WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)– A little known statistic unearthed in 2007, linking the success of organized labor to its willingness to embrace women of color, is getting new support from a duo of policy researchers.
Data crunched eight years ago by Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of labor research at Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations, and Dorian Warren, who teaches political science at Columbia University, found that women of color had the highest success rate of union organizers.
Relying on information from the federal National Labor Relations Board, they concluded that union organizing efforts led by a majority of white men have the lowest win rates (35 percent) compared to those led by a majority women of color (82 percent). And when women of color are the lead organizers in units with more than 75 percent of women of color in the targeted workforce, the rate of success is even greater: 89 percent are victorious.
Building on this data, and sending what they call a "love letter" to black women in organized labor, Kimberly Freeman Brown and Marc Bayard, with support from the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, suggest that the labor movement should pay particular attention to black women.
They call their report, published in May, "And Still I Rise: Black Women Labor Leaders’ Voices, Power and Promise," which riffs on Maya Angelou’s poem about resilience. In it they say that when black women have greater economic security, it is a sign that the overall economy is making progress.
Brown and Bayard believe that reaching out to more black women to join the labor movement will have an impact on broad labor trends in U.S. society, such as rising income inequality.
The overall decline in union membership in the United States correlates with a rise in income inequality, which has a particular impact on minorities, according to a 2011 study published in the American Sociological Review. "From 1973 to 2007, private sector union membership in the United States declined from 34 to 8 percent for men and from 16 to 6 percent for women," say authors Bruce Western of Harvard and Jake Rosenfeld of the University of Washington. "During this period, inequality in hourly wages increased by over 40 percent."
‘Canary in the Coal Mine’
While Brown and Bayard said they recognize that women and men of all colors may benefit from labor union membership, they are focusing on black women because they see them as the "canary in the coal mine" for all workers in the United States; in other words, the economic and workplace status of black women is the warning system that demonstrates that there are problems embedded in whatever workplace is being examined.
"Black women sit at the nexus of every economic ill this country is facing," said Brown, a long-time labor activist who has her own consulting firm, in a phone interview. "By improving their economic conditions–something that unions frequently are able to do–the economic tide for all workers rises."
The report, "And Still I Rise," questions why black women haven’t risen to many leadership positions in the labor movement–given their success rate–and also points to their successful organizing campaigns as something that the labor movement should build upon to expand its reach and broaden its appeal.
Brown said she and Bayard are working with the women’s movement, the unions and the civil rights community to promote issues of economic justice.
"I think there is starting to be a realization of the amazing underutilization of such an important resource; black women in the labor movement," said Bayard, director of the Institute for Policy Studies‘ Black Worker Initiative, in a phone interview. "Our report’s goal was to raise a lot of questions, and develop a series of recommendations that the labor movement can be a part of."
The AFL-CIO, the major umbrella organization in the United States for organized labor unions, points to data that show benefits to union membership: better wages, more likelihood of pensions and better health benefits.
Carmen Berkley, director of civil, human and women’s rights at the AFL-CIO, which is headquartered in Washington, D.C., said she and her colleagues were heartened by Brown and Bayard’s report because she believes it will help inspire organized labor to do more to reach out to minorities and women.
"We are able to prove what we already know; that women and people of color, specifically black people, want to be part of the labor movement," Berkley said in a phone interview.
Berkley said the AFL-CIO is beginning a series of conversations around the country to expand its outreach to groups that union leadership in many areas has not fully embraced. "We will be talking to local labor movements about some of the issues and what is stopping them from doing more of this cross-cutting organizing."
Doing that also will help focus union attention on racial prejudice and other concerns that in the past year have become front and center in American politics, with several police shootings of unarmed black men and the recent massacre of nine black members of a church in Charleston, S.C., Berkley said.
"Issues of race and gender are right in our face. If you aren’t talking about gender and race, you are a decade behind," she said.
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