 to represent adjunct professors at New York University and the New School.

Touting Membership as Lifeline

Six years later Clausen says she is happy about belonging to a union.

“Like other women in professions that are undervalued despite the contributions we make to society, I have found that union membership is a financial lifeline,” says Clausen. “In addition to providing significant increases in pay and health care coverage and pensions, our UAW contract mandates job security for part-time faculty who had been contingent workers hired on a semester basis. It also has given me a voice in determining university policies, such as whether gender studies will be included in the curriculum.”

Some of the biggest gains in union membership last year were in the health and education sectors, which employ large numbers of women. Another sector was construction, where women are increasing their numbers in training and new hiring.

In 2007, 22,000 personal care attendants who care for the elderly and people with disabilities in Massachusetts joined 1199 Service Employees International Union. The election was the largest in New England history.

Child care workers also helped boost union rolls. More than 40,000 child care workers in Michigan joined the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSME) and the United Auto Workers (UAW). In New York, 50,000 child care workers joined AFSME and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT).

In addition, 3,000 members of the administrative staff at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, joined the AFT and Communications Workers of America and the California Nurses Association/National Organizing Committee won elections for 800 nurses in California and Nevada.

Membership Boosts Wages

The Bureau of Labor Statistics report shows union women’s weekly wages higher than non-union women in 2007. The 6.9 million female members of unions are also more likely than non-union counterparts to have health and pension benefits and to receive paid holidays and vacations as well as life and disability insurance.

Membership was a major advantage for women of color. In 2007, African American women earned $184 more a week and Latinas $229 more than their non-union counterparts.

Attracting women is a top priority for union organizers as the manufacturing sector, long the heart of the union movement, declines. Last year 93,000 union jobs in manufacturing were lost in the United States.

Some research finds that women are more likely to form unions than are men, especially if the organizer is female.

A 2003 study of National Labor Board elections by Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of labor education research for Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations in Ithaca, N.Y., found that unions won the right to represent workers 62 percent of the time when women were the majority of employees in the workplace compared to 35 percent or less if women were the minority.

Win rates were especially high–83 percent–in units with 75 percent or more women of color. Bronfenbrenner also found win rates for female organizers averaged 53 percent compared to 42 percent for male organizers.

Workers’ Concerns Drive Agenda

Durazo, the executive secretary-treasurer of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, says listening to members has been crucial to her union’s victories.

“In 2004, we emphasized job safety in our campaign to organize workers at hotels in Los Angeles because women housekeepers had told us their top concern was preventing back and knee injuries,” she said. This helped turn female hotel workers into key advocates for union organizers in their fight for a livable wage and benefits. Female housekeepers voted overwhelmingly for the union in the election and persuaded women and men in other jobs at the hotels to do the same. The union now represents these workers in negotiations with hotel managers over wages, benefits and job safety.

Getting community support is also crucial, said Julie Kushner, sub-regional director of United Auto Workers UAW 9A, which has been a leader in organizing female workers in New York and Connecticut.

“The issues haven’t changed in the 25 years since I began organizing women clerical workers at Columbia University in New York City,” said Kushner. “What is different is the sophistication of employers. They hire consultants who come up with frightening tactics like forcing employees to attend one-on-one, anti-union meetings with supervisors and threatening to close work sites.”

These tactics can be very intimidating, especially among women who feel they have few other employment options, Kushner said.

To combat such tactics, Kushner and the UAW have sought the support of workers’ clients and community members to turn out at union rallies, distribute campaign materials and advocate in the media to help overcome employers’ opposition to paying livable wages and health benefits.

“Parents of children in the day care centers of Stanford, Conn., were our biggest supporters because they recognized that a day care worker who must work three jobs to survive can’t provide adequate care,” said Kushner. “Even people who didn’t have children told the employers that the women day care workers deserved to be paid more than $6 an hour because their work benefited everyone in the community.”

Sharon Johnson is a New York freelance writer.

Women’s eNews welcomes your comments. E-mail us at