As Women’s History Month marches on with social media hashtags and documentary screenings and powerful slogans, the perception can come across as if we’ve won. As if we can stop fighting. As if the battle isn’t worth fighting for anyway. But as many of us know, that is far from the truth.
Our country still does not guarantee pay equity for women. Many new mothers are forced to go back to work a few weeks, sometimes days, after giving birth. Young girls need to watch their drinks out in public like their life depends on it because oftentimes it does. Violence against black trans-women is increasingly becoming more commonplace and is an absolute tragedy too often ignored. The list of challenges that females and female-identified Americans face daily is seemingly endless.
In a nation crippled by inaction toward gender equality, one resource that many women probably aren’t aware of that could take some of the weight off of their shoulders and provide some form of justice is the labor movement.
A union sister of mine – let’s call her Ashley for privacy reasons – received a phone call from an unknown number about a week ago. On the line was a distraught woman crying, saying she found her number on a worksheet for a previous union event and she didn’t know who else to call. The woman was being harassed at work, and her company’s human resources department kept ignoring her pleas.
She also lives and works in Oklahoma, a right-to-work state, which means you can work at a company that is unionized without paying dues but still reap all of the benefits that union provides for you. This woman previously took advantage of that deceptive, union-busting law and had chosen not to be a member. Now, as she was left on her own to deal with the trauma of harassment, she was feeling the effects of that decision.
Ashley did as the union vows to do, which is to fight for all workers even if they do not carry union cards. She found out where the woman worked and put her in touch with the union’s civil rights coordinator for her district. The chain of action eventually led to the victim getting the support she needed and deserved.
While she was getting the help she needed, she was asked by a union coordinator why she had decided not to join. Her response?
“I know I get a key chain or something when I join, but I just don’t see what else the union does for me.”
A few days after the initial call, the woman texted Ashley to thank her for everything she and her fellow union leaders did for her and to let her know that she had signed a union card.
This is just one example of the many benefits being in a union provides and proves that unions are indeed still relevant, despite what many Republican politicians try to say. If they weren’t relevant, they would not be passing things like right-to-work laws.
The labor movement gives workers more power not just when bargaining wages or negotiating pensions, but also in any situation when your employer refuses to see you not just as a valuable worker but also as a human being.
Women face these challenges more often than men, and especially in traditional industries in which unions are involved, women are outnumbered substantially. This makes them more vulnerable to sexual and verbal harassment. Unions strive to counteract that vulnerability, and this woman a few days ago witnessed that firsthand, which prompted her to finally become a member of the only group of people who showed that they cared.
What also seems to be forgotten during the celebrations this month is all of the work women have put in throughout the history of the labor movement without the credit and without being welcomed in the movement in return. The first industrial factory workers were young girls, and women textile workers were forming unions well before the Civil War. Mary Harris Jones, known as Mother Jones, was a nineteenth-century Chicago seamstress who has become the face of the labor movement in many aspects. Her resentment of the uneven distribution of wealth drove her to fight on behalf of labor unions throughout her entire life, and we owe much of our current culture of activism to her efforts.
Yet, on the job and out in the streets, women still struggle to get a leg up and to be heard.
The labor movement is not perfect – no movement is – but the goal is always to negotiate benefits and rights for workers that provide them dignity and equality. Because doing this as an individual, particularly as a woman, is not an easy task. Family leave and affordable health care and opportunities for career advancement are all too often perceived as luxuries, and unions have always operated under the belief that these things are not optional – they are fundamental rights.
Being a member of a union can help ensure that you are not treated as a mere commodity or cost driver or time consumer. It can help guarantee that as a woman and as a worker, your voice will be heard and taken seriously and that when you feel as if all hope is lost, when you reach out to your union, that hope will be found.
Because women’s rights are union rights and union rights are women’s rights.
We must remember that not only this month as we commemorate women’s history but every day as we continue the fight for equality.