By MARY ANN HOLLEY
St. Louis – Looking for an intersection where labor and women can work together for a common cause, some the big names of the ’60s Women’s Movement, women who collectively fought for and made change as the National Organization of Women (NOW) and activists of today met at the Renaissance Grand Hotel last month.
The 300 predominately female activists included representatives from Jobs With Justice, Workers United, labor unions, state and local lawmakers and the AFL-CIO, joining together for a day-long conference, “Labor and the Women’s Movement,” hosted by Veteran Feminists of America, to talk, listen, teach and bring home the point that Organized Labor and the Women’s Movement have worked together for decades, even if no one noticed.
“I don’t see the Women’s Movement in the past, and I don’t see the labor movement as something separate,” said Emily La Barbera Twarog, an assistant professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, School of Labor and Employment. “I see examples of how labor and the Women’s Movement have intersected in working to make lives better for working families. We need to look at how far we’ve come and how far we need to go and come together for change. We need to use that intersection.”
Twarog is the former president of the Graduate Employment Organization of United Auto Workers Local 2322, and has worked over the years as everything from a line cook to a community organizer with the Campaign for Labor Rights and Jobs.
She and others at the conference talked about the accomplishments of the early days of the Women’s Movement, during the ’60s and ’70s, reminding everyone how there was a time when women could not have a credit card in their own name and were restricted to the jobs such secretary, nurse or school teacher. They talked about the work that had to be done to change business policies to allow women to work at commissioned sales jobs previously restricted to men.
“We need to find new ways to introduce imaginative feminism into the arena… know the importance of getting involved in politics” and “talk about why labor unions are important,” Twarog said.
ORGANIZING FOR CHANGE
Muriel Fox, co-founder and public relations chair of NOW in 1966, and Mary Anne Sedey, founder of the St. Louis chapter of NOW, and founder and president of the Missouri ERA Coalition recalled how it was the Women’s Movement that spurred Congress to pass the Equal Pay Act making it illegal for employers to pay a woman less than a man for doing the same job, and about gains in college admission standards, which once limited the number of women accepted.
Today, Sedey is a prominent St. Louis area attorney, described by the St. Louis Business Journal as “most feared in corporate boardrooms.”
The Women’s Movement played a pivotal role in passing:
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits employment discrimination based on sex, giving women the ability to challenge the actions of employers or potential employers.
- The Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978, prohibiting discrimination against employees on the basis of pregnancy or childbirth.
- The Equal Credit Opportunity Act, which forbids discrimination in the extension of credit on the basis of sex or marital status.
- Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, prohibiting sex discrimination in educational institutions receiving federal financial assistance. Title IX revolutionized women’s collegiate athletics, forcing colleges and universities to fund women’s athletics at a level comparable to men’s athletics and stopped exclusion from sports on the basis of gender.
At age 29, Carmen Berkeley, Civil, Human and Women’s Rights Director at the AFL-CIO, is the youngest person ever employed by the federation. She has been involved in a wide range of advocacy groups and was introduced as “a voice for the future in a time of right-wing attacks on labor.”
“So many people don’t see the labor movement as the largest Women’s Movement organization in the world, but today women are breadwinners, and for many women, labor and the Women’s Movement is not a unique conversation,” Berkeley said. “Moving forward has to be rooted in collective bargaining.”
NEW WAYS TO WORK TOGETHER
Sarita Gupta, executive director of Jobs With Justice (JwJ), said labor and the Women’s Movement need to develop new ways to work together to make a better country for working men and women.
In today’s economy, Gupta said, there are 7.2 million women workers holding low-wage jobs with erratic schedules and a scarcity of benefits. She said JwJ has partnered with Our Walmart workers who are now collaborating with NOW and other organizations to improve their working conditions.
In the low-paying, female dominated care sector, a field that is growing at an astronomical rate as the Baby Boom generation enters retirement age, the median salary for a home health care worker is $16,000, Gupta said, causing them to rely on food stamps and other government supports just to get by.
“These workers need good, quality jobs with career ladders,” Gupta said.
Support is also growing for tipped workers, such as waitresses, who earn only 50 percent of the minimum wage without their tips.
The federal standard is just above $2-an-hour, Gupta said. And it has remained that low since 1991.