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Women, minorities now account for more than half of union membership in US

It's not just 'white men on a factory floor'

Antoinette Miles, digital media associate, Communications Workers of America.-(AARON HOUSTON)

Recent figures from the U.S. Department of Labor indicate unemployment for African-American and Hispanic workers are at record lows — 6.5 percent for blacks, and 4.5 percent for Hispanics/Latinos — as of the third quarter.

Recent figures from the U.S. Department of Labor indicate unemployment for African-American and Hispanic workers are at record lows — 6.5 percent for blacks, and 4.5 percent for Hispanics/Latinos — as of the third quarter.

What’s behind the low numbers can be debated: President Trump and his supporters say it reflects his fresh policies, while others say the numbers started changing under former President Obama. But some academics and others also point to labor unions, which they point to having helped to blaze a path of upward mobility for some underserved population segments.

When Antoinette Miles graduated from Fairleigh Dickinson University in 2012 with a degree in political science and a stack of college debt, her career outlook was hazy. “I initially worked on some political campaigns, then worked part-time for a small retailer for a couple of years as a cashier, then [as] an inventory associate stocking shelves and setting up the store’s floor plan,” she said. “I was being paid minimum wage and wasn’t getting any employer health or other benefits.”

To supplement her income, Miles took on some freelance Web design work — “I was self-taught and set up my own website when I was 12” — but she was still living a hand-to-mouth existence until about three years ago, when she got a job as digital media associate with the Communications Workers of America, a union that represents 700,000 workers in private- and public-sector employment in the U.S., Canada and Puerto Rico.

A new kind of organizing

Proportionately fewer people than ever belong to unions, according to federal statistics. In 2017, 10.7 percent of the workforce was unionized, just over half of the 20.1 percent figure posted in 1983, the first year for which comparable union data are available, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Some issues, like the gig economy and employer resistance, are putting pressure on union organizing. “In response, more people are forming ‘worker associations’ that aren’t formal unions but act as advocacy groups,” according to Dorothy Sue Cobble, a distinguished professor in the Department of Labor Studies and Employment Relations and Department of History at Rutgers University’s School of Management and Labor Relations. “These advocacy organizations include the National Domestic Workers Alliance and ROC (Restaurant Opportunities Centers United).”

The National Domestic Workers Alliance — which has affiliates in Freehold, New Brunswick and Morristown — advocates on behalf of housekeepers, nannies, elder care providers and other workers. ROC United focuses on wages and working conditions for the nation’s restaurant workforce.

Still, “the talk about the decline of unions may be exaggerated,” Cobble added. About 17 percent of employees in New Jersey are represented by unions, according to federal statistics. “There’s considerable union strength in states like New Jersey, particularly in the public sector, where about 60 percent of New Jersey public sector workers are represented by a union,” she said.

 “As a young African-American woman, being a union member has given me economic security,” said Miles. “We live in a time when CEO pay, executive pay and corporate profits are increasing, but the middle class is diminishing. Being part of a union that represents me as a CWA worker has given me a voice on my job and economic security that a lot of people in my age and demographic do not have.”

Unions no longer represent “just white men on a factory floor,” according to Yana van der Meulen Rodgers, a professor and undergraduate director of women’s and gender studies in Rutgers’ School of Arts and Sciences, and professor of labor studies and employment relations in the School of Management and Labor Relations. “Women now account for almost half of union membership, so we’re seeing more of a focus on women and family issues, like paid sick leave.”

She said there tends to be “more transparency in the workplace when a union contract is present, which helps to reduce gender and race bias. Additionally, unions advocate for a higher minimum wage — which disproportionately affects women and minority workers — which offers them more spending power while helping to close the gender wage gap. In fact if New Jersey raised its minimum wage to $15 an hour, women would account for 52 percent of those who would benefit.”

Rodgers referenced a February study by the nonprofit Institute for Women’s Policy Research that found unionized women working full-time have median weekly earnings of $942, about 30 percent higher than the $723 weekly earnings for nonunion women workers.

“For all of the major racial and ethnic groups of women, median earnings are higher when comparing full-time workers in unions with full-time nonunion workers,” according to the IWPR study. “The earnings advantage is largest for Hispanic women. Nonunion Hispanic women have the lowest earnings of any racial-ethnic group of women, $565 weekly, but Hispanic women in unions earn $264 more weekly, a 47 percent increase, than those who are not.”

Unions provide “on-ramps and mentoring for people who have been excluded from certain industries due to race and gender discrimination,” according to Sheri Davis-Faulkner, the senior program director of WILL Empower in the Rutgers Center for Innovation in Worker Organization. “For example, union apprenticeships enable women to train in typically male-dominated fields such as the building trades. Unions also support second-chance hiring, language courses for non-English speakers and local resident employment-community benefits agreements.”

For more than a century, unions have offered apprenticeship and outreach programs, added Richard Tolson, the Bordentown-based director of the Bricklayers & Allied Craftworkers Administrative District Council of New Jersey. “Our organization has a diverse membership, and we go into communities, civic and religious, and other places to reach them. We offer good opportunities for minorities and others: good wages, health care and other benefits, retirement funds, and training opportunities. Our doors are open, and we offer a career, not just a job.”

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