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Women Are Taking Over the U.S. Labor Movement

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Chabeli Carrazana

As she considered striking at the grocery store where she had worked for a decade, the dozens of moments that had pushed Ashley Manning to that point flooded back. 

She vividly recalled the indignities she endured throughout the pandemic, starting with child care. When schools shut down, no one could watch her 12-year-old daughter. She wouldn’t allow her elderly grandmother, Ruby, to do it, fearing she would get sick. And her store, a Ralphs in San Pedro, California, where she is the manager of the floral department, refused to work with her schedule, she said. 

No one can cover you, she said they told her. Your contract is for six days a week, we need you six days a week.

Unable to work and care for her daughter, she burned through three months of unpaid leave at the end of 2020 as she waited for in-person school to resume. When she came back, the store was in disarray. Managers were not enforcing mask mandates or limits on the number of people in the store, she said. Customers were spitting at employees. There were no plexiglass barriers up.

By then, Manning’s grandmother had started caring for her daughter — they were out of options, schools were still closed and Manning had no leave left to take. So when one of them got COVID-19 in the summer of 2021 — they still aren’t sure who got it first — Manning’s entire family got sick. Manning was hospitalized for two days, her mother for two weeks, her grandmother for three weeks. Her daughter got sick, too. 

“The only thing that [work] could do while I was gone was keep calling me: ?‘What day are you coming back to work?’” said Manning, 32.  “It wasn’t, ‘Are you feeling good’ It wasn’t, ‘Do you feel better?’ It wasn’t, ‘We can make adjustments.’ It wasn’t any of those things.” 

On August 13, Manning’s grandmother died alone in the intensive care unit at a hospital in Los Angeles, two days before Manning’s birthday. No family or friends were able to see her before she passed. 

“Until this day, it could be my fault that she’s not here,” Manning said. “I look at it that way because I was the one who was working at the grocery store.” 

Manning still carried that wound with her when she considered striking against Kroger, Ralphs’ parent company. The stress of her grandmother’s death and everything that came before it led Manning to take short-term disability from work for five months. When she returned early this year, negotiations between the union that represents her and 47,000 workers at several other Kroger-owned grocery stores in Southern and Central California were beginning to deteriorate. Their contract was up and both parties were far apart in the negotiations, which included demands for raises to account for cost of living and inflation increases over the last three years.

Kroger’s first offer: a 60 cent hourly raise.

By late March, 95 percent of workers who voted agreed to authorize a strike, Manning among them. Most of those workers were women, many of them women of color or single mothers like Manning, who were entering into the fight with their employer fueled by two years of turmoil that hit them — and, critically, their families — the hardest. 

Over the course of the pandemic, the majority of essential workers were women. The majority of those who lost their jobs in the pandemic were women. The majority of those who faced unstable care situations for their children and their loved ones were women. 

And now the majority of those organizing their workplaces are women. 

Kroger workers are part of a surge in organizing led by women, women of color and low-wage workers impelled by this once-in-a-century pandemic. Many said they feel the pandemic has unmasked the hypocrisy of some employers — they were “essential” workers until their employers stopped offering protections on the job, good pay and commensurate benefits.

Among them, a deep recalibration is happening, dredging up questions about why they work, for whom, and how that work serves them and their families. For many it’s the chance to define the future of work. 

“Most women are carrying their families on their backs,” Manning said. “We feel disposable. Everybody is enraged.” 

Over the past decade, about 60 percent of newly organizing workers have been women. Women now are also the faces of some of the largest labor movements in years, including the baristas who have unionized over a dozen Starbucks since late 2021, the bakery workers who recently went on strike for four months to secure their first union contract, the call center workers — mostly women of color — who went on strike in Mississippi, and the 17,000 Etsy sellers who went on strike last month to combat transaction fee increases.

All of those movements, most of them happening in companies and even industries for the first time, are ending a disparity that has long existed between men and women in union organization. In 2021, the gender gap in union representation reached its narrowest point since the data started being tracked in the early 1980s by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. About 10.6 percent of men are members of a union, compared to 9.9 percent of women; in 1983, the first year data was available, it was 24.7 percent of men and 14.6 percent of women. (BLS does not collect data on nonbinary people.) 

For women, unions can be a pathway to equal pay. Studies have found that unionization tends to benefit women more than men, eliminating factors that fuel pay disparity such as secrecy around salaries and societal barriers that discourage women from negotiating pay and benefits.

While union membership has waned in recent decades and was slightly down in 2021 compared to 2020, moments of upheaval have in the past turned into opportunities for women to organize. Take the suffrage movement and the Triangle Shirtwaist fire that killed 146 largely young immigrant women in New York in 1911, the wave of women entering the workforce during and after World War II, and the women’s liberation movement in the late 1960s and ?‘70s that helped women join the workforce en masse. Each of those moments changed the course of women’s involvement in the workforce, helping to pass the 19th Amendmentincrease union membership and pass equal pay legislation.

