What Ellen Pao and Sheryl Sandberg Overlooked… and Gawker Writers Get Right

Liz Shuler

Liz Shuler Secretary-treasurer/Chief Financial Officer, AFL-CIO

Last month, the CEO of Reddit, Ellen Pao, announced the company would no longer allow employees to negotiate their salaries. Pao explained the move was an attempt to close the pay gap between women and men since, based on her experience, women are worse negotiators than men and as she put it, “From what I've heard from women, they …feel like there’s no way to win.”

Pao’s claim that some women lose out at the negotiating table is correct. And her instinct to take action and use her power as CEO to level the playing field is admirable. But her response misses the point of what’s really happening for women at work.

Women don’t need less negotiating power. They need more. And no one woman — CEO or front line worker — can solve this problem alone.

Many hardworking women lose out on wages not because they are ineffective negotiators. Rather, they, along with their male colleagues, lack the power to come together to raise wages collectively.

As Secretary-Treasurer of the AFL-CIO and a woman who has dealt with her share of office politics, I understand the challenges that both Ellen Pao and Sheryl Sandberg describe on the job. But I have a very different solution.

I got my start in the labor movement working with the electrical workers union (IBEW) on an organizing campaign of clerical workers at Portland General Electric (PGE) in my home state of Oregon shortly after I graduated from college. While the power linemen at PGE were all union members, the clerical workers — mainly women — were not.

It became apparent that the linemen received good pay and benefits thanks to their union contract; but the clerical workers did not have that collective power, and lacked leverage to negotiate better pay and conditions in the workplace that they deserved. It wasn't a big leap for the clerical workers to realize they too could raise their wages and secure benefits through a union contract like their linemen peers.

The labor movement views the struggle for women’s equality as a shared fight, especially considering women are the sole or primary breadwinners for 40% of families in the United States. Nearly 7 million women have a voice on the job due to their union membership and women in unions are more likely than their nonunion peers to have access to paid sick leave and family leave among other benefits.

And in direct response to Ellen Pao’s concern about the wage gap, union negotiated contracts narrow the pay gap between men and women significantly. In fact, a typical woman union member earns $222 a week more than a nonunion working woman. Most industries that are predominantly female like fast food and home health care pay low wages that often don’t even cover the basic necessities of life. These low wages act to keep women’s salaries down in every industry, not just in low wage work.

The tech economy has changed a lot of things — from bitcoin to social media. But, unfortunately, some things have stayed the same. It’s hard to erase sex discrimination with a simple rule change and even harder to improve working conditions when employees aren’t allowed to sit across the table from their boss and negotiate.

But there’s a tried and true remedy to these problems. Why shouldn't the women of Silicon Valley join a union if they want to close the gender pay gap?

And why shouldn't they sit with their male colleagues and raise wages for workers across the board? Or negotiate workplace policies that ensure mothers and fathers are able to succeed at work and take care of their families?

Many high tech workers have already said yes to a collective voice: From NASA engineers to professional, technical and other highly skilled workers at Boeing, and computer scientists and technicians at AT&T. Tech workers have enjoyed the benefits of union membership for decades. Currently groups of Silicon Valley workers such as shuttle drivers are trying to organize to gain a stronger voice on the job.

Even professionals at online blogs like Gawker are unionizing for a voice at work. If workers in new media can do it, anyone can. If people continue to re-imagine what a union can look like in their workplace and adapt the value of collective action to meet modern challenges — perhaps Reddit, too, can think about narrowing the pay gap by helping women and men negotiate better pay and a fair workplace through a union.

***

This has been reposted from Medium.

Liz Shuler is the secretary-treasurer/chief financial officer of the AFL-CIO, one of three top-level officers for the federation and the first-ever woman elected to the position. Coming from Portland, Ore., Liz has been at the forefront of such progressive labor initiatives as green jobs programs and the fight for workers’ rights for many years, starting as a political activist and an organizer at the local union level.

Posted In: Allied Approaches

Union Matters

Powering America

From the USW

From tumbledown bridges to decrepit roads and failing water systems, crumbling infrastructure undermines America’s safety and prosperity. In coming weeks, Union Matters will delve into this neglect and the urgent need for a rebuilding campaign that creates jobs, fuels economic growth and revitalizes communities.

Fierce thunderstorms, heavy snows and unusually powerful hurricanes ravaged America’s fragile power grid and plunged millions into darkness this year.

And even as these natural disasters wreaked havoc across the country, COVID-19 stay-at-home orders sparked a surge in residential electrical demand, placing new stress on a failing system.

A long-overdue overhaul of the nation’s electrical infrastructure would not only ensure America continues functioning during a crisis but help to reinvigorate the pandemic-shattered economy.

Built in the 1950s and 60s, most of America’s electricity transmission and distribution infrastructure lives on borrowed time. Engineers never designed it to withstand today’s increasingly frequent and catastrophic storms fueled by climate change, let alone the threats posed by hackers and terrorists.

To ensure a reliable power supply for homes, schools and businesses, America needs to invest in a more resilient, higher capacity grid.

That means either burying electrical lines or insulating above-ground wires and replacing wooden utility poles with structures made of steel or concrete. Other strategies include creating a battery-storage system to provide backup power, building coastal barriers to protect infrastructure against storm surge and further diversifying into wind and solar production.

Also, a shift toward more localized generation and distribution networks would limit the impact of any one power outage.

Making these upgrades with U.S.-made materials and labor will both stimulate the economy and protect national security. American steelworkers, tradespeople and manufacturing workers have the expertise to build a power grid strong enough to weather whatever storms come America’s way.

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