Union supporters outside a Starbucks store
Union supporters outside a Starbucks store in November © Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

The 2020s have been good to America’s unions. Their memberships, after dwindling to about one in 10 workers, are now on the rise again. And public support for unions reached 67 per cent last year, according to Gallup polling — above the long-term average. Buoyed by this, unions have become more assertive, too, launching strikes, threats of strikes, and campaigns for workplace recognition.

Amid this resurgence, their leaders have also succeeded in attracting more women workers, by providing evidence that unions can deliver economic gains.

That evidence includes US Department of Labor statistics showing that women earn 18 per cent more when represented by a union — although they still generally earn less than men. Unions are what “cuts into that gender pay gap,” argued Liz Shuler, the first woman president of the AFL-CIO union federation, as part of her “State of the Unions” speech last August, ahead of Labor Day.

More now stand to benefit. By 2023, women had only 1 percentage point less union representation than men, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. And, by 2025, the majority of union members in the US will be women, according to a study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a Washington, DC-based think-tank. 

What, then, might these developments do for women in the workplace?

When employees vote for having a union collectively bargain for them, women “are more likely” to vote yes, observes Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations.

But getting to that point is hard. Union representation in the US was roughly 10 per cent of the workforce at the end of 2023, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And securing a vote for union representation where there is none remains challenging. It is harder still to turn that into a contract setting wages, hours and working conditions. This has proved to be the case with many of the recent worker “wins” — at Starbucks and Amazon, for instance. They are still at very early stages

Yet employers are keenly aware of public sentiment, and of some of the social and economic forces that have made women more enthusiastic about unions. Their participation in the workforce has risen, at a time when laws, regulations, and social pressure have increased pay transparency — which has highlighted gender pay gaps.

In addition, unions are organising in sectors dominated by women workers because that is where they are winning, according to Cornell’s Bronfenbrenner.

She says the industries where women are in the majority in the workforce — and where unions have made gains — include healthcare, retail and digital publishing. Since jobs in those industries tend to involve engaging with the public — for example, digital publishing employees are often encouraged to develop social media followings — union leaders have conducted campaigns to generate sympathy from customers for union recognition or strike action. Their aim is to benefit potential members — be they sales assistants, baristas, nurses, or bloggers.

Starbucks, which said in October that its US workforce was just over 70 per cent female, has been the target of a protracted union campaign. In February, following union-favourable publicity and litigation, the coffee chain agreed to begin contract talks.

However, Michael Lotito, co-chair of the Workplace Policy Institute at law firm Littler Mendelson — which advises employers on labour issues, including unionisation — argues that unions will not prevail simply by arguing they can close the gender pay gap.

“People are frustrated, but this is not a male-female issue,” he says. 

But unions’ revived popularity has made this an “urgent” moment for employers, Lotito adds. In the past year, high-profile strikes leading to new contracts — including those by the United Auto Workers and Hollywood screenwriters — have “set a tone for the country that organised labour was back, and that they were serious, and were going to be making gains”.

His advice to employers is to forestall discontent by embracing best practice — which includes identifying and addressing gender pay gaps. “It’s always wise for the employer to audit and understand how their investment in the workforce is, or is not, improving the lives of people, and to make the information transparent,” Lotito says.

Maria Colacurcio, chief executive of Syndio, a consultancy that advises large companies — including Salesforce, Hess and Northern Trust — on pay-equity issues, also urges employers to be transparent. She says this applies to gender gaps on pay and working conditions, and any measures being taken to eliminate those.

It can be particularly important in influencing female employees’ sentiment, she argues. Many “won’t even go to work for a company if the company has not committed to some level or degree of pay equity”, Colacurcio says, warning that “performative statements” do not work if they differ from reality.

She encourages clients to publish gender pay gap data, showing the difference in men’s and women’s average gross hourly earnings. The data, to be truly transparent, should exclude overtime, and be based on pay prior to taxes and Social Security deductions.

If a company is “willing to actually disclose those things, and those things look good, that’s going to be very beneficial to them in terms of women”.

Lotito warns, however, that such efforts require commitment: “The goal should be to be issue-free, to create an environment where the union is irrelevant — and that is an ongoing process.”

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