Today is International Women’s Day and a new report points out that while all workers gain through union membership, women gain a lot more. A new report released by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) shows the global pay gap is 22 percent, but women who belong to unions earn more than nonunion women and receive better pay relative to their male co-workers. Click here to read the entire report.
Teresa Griffin, a member of UAW Local 1247 in Hagerstown, Md., has lived the union difference. As a single mother supporting two children, she was making $9 an hour in 1993 working for a small pension plan administration firm. A year later, she was laid off, and took a job with her former firm’s biggest client making $7 an hour. It took her five years to get a $1 an hour raise. When her supervisor asked the company to give her a 25-cents increase, management refused.
A week later, Griffin was hired by Mack Trucks Inc. and became a union member for the first time. Her starting salary was $12 an hour, 50 percent more than her last job. Griffin says:
When I gave my resignation, I was called into the office and asked what it would take to keep me because they didn’t want to lose me. My reply was straight to the point: “Last week I wasn’t worth a quarter and now I’m worth an additional $4. It took me five years to earn [a] $1 [increase], so how long will I have to work to earn another increase?”
Or take Carla Buschjost, who for 10 years was barely able to make ends meet working for a nonunion plumbing company. But when she moved to a union mechanical shop and became a member of the Sheet Metal Workers (SMWIA), her life changed.
She was so passionate about the union that she became a SMWIA organizer for three years. Last month she was named as director of labor standards for the Missouri Department of Labor and Industrial Relations. Buschjost will oversee the division’s worker safety sections as well as the state’s child labor and prevailing wage laws.
Wow! What belonging to a union can do.
The outlook for U.S. working women to close the pay gap got much better in January when President Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act that strengthens women’s right to gain equal pay for equal work.
That’s good news to Vera Newton. In her first job with a retailer, she trained new workers only to find out that the men she trained earned more than she did. After taking a new job at a local bank, the Louisville, Ky., resident had to fight to get a decent salary. Even though she had a management title of assistant cashier, her pay was only $18,000 a year after five years on the job. She says:
I am grateful of the learning experience I obtained in banking, but I could not pay my rent with a just a title. I could not eat with just a title nor could I afford to pay for my son’s college tuition with just a title.
In 1989, she took a job at the Ford Motor Co. assembly plant in Louisville and her salary tripled. Her quality of life changed immediately, says Newton, a member of UAW Local 862.
Griffin agrees that unions can make a big difference in the quality of life.
Union membership has made it possible for me to buy a home in a good neighborhood with a good school and environment, have better health insurance, and provide a better life for my children.
Not only does joining a union mean better pay and benefits, all three women say it has opened up new opportunities to grow. Newton and Griffin are members of the Coalition of Labor Union Women (CLUW), an AFL-CIO constituency group and have become active in their unions and community. Griffin recently became the first woman elected as president of the Central Maryland Labor Council.
Eileen Muller, president of AFSCME Local 1482/Brooklyn Library Guild, says being a union member has meant the opportunity for her to go to college and become a librarian. After she left her job as a bagel maker at a family friend’s bakery, she went back to school through a partnership between AFSCME District Council 37 and a local college. Taking classes for a reduced rate, she earned her degree. She says:
The union has afforded me wonderful opportunities to really develop as a person. I never was much of a public speaker, but yesterday I stood up and spoke to a rally of thousands of people protesting cuts in the city budge. I never thought I would have the ability to do that before I joined the union.
Newton says joining a union “opened up a new world.”
I was able to travel, meet new people and express my opinions. In my old job, if you spoke your mind, you were fired.
These women are making the union message a part of their family traditions as well. Newton’s son is now a member of the Electrical Workers and Griffin’s 16-year-old daughter goes with her to central labor council meetings every month.
As Griffin says:
For me, being a union member is something you work at. It’s about “we” not “me.” Union activism has become my passion and I thank God every day that I was given this opportunity.