Women Hold the Keys to New Working-Class Prosperity

Lane Windham Associate Director, Georgetown University’s Kalmanovitz Initiative (K.I.) for Labor and the Working Poor

America rediscovered its working class during the 2016 election, and many Democrats and progressives now call for fresh policies to address the nation’s crisis of bad jobs and stagnant wages. Twenty-first century working-class prosperity, however, must involve a reinvigorated labor movement.   And women, especially women of color, will be more central than ever before.

Pundits and politicians often use “working class” as code for a white guy in a hard hat.  Yet America’s working class is primary female and is disproportionately brown and black.  This is true no matter how we define the working class.

The media usually defines the working class as people without a four-year college degree, which includes two-thirds of Americans. By this measure, women are the majority of the U.S. working class. In fact, 52 percent of people over age 25 without a four-year degree are women, according to census data, and a disproportionate number are women of color. If we describe class by education, people of color will be a majority of the nation’s working class by 2032, earlier than in the overall population.

But is a college degree the best marker of what it means to be working class?    Many people who are high earners don’t have a college degree.  If we use income as our lens, then women still are overrepresented in the working class. Though government data often subsumes women’s earnings within household data, women are disproportionately among America’s lower earners.  A recent GAO report found that though women make up nearly half the nation’s workers, they make up nearly 60 percent of the workers in the lowest wage quintile.  We all know about the wage gap – – the median woman worker is paid 83 cents on every male dollar, and for black and Hispanic women it’s even worse. Even when women and men hold the exact same working-class job – – like as a housekeeper, trucker, or nurse – – men still earn more than women.

Maybe the kind of job you do is the best way to gauge class status. Here again, women are increasingly central.  Eight of the ten occupations with the highest projected job growth by 2024 are women-dominated, working-class jobs, such as personal care and home health aides, nurses, food preparation and serving and retail salespeople. The jobs women hold are at the heart of an economy that is more based on service and finance than on industry.

Perhaps the best way to measure class is to just ask people about their class status.  The Center for Economic and Policy Research recently tabulated data from the General Social Survey that polls Americans about class identification.  While white women and men were equally likely to say they were working class – – about 40 percent made this identification – – a full 56 percent of black women and 62 percent of Hispanic women identified as working class.

Any way you cut it – –  by education, income, job, or class identity – –  the U.S. working class tilts female, and clearly it is not just white.

Today’s workers are women, and they’re also mothers and caregivers. Four in 10 American households with children include a mother who is either the sole or primary wage earner. Yet the nation has not yet dealt with women’s basic issues as workers, and societal and economic structures still assume a male, industrial breadwinner.  Unlike other industrial nations, the U.S. doesn’t have robust child care and family leave policies.  Working-class people often face long hours and unpredictable schedules that are impossible to square with family life.  In most households, women still do most of the cleaning and cooking, doing the double duty of paid work and family caregiving. One recent AFL-CIO report found that women have less than forty minutes a day of personal time after fulfilling all their other responsibilities.

This is why issues that matter for all working families — universal child care and pre-K, paid family leave, free college and guaranteed fair scheduling, affordable housing, and fair wages — are especially important for working-class women.  Wealthier families can afford privatized versions of these essential tools. They can hire nannies, afford unpaid leave, pay for college, and cover the mortgage.  But working-class women are left to fend for themselves in an increasingly precarious economy.

Women are the core of the new working-class, and their concerns make up the nation’s most pressing working-class issues. That’s why women’s leadership – – especially among women of color  — will be critical for a new working-class movement.

This is the goal of a new joint project by Georgetown University’s Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor and Rutgers University’s Center for Innovations in Worker Organization.  WILL Empower (Women Innovating Labor Leadership) will identify, nurture, and train a new generation of women leaders for today’s workers’ movement.  Participants will benefit from training and mentoring, apprenticeships, fellowships, and a public advocacy and research platform.  The project will help seed a new generation of women leaders who can help convene and lead a cross organizational collaboration to mobilize the full potential of today’s working class.

WILL Empower builds on the fact that women are already at the leading edge of the resistance.  With five million global participants, the Women’s March on Washington was perhaps the largest political mobilization in history. Women’s leadership mobilized both men and women to express their outrage at the new political order.  Women have continued to march, huddle, strike, and organize since January, among them legions of young women workers. A Day Without a Woman further spotlighted women’s role in the economy, and working-class women also drove a Day Without Immigrants.

The project will amplify women’s emerging role as the face of the 21st century workers’ movement, a movement that blends traditional unions and “alt-labor” organizations, like workers’ centers and wage campaigns. By 2023, a majority of union members will be female, and women are already leading many of the nation’s largest unions, like the NEA, AFT and SEIU.  Women have been key leaders in new worker organizations, especially young women of color – – like at the National Domestic Workers’ Alliance and the National Taxi Workers’ Alliance.

A newly-mobilized working class could reshape the nation’s economic and political landscape. Yet in order to build a winning movement for these times, working-class women’s issues and leadership must be front and center to progressive core strategies, policies and organizations.   Women, it seems, hold the keys to the way forward.

***

Reposted from Working-Class Perspectives

Posted In: Allied Approaches, From Center for Working-Class Studies

Union Matters

Get to Know AFL-CIO's Affiliates: National Association of Letter Carriers

From the AFL-CIO

Next up in our series that takes a deeper look at each of our affiliates is the National Association of Letter Carriers.

Name of Union: National Association of Letter Carriers (NALC)

Mission: To unite fraternally all city letter carriers employed by the U.S. Postal Service for their mutual benefit; to obtain and secure rights as employees of the USPS and to strive at all times to promote the safety and the welfare of every member; to strive for the constant improvement of the Postal Service; and for other purposes. NALC is a single-craft union and is the sole collective-bargaining agent for city letter carriers.

Current Leadership of Union: Fredric V. Rolando serves as president of NALC, after being sworn in as the union's 18th president in 2009. Rolando began his career as a letter carrier in 1978 in South Miami before moving to Sarasota in 1984. He was elected president of Branch 2148 in 1988 and served in that role until 1999. In the ensuing years, he worked in various roles for NALC before winning his election as a national officer in 2002, when he was elected director of city delivery. In 2006, he won election as executive vice president. Rolando was re-elected as NALC president in 2010, 2014 and 2018.

Brian Renfroe serves as executive vice president, Lew Drass as vice president, Nicole Rhine as secretary-treasurer, Paul Barner as assistant secretary-treasurer, Christopher Jackson as director of city delivery, Manuel L. Peralta Jr. as director of safety and health, Dan Toth as director of retired members, Stephanie Stewart as director of the Health Benefit Plan and James W. “Jim” Yates as director of life insurance.

Number of Members: 291,000 active and retired letter carriers.

Members Work As: City letter carriers.

Industries Represented: The United States Postal Service.

History: In 1794, the first letter carriers were appointed by Congress as the implementation of the new U.S. Constitution was being put into effect. By the time of the Civil War, free delivery of city mail was established and letter carriers successfully concluded a campaign for the eight-hour workday in 1888. The next year, letter carriers came together in Milwaukee and the National Association of Letter Carriers was formed.

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There is Dignity in All Work

There is Dignity in All Work