The pandemic, which set off the first women’s recession, might be that next catalyst, said Jennifer Sherer, the senior state policy coordinator at the Economic Policy Institute, a progressive think tank. 

“It feels like we are living through potentially another one of those moments, where the public and media are awake at a different level right now because of the activity in multiple sectors,” Sherer said. 

The shift happening now comes along with a critical change in leadership at the nation’s major unions. After the death of former AFL-CIO president and prominent national union leader Richard Trumka in 2021, longtime labor leader Liz Shuler took over as president?—?marking the first time a woman took the helm of the largest and most powerful federation of labor unions in the country. 

“As work is changing, as the workforce is changing, we are going to be changing with it,” Shuler told The 19th. ?“Coming out of COVID-19, work is looking differently. That’s why the labor movement is so sorely needed: to show workers that they have a voice and a place in that change.”

The pandemic was a conduit, she said: It allowed women workers to bring up issues that had long plagued them — caregiving, family, health — that had long been treated as niche topics. 

“This has been building for a long time, and the pandemic really brought to the surface all of the issues that women have been fighting for and advocating for for a long time,” Shuler said. 

Mary Kay Henry, who in 2010 became the first woman to head the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) — the second-largest industry union after the Education Association of the United States — said this moment feels like a turning point. It gets at the very core of the role women play in communities, families and the workplace. 

“Women leaders in the worksite and of organizations like mine are leading a fundamental reorganization of power that isn’t just about our workplace, but is about our communities. And for us, it’s reflected in the demand to be respected, protected and paid,” said Henry, who still runs SEIU.

Taken in the broader context of the rise of the #MeToo movement, the dismantling of care and the ping ponging value of the essential workforce, the reasons for organizing are more gendered now, said Sarita Gupta, co-author of “The Future We Need: Organizing for Democracy in the Twenty-First Century.” 

“In years past, issues like sexual harassment — that’s not in the bargaining agreement,” Gupta said. “How we think about these movements is not to the side of what a worker movement is, but actually integrated into the worker movement.”

Kathy Finn, the secretary-treasurer of the union representing the Kroger workers in California, has been organizing workers long enough to remember when they held what was then the longest grocery store strike in history, a four-and-a-half-month long ordeal from 2003 to 2004. Then, a grocery store job used to be a career that could support a family, Finn said. Over the past several decades, those jobs have increasingly become part-time positions with lower pay and limited benefits, a result of cost-cutting measures driven by competition, automation and decreased union participation.

Now, many moms — particularly single moms — at grocery stores feel like their employers are actively working against their needs as parents. The majority of the union’s bargaining committee is women for the first time. 

“It definitely feels very different right now,” Finn said. 

This is partly because low-income workers, mostly women, have more power to speak up about the support they need from employers. When Manning was away from work after her grandmother’s death, the tenor of the phone calls she received from her bosses had changed from when she was sick last year, she said. They couldn’t find anyone qualified to fill her spot. 

When are you coming back, she said they’d ask. We know your grandmother took care of your daughter, we can work with your schedule. We can make adjustments, they said. 

Manning returned to Ralphs because she didn’t have the option not to, but something snapped into focus for her. Her value, she said, felt conditional. 

As she voted to strike, Manning thought of her grandmother, who never once made her question her self-worth. When Manning tried to start her own floral business, it was her grandmother who encouraged her to pursue it, who got a shed built in her backyard to house Manning’s dream. 

“I feel like she’s on board with me, this is where you need to be,” Manning said. 

A couple weeks after the vote, Manning, who is on the bargaining committee, was able to help secure a historic agreement that increases hours for part-time employers, improves pension benefits and creates health and safety councils at each store — most of the demands they had been seeking. 

The wage increase won’t be cents. It’ll be $4.25 an hour. 

This reckoning was forged on the shop floor, through conversations between women in workplaces that once didn’t welcome them at all. 

In the 1990s, when women’s labor force participation was peaking in the United States — it has stalled since — women were joining industries long dominated by men. Unionization for a lot of women meant organizing to secure basic rights. Sanchioni Butler, who at the time worked at a Ford plant in Carrollton, Texas, recalled the moment when the few women at the auto plant joined together to help improve the conditions of the women’s bathroom so they would have somewhere to sit during breaks or during their menstrual cycles. 

“We got improvements by sticking together,” Butler said in “The Future We Need: Organizing for Democracy in the Twenty-First Century.” “…When we fought for a shower and couch in the women’s bathroom, that was our women’s movement.”

It seemed then like the only way to improve conditions in a vacuum of federal policy. The Paycheck Fairness Act, for example, which aims to close loopholes in pay discrimination laws, was first proposed around the time Butler was fighting for a couch in the women’s bathroom. It still has not passed.

