Why It's Time To Close The Gender Gap In Unions, Too

Photo: Courtesy of AFL-CIO.
Liz Shuler speaks with a woman union member at a worksite.
The leadership of the largest federation of unions in the country voted on Thursday to endorse presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton for president. The AFL-CIO is made up of 56 unions representing some 12.5 million workers.

"Hillary Clinton is a proven leader who shares our values," AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said in a statement. "Throughout the campaign, she has demonstrated a strong commitment to the issues that matter to working people, and our members have taken notice."

Those members include a growing number of women, according to the AFL-CIO. However, men still make up the majority of union members and the AFL-CIO's own leadership. That's something the organization's first female secretary-treasurer wants to change.

As the first woman to hold the organization's second-in-command spot and the youngest ever to be elected to its executive council, Liz Shuler said she wants to lead the charge to get more women involved. Shuler sat down with Refinery29 to talk about her hopes for women's rights and the labor movement during the White House's first-ever United of State of Women summit.

The labor movement is a movement for women. we’re out there giving a voice to the issues that matter in the workplace.

Liz Shuler, AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer
Talk a little bit about how you got to this place in your career. What was your path and why is this work important to you?
"I started as an organizer with my union, the Electrical Workers Union, and I was in Portland, OR, basically looking to find justice on the job. I was a clerical worker at a utility company and the women saw that they weren’t getting treated as well as the men at the power line department. They wanted an union, so I became an organizer and my path started from there. I went to work for the union after that campaign and then eventually found my way to Washington, D.C.

"Never did I think I would be the second-ranking elected officer of the federation of 56 unions. Seven years ago, I was elected. And I really take it personally, the charge to get more women active in their unions, more women thinking collectively, and really stepping into their leadership and their voice."
Photo: Courtesy of AFL-CIO.
Shuler walks alongside women immigration activists ahead of Pope Francis’s 2015 visit to the U.S. as part of the 100 Women, 100 miles march.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there’s a greater percentage of men in unions than there are women. Why do you think that is? What would you like to see change?
"I think we’re closing that gap rapidly. We have 6.8 million women in the union movement. I don’t think a lot of people realize that, because they do think of men when they think of unions. The growing sectors of the economy are actually more female, so we are projected to be the majority of union members in less than 10 years.

"The labor movement is a movement for women. We’re out there giving a voice to the issues that matter in the workplace...equal pay, paid leave, and fair scheduling. Fair scheduling is a big issue for a lot of women, especially those who are trying to raise families and taking responsibility at home, but trying to improve themselves. Whether that is taking a class or even having time for themselves, the idea is that we need to help women have more control over their time and their lives. Unions can actually be a pathway for that."

Why do you think that gap between men and women exists in the first place?
"Primarily because when unions first started, most of the sectors were male-dominated, like construction or heavy industry. Then, as we’ve seen professional and technical jobs grow and have seen more women getting into those fields — whether it's engineering or the retail and service sector — that balance is starting to shift.

"But the leadership question is where we still working on, because even though women are well-represented in unions, the leadership is still pretty male-dominated. As a woman elected leader, I’m making it my mission to change that."

The idea is that we need to help women have more control over their time and their lives. Unions can actually be a pathway for that.

Liz Shuler, afl-cio secretary-treasurer
Do you think there’s a perception gap where women don’t think that unions can help them with workplace issues they face?
"I think overall, people aren’t as a familiar with unions because we have declined in our numbers and that’s due to a number of factors. Certainly, labor laws make it really hard to join an union. There’s a lot of intimidation, people getting fired when they try to form an union.

