History has long been portrayed as a series of “great men” taking great action to shape the world we live in. In recent decades, however, social historians have focused more on looking at history “from the bottom up,” studying the vital role that working people played in our heritage. Working people built, and continue to build, the United States. In our new series, Pathway to Progress, we’ll take a look at various people, places and events where working people played a key role in the progress our country has made, including those who are making history right now. Today’s topic is the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) of 1978.
In the late 1970s, conditions in the United States were ripe for positive change for working families. Jimmy Carter and a pro-union majority in Congress were pushed by active and organized civil rights and women’s movements. Labor unions were ready to push for change.
In 1976, the Supreme Court ruled in General Electric v. Gilbert that employers could refuse benefits to pregnant women. The case was brought by the International Union of Electrical Radio and Machine Workers and after the court ruled against them, unions were inspired to fight harder. At the 1977 convention of the UAW a resolution declaring that “women’s issues are also UAW issues” and pushing for stronger benefits related to affirmative action, child care and maternity. A special emphasis was placed on protecting the rights of pregnant workers. The UAW, AFL-CIO, Communications Workers of America (CWA) and the Women’s Law Project joined with other unions, civil rights organizations and women’s right’s groups in order to secure passage of Pregnancy Discrimination Act, which passed in 1978.
After passage, it was important to get employers to actually respect the law’s provisions. Unions had the built-in infrastructure to reach the on-the-ground worksites across the country. The first step was for unions to begin including the protections of the PDA into collective bargaining agreements. This included member and employer education, the remedying violations through grievance procedures and other measures. UAW negotiated with the Big Three automakers in order to secure these benefits and others. Once the Big Three were on board, the changes began to spread to other companies in the industry and beyond.
When the PDA passed, it essentially gave pregnant workers the same rights and benefits as workers with disabilities. Unions made sure that collective bargaining agreements reflected this. That meant that workers got access to paid sick leave and insurance and the option to lighter-duty work. These benefits were scarce at nonunion worksites, except that, no matter where one works, they could no longer be fired for pregnancy. Workers and nonunion workplaces attempted to get the measures of the PDA implemented, but often faced resistance from local management, who clung to stereotypes about women workers and pregnant women.
The UAW and other unions used internal communications, workshops and labor education programs to teach union leaders and shop stewards about the law and its ability to protect working women. Across the country, people were trained to take on the cause of their pregnant colleagues, stand up to management and pursue grievances or strikes to establish the rights included in the law.
The Coalition of Labor Union Women (CLUW), which formed in 1974, had included the PDA as one of its goals from inception. CLUW members came together to figure out how to convince male union leaders to support the law. This effort was instrumental in pushing back against challenges against the law both from within the labor movement and without.
In her summary of union efforts in support of the passage and implementation of the PDA, author Judith A. Scott said that the story of the passage of the PDA “is the story of how the empowerment of working women and collective action were crucial to improving workplace culture and practices for pregnant workers…and why those same factors are necessary today if we are to dramatically better the lives of working women. Through their unions, women workers can assert collective strength to win workplace improvements at the bargaining table and in the legislative arena through effective political campaigning.”
Source: “Why a Union Voice Makes a Real Difference for Women Workers: Then and Now,” by Judith A. Scott.
This blog originally appeared at AFL-CIOon April 15, 2021. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Kenneth Quinnell is a long-time blogger, campaign staffer and political activist whose writings have appeared on AFL-CIO, Daily Kos, Alternet, the Guardian Online, Media Matters for America, Think Progress, Campaign for America’s Future and elsewhere.