“If we’re trying to strengthen and improve women’s position in the workforce, the idea of allowing and creating platforms for women to be able to negotiate their conditions, both through a union as well as through community-based, worker-led standards boards, for some of these essential sectors — that’s a start,” said Erica Smiley, co-author of “The Future We Need.” 

That nascent start has blossomed into more. In 2011, The New York Times ran “Redefining the Union Boss,” a piece about the women, including SEIU’s Henry, who were heading up major unions and rekindling a hope that their leadership could drive a comeback in unionization after years of reduced membership. 

In the decade since, the number of women represented by a union started rising again, peaking in 2015. And the numbers don’t break out evenly across race. Union membership has been rising steadily for Latinas, the group with the largest gender pay gap in the country, while it’s leveled out or decreased for other groups. Since 2010, the number of Latinas represented by unions has risen by 31 percent. But by 2021, rates across the board were back near where they were in 2011. 

Still, those numbers mask the amount of organization in 2021, which may not be reflected in statistics for several years. It often takes years to negotiate a union contract and get counted under those figures, and the upswell in organizing now is happening in workplaces that are at the very beginning of that process, workplaces that likely spent a part of 2021 disaggregated and diffuse. 

“People are having to overcome a set of obstacles in their daily lives like never before. They’ve lost loved ones and haven’t been able to properly bury them or grieve them because of the COVID pandemic,” Henry said. “They are dealing with staffing shortages and lack of health and safety, but are persevering and organizing on a scale that I’ve never seen before.” 

Those obstacles have led people to demand responses from companies that actually reach down to the lowest wage workers, not just talk about them, said Gupta, who is also the vice president of U.S. programs at the Ford Foundation. 

“These strikes matter because they are just saying, ‘You can’t just talk about [diversity, equity and inclusion] in your corporate boardroom. What are the other ways you are going to support my ability to stay in the labor force?’” Gupta said. 

Some employers are hearing that message, said Maria Colacurcio, the CEO of Syndio Systems, a platform that works with more than 200 companies, including 10 percent of the Fortune 200, to identify racial and gender pay gaps and improve pay bands and benefits for employees. 

Those conversations have changed, she said. Three years ago “they were like, ‘I’m just here to reduce my risk of a pay equity class action.’ Now 99 percent of our customers are looking at some racial comparison. And I really do think it’s because of the pressure that’s come out of this movement from employees around: This isn’t a gender problem. This is workplace equity, without regard to gender, race, ethnicity, disability, age.” 

High-profile union drives, like the one led by Starbucks workers, are forcing employers to think more proactively about what they can offer workers beyond higher pay. 

“It’s not a flash in the pan — there are also things getting embedded that are going to force it to be long-term,” Colacurcio said. “It’s really difficult to undo once you’ve opened the windows.” 

And yet, being a woman leader in a movement that has rarely allowed women to lead, has dredged up for many why this has taken so long. 

Kim Cordova, the first woman president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 7 in Colorado, saw it first hand this year when she faced negotiators on behalf of Kroger, the parent company of 8,000 grocery store employees in Boulder, Parker and the Denver area her union represents. It was her fight in Colorado that set the stage for what the California workers were recently able to do.

But those negotiations were dripping with gendered vitriol. 

She was that woman to them.

“It’s tough being a union president but it’s tougher being a female president,” Cordova said. “You have to speak louder than everybody in the room, you have to earn your respect that way — you have to fight for it. I’m a double whammy: I’m Latina and I’m a female.”

The corporate negotiators went over her head, she said, reaching out to male lawyers instead of her during the negotiations. 

“I am the chief spokesperson, I am the negotiator. I had to send a letter saying, ‘You need to send your questions to me,’” Cordova said. 

The fight led to a 10-day strike in the January cold, after which workers secured hourly raises as high as $5.99, unheard of, she said. “We’ve seen raises to the right of the decimal point, cents not dollars.” The new agreement also addressed the two-tier pay structure that led the men who dominated meat departments to earn more than the women in the lower-paid grocery jobs.

Cordova said the movement of the past three years has been “a career-defining moment” for her after 37 years with a union. 

It feels fierce enough to last. 

“This is our year, this is our time,” Cordova said. “I don’t think they are going anywhere backward.” 

The Kroger strike in Colorado inspired the workers in California. Many of the problems are the same: stagnant wages, lax health and safety precautions, and people who feel like they have been pushed to the edge of what they can endure. 

In Beverly Hills, Pavilions grocery store cashier Christie Sasaki remembers how hard the strikes in 2003 and 2004 were, but it felt last month like there was no option left. She is often doing the job of two or more people. Her wages have maxed out at $22.50 an hour after 32 years at Pavilions. She has nothing saved for retirement and three quarters of her paycheck goes to her rent, a 2 bedroom apartment she shares with her teenage daughter and a roommate she took on to help offset the cost. 