"Women actually have a proclivity to join unions, because they’re more collaborative in their nature. Their approach to solving problems and bringing voices together is natural. We think that unions are on the rise for women and so we think, too, that we could change that stereotype and that perception of them being male-dominated by getting more women on the front lines...Whether it’s getting respect on the job, fighting discrimination, getting fair wages, fair schedules — we’ve really do believe that unions are the pathway for women."
Photo: Courtesy of AFL-CIO.
Shuler walks alongside women immigration activists ahead of Pope Francis’s 2015 visit to the U.S. as part of the 100 Women, 100 miles march.
According to data cited by the Gates Foundation, around the world, women spend about 4.5 hours a day on unpaid labor. Women are sometimes working a second job in terms of child care and domestic duties. What kind of role does the union play in that fight?
"Unions see those issues that women are grappling with as economic issues — core, fundamental economic issues. So, when you’re talking about paid time off, to us, that’s part of the wage equation. It’s not a separate, side issue. We’re actually prioritizing that at the bargaining table, so when we talk to employers we can say, 'All of these people think that’s important that we have flexibility,' or that paid time off is a priority as part of that wage equation.

"Unions are fighting at the bargaining table, we’re fighting on the policy front with ballot initiatives, politics — every space we can find to prioritize the issues that matter to women."

Talk a little bit about fact that the U.S. is one of only a few countries in the world that doesn’t have paid maternity leave.
"That is a disgrace and the union movement stands strong in support of passing that legislation as part of an overall economic agenda for women...When women succeed, America succeeds. That is part of it: figuring out how we get paid maternity care and parental leave so men can actually be part of that equation, as well.

"If more men stood up and took the leave that’s offered, in some cases, it would build more of a movement around it, because it’s viewed as a women’s issue when we know in reality it’s a family issue. So whether it’s paid sick leave, paid family leave, maternity leave — all of those issues are top priority for us."

Often, as women, we have to work twice as hard as men to be taken seriously and build that credibility and a track record of success.

liz shuler, afl-cio secretary-treasurer
What were some of the challenges or you faced in your own career, becoming a female leader in an organization that does not have many women in leadership roles?
"I think coming up through an union that’s pretty male-dominated — the Electrical Workers' Union — I was working with power line men and folks who were in pretty heavy industrial-based jobs. It was a challenge, because I was young. I was 23 when I started. It's very rare to find a young woman in a leadership role on the staff of an union.

"I think probably one of the challenges is being taken seriously. It’s kind of like: 'Who are you and why should I listen to you?' So, it was about building credibility. I think my philosophy was always just letting my work speak for itself and working hard. Often, as women, we have to work twice as hard as men to be taken seriously and build that credibility and a track record of success. So, that was probably my biggest challenge.

"[The other challenge] I guess has been getting women’s issues front and center when often wage increases or pension protection are the top issues. Sometimes, paid maternity leave or paid sick leave or flexible schedules are not as much of a priority. And so, we need to continue to fight to make sure that our voices are heard at the table and that women’s priorities are given the top attention."

your voice is just as important as the man’s sitting next to you; and often, you have insights that aren’t being recognized.

liz shuler, afl-cio secretary treasurer
How many of the leadership roles at the AFL-CIO would you like to see filled by women?
"[Laughs] Wow, if I could fantasize, why not women taking over the world, right? That’s why we’re here, trying to figure out you know how we get women on the front lines of leadership...The union movement is no different. We think women should be taking their rightful place in leadership, that we should be on the front lines of engaging more women to vote — that’s going to be our primary objective. Making sure that those issues are front and center in the election. So, that’s our role, doing the door-knocks, getting the phone calls, getting more women to pay attention, and make the connection between electing worker-friendly candidates and getting what we need."

What is your advice for young women?
"...I think often that we sell ourselves short, that we don’t naturally step out and come out strong with our opinions and our voice. And that’s been a lesson for me. You have in your gut what you think it’s right and sometimes you don’t sit at the table or, as people say, 'lean in,' because you don’t have that confidence. But your voice is just as important as the man’s sitting next to you and often, you have insights that aren’t being recognized. So, I think it’s very important for us to have that confidence and be sure of ourselves and speak out."

Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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