Why Feminists Should Be Fighting to Save Unions

Sarah Jaffe knocks it out of the park with her expansive critique of modern feminism’s blindness to the economic hardships facing most women today. While prominent feminist figures and media sources are preoccupied with conversations about the undervaluing of women in power, for example, the dearth of women presidential appointees, Jaffe says that the real concerns of most women are far more pressing: the economic instability of “pink collar” jobs. Jaffe cites the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law: “Women make up just under half of the national workforce, but about 60% of the minimum-wage workforce and 73% of tipped workers”. 

The answer to the growing gendered economic inequality outlined so proficiently by Jaffe?  Save the unions.  

Domestic workers, as well as those in the service industry and the sectors that “pay poverty wages“ are disproportionately women, and like 88% of the American workforce, they aren’t unionized. 

The labor movement has a ways to go in terms of embracing women in unions, but the feminist silence on unions is more concerning considering the strife unions are currently facing and the number of women impacted greatly by economic inequality. Jaffe traces the long shared history of the labor movement and the feminist movement, acknowledging a historical divide between the suffragists and the “labor” feminists of the early 20century. Women have long been involved with the labor movement, and today many prominent leaders in labor, including the president of the SEIU, Mary Kay Henry, are women. (Henry also identifies as a lesbian.) However, the feminist movement, primarily “professional feminists,” as Jaffe calls them, does little to join forces with labor. 

The attacks on unions across the country in 2012, including Michigan’s "right to work" laws and the hard won fight of the Chicago Teacher's Union against the School Board shows that that unions are facing more adversaries than ever and are in need of advocates. Of course, domestic workers and many of those in the service industry lack a union presence, though that is changing as service workers like fast food employees in Times Square begin to demand their rights. The feminist luminaries currently silent are just the people who should be fighting for them.

Jaffe alludes to the 1.5 million women that sued Wal-Mart in a class action on the grounds of gender discrimination. It was an incredible step towards fighting gendered labor practices, but in that case, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Wal-Mart. Greater action that unites those fighting for labor and women’s issues must be taken. As Jaffe shows us, they are one issue.

What Jaffe refers to as “the feminist press” has not yet responded significantly to her piece. Will this article galvanize the feminist movement (if one cares to classify it as a homogeneous unit) into rallying around labor rights?