Why women may be the new face of labor unions

Given the steep drop in the percentage of workers in a union, organized labor has clearly had a tough decade.

Yet within those numbers is a surprising trend: The share of working women who are union members is holding relatively steady, giving women a rising share of representation within the labor movement. Last year, more than 45 percent of all union members were women, a share that jumped from just one-third in 1984, according to a recent report from the Institute for Women's Policy Research.

The changing face of the labor movement has come slowly over the past few decades, led by changes in male-dominated sectors and a push in some traditionally female occupations to unionize. For instance, some industries that males have heavily dominated, such as manufacturing, have been shedding jobs. It's possible that women could represent a majority of unionized workers by 2025, noted Ariane Hegewisch, study director at the Institute for Women's Policy Research (IWPR).

"Unions have been very active in trying to improve labor rights in the low-wage labor market such as restaurants or car washes or to some extent retail. But really what we're seeing is that men have been working in fields where unionization has fallen," Hegewisch said. "What you see is the outcome of shifts in the composition of employment."

Women are more likely to be unionized than men in seven states, including Vermont, California, Massachusetts and New York, her research found. In New York, more than one in four women employees are covered by a union contract.

However, despite the growing share of union jobs, women still aren't as likely as men to hold leadership roles in unions, the IWPR study noted. About 18 percent of the AFL-CIO's executive council are women, while about one-quarter of the international vice presidents of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal America are women, the study found. Only about 43 percent of American Federation of Teachers' vice presidents are women, despite women's dominance of the teaching industry.

Of course, the gender gap in leadership roles is prevalent across American corporations: Women hold only 4.6 percent of CEO roles at S&P 500 companies.

Even though women's leadership roles in unions is lagging overall representation, many unions are championing causes that are especially important to women and families, such as equal pay and affordable child care, the IWPR said.

"Unions are more aware of issues such as the need for paid sick days and paid leave, and they are pushing that because they have more women members," Hegewisch said.

Aside from promoting family-friendly policies, unions are providing another benefit for women employees: closing the pay gap. Women represented by labor unions earn 88.7 cents on the dollar compared with their male co-workers, which easily beats the U.S. average of 78 cents for women. Women in union jobs make about 31 percent more than women who aren't in unionized job. For men, that difference is about 21 percent.

"Equal pay is also a big issue for women and men," she added. "The wage gap doesn't disappear for unionized workers, but it's lower, and there is greater transparency if you work for a union employer."