“I would like one day to have the American dream — to be able to retire,” said Sasaki, 54. “After almost 33 years, I don’t think I can. It brings a tear to my eye because I would like to be able to go on vacation, I would like to go out to eat.” 

Her only opportunity, she said, is to get the best contract she can for herself and her colleagues. She spoke directly to Kroger’s representatives about those struggles in meetings earlier this year, surrounded for the first time by the women who have worked with her shoulder-to-shoulder.

“During the bargaining committee, my entire table,” she said, “is female.” 

This story was originally published by The 19th on July 5th, 2022. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Chabeli Carrazana is an Economy Reporter at The 19th.


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The Hidden Labor of Sex Work

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We’re back with Part II of our special mini-series on work and politics in the sex industry, guest-hosted by friend of the show Jessie Sage. Jessie is a writer, podcaster, phone sex operator, clip artist, and co-owner of Peepshow Media. In this rich and expansive two-part series, Jessie interviews sex worker, activist, writer, undocumented migrant, and DACA recipient from Honduras, Maya Morena. In Part II of their conversation, Maya and Jessie pick up where they left off last week and discuss the day-to-day labor that goes into being a sex worker, the images that sex workers have to maintain, and much more. To listen to part I, click here.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on February 17, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Maximillian Alvarez  is a writer and editor based in Baltimore and the host of Working People, ?“a podcast by, for, and about the working class today.” His work has been featured in venues like In These Times, The Nation, The Baffler, Current Affairs, and The New Republic.


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Women of color suffer as coronavirus takes existing economic inequalities and doubles down on them

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The coronavirus economy is crushing women, people of color, and especially women of color. While the economy added 661,000 jobs between August and September, 865,000 women dropped out of the paid workforce. White women have recovered 61% of the jobs they lost in the early months of the pandemic, while Black women have recovered just 39%. As of a September 30 report in The Washington Post, less than 45% of mothers of children aged six to 12 have gotten back jobs they lost, while fathers of children in that age group have seen employment rebound 70%. Workers with college degrees have gotten back 55% of lost jobs, while for workers with high school degrees it’s less than 40%.

The devastation to state and local government jobs—particularly in education—and to the childcare industry has hit women particularly hard, putting many out of work—and then, in turn, women in other industries feel the squeeze because their kids are at home and household labor and childcare fall disproportionately on them.

Unemployment actually rose among Latinas in the most recent jobs report, going from 10.5% to 11%, and Latinas accounted for 324,000 of the women dropping out of the workforce. Though unemployment among Black women is just as high, at 11.1%, only 58,000 Black women dropped out.

This may be just the tip of the iceberg, though. A study published by Lean In “found that one in four women are considering downsizing their careers or leaving the workforce as a result of the damage wrought by COVID-19,” The 19th reported. “It’s the first time in six years of research that the annual study has found evidence of women intending to leave their jobs at higher rates than men.”

In an unequal economy and an unequal society, go figure. The new burdens of a crisis fall hardest on the people already struggling. This is a challenge to the United States and, in particular, to Democrats should they win big in November: What are we going to do to fix this?

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on October 5, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is a Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006. Full-time staff since 2011, currently assistant managing editor.


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Women’s History Month Profiles: Alice Paul

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For Women’s History Month, the AFL-CIO is spotlighting various women who were, and some who still are, leaders and activists working at the intersection of civil and labor rights. Today, we are looking at Alice Paul.

Alice Paul was born in Mt. Laurel, New Jersey, in 1885, the daughter of Quaker parents. Her religious upbringing taught her a belief in gender equality and instilled in her a desire to work for the betterment of the whole society. Her mother, Tacie, was a member of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) and often took Alice to meetings.

Paul attended Swarthmore College and was taught by some of the leading female academics of the day. Her experiences in college emboldened her not only in student activism, but beyond the college campus when she graduated in 1905. After graduation, she went to Birmingham, England, to study social work at the Woodbrooke Settlement. There she spent time with Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters, the leaders of a militant suffragette faction that was focused on action, not just words. Paul participated in Pankhurst’s political actions, including hunger strikes and other tactics. Paul spent time in prison, but noticed the impact the actions taken by the Pankhursts and their followers led to success, and she believed it was necessary to bring these tactics back to the United States.

Upon returning to the U.S., Paul enrolled in the University of Pennsylvania and followed in her mother’s footsteps in joining NAWSA. She quickly became the leader of NAWSA’s Congressional Committee, which was focused on a federal suffrage amendment. In 1912, Paul and friends organized a women’s march to coincide with Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration. When that event commenced the following March, Paul and her suffragists were so prominent that male onlookers insulted and assaulted