AFL-CIO survey says pay equity top concern of women

By DON McINTOSH, Staff Reporter

Why is it that 36 years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, women in the United States earn 25 percent less than men, for the same jobs?

Though there has been some progress in the last three decades, pay inequality has not been eliminated, and according to survey results released March 9 by the national AFL-CIO, the issue tops the list of concerns of America's working women.

To find out what's important to women workers, in January the AFL-CIO Working Women's Department commissioned a national telephone survey of working women 18 and older. The survey found that equal pay was working women's most important concern, followed by quality, affordable health care, expanding the Family and Medical Leave Act, and pensions and Social Security.

The gender gap in pay adds up. On its Website at, the AFL-CIO lists pay, by occupation, for full-time men and women workers. Male janitors, for instance, make on average $330 a week, while female janitors make $275. Male office clerks make on average $450 a week, while females earn $378. Even within female-dominated professions, women earn less than men. On average, the 95 percent of nurses who are women earn $30 a week less than the 5 percent who are men. Female elementary school teachers earn $70 a week less than their male co-workers.

The pay gap is only partly a result of overt discrimination, the AFL-CIO said. It's also due to the fact that jobs traditionally held by women don't pay as much as jobs traditionally held by men, even if they require the same education, skills and responsibilities. Nor do women have equal chances at promotion, training or apprenticeship.

Pay inequality is not just a women's issue, says State Representative Diane Rosenbaum, a member of Communications Workers Local 7901 and one of five women on the 26-member Oregon AFL-CIO Executive Board. Most working families have two wage earners, she points out. So their combined income is reduced if women are underpaid.

Nationwide, the AFL-CIO estimates that working families lose $200 billion of income a year to the wage gap.

In addition, men who work in jobs predominantly held by women - such as sales, service and clerical positions - suffer from the pay gap. According to one AFL-CIO study, the four million men who work in predominantly female occupations lose an average of $6,259 each year.

The pay gap shrinks in union workplaces, where women earn almost 84 percent of their male counterparts.

"Belonging to a union is one of the clearest ways to eliminate the gender gap in pay," suggests Rosenbaum.

Not surprisingly, concern about pay equity is a factor driving greater numbers of women workers to unionize. And the union movement, fighting hard to increase its membership, is finding female-dominated workplaces ripe for organizing.

"If unions want to grow, one of the groups they have to pay more attention to is women," said Barbara Byrd, Portland coordinator for the Labor Education and Research Center (LERC) of the University of Oregon. Some of the biggest organizing victories taking place now are in female-dominated industries - services, health care, eduction, hotels, and the public sector.

Margaret Hallock, LERC executive director, thinks organizing women workers may be easier than organizing men: "Women have a different organizing style than men. They're good at one-on-one communication. They're good at listening and mobilizing. They form networks easily. They're natural unionists."

A recent study by Cornell University labor studies professor Kate Bronfenbrenner found that unions won representation elections 53 percent of the time in workplaces where more than half the workers were women. In workplaces where less than a quarter of the workers were women, unions won just 35 percent of the time.

In workplaces that are already unionized, attention to issues of pay equity and sexual harassment draws women into being active unionists, Hallock said. Hallock used to work at Oregon Public Employees Union, which in the 1980s undertook a statewide campaign that increased wages 5 to 35 percent in classifications that were traditionally female. To a large extent, the union's 1987 "rolling strike" was about pay equity. "The pay equity campaign spoke to their being treated with respect and dignity and the value of the work they did," Hallock said.

There are pay gaps within union ranks too - jobs in fields typically dominated by men, such as construction, are among the best-paid. Thus, one way to address the gender gap in pay is to get more women into these well-paid occupations.

Nationally, just 2.5 percent of construction workers are women. Women currently number 6 or 7 percent in apprenticeship programs.

Locally, Byrd regards Local 48 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers as a model - 10 percent of the apprentices in its four- to five-year training programs are women, a higher proportion than any other local building trades union.

To achieve this level of women's participation, Local 48 has taken a number of steps to improve outreach and retention.

Once a year the union helps sponsor the Oregon Trades-women Network's Women in Trades Fair targeting middle school and high school girls and women in the general public for recruitment. Women graduates of the apprenticeship programs do outreach.

To combat isolation and keep women in the programs, women apprentices are mentored with upper-term women apprentices, and the IBEW tries to schedule classes so that women will be with other women students. The program is also switching from evening to day classes, which makes it easier for women with child care responsibilities to enroll.

In the union's certified foreman training program, trainees go through eight hours of class on such topics as communication styles and sexual harassment, issues that determine how welcoming workplace culture will be for women construction workers.

Ken Fry, training director of the NECA/IBEW Metro Training Center, said bringing women into the construction industry has made working conditions better for everyone.

"It's helped the workplace become much more civil," Fry said. "It doesn't have that same rowdy atmosphere it had 20 years ago."

"When women come on to the jobsite, conditions improve for everyone because there's more attention paid to safety," Byrd adds. That means fewer workplace injuries for everyone.

Part of the change in union and workplace culture is simply generational, Byrd suggests - younger people grew up in a more egalitarian atmosphere, so as membership and leadership changes hands, the new generation brings its culture with it. And as the culture of unionism changes, it becomes more attractive to women workers.

Ultimately, Hallock maintains, "organizing women is the key to the future of the union movement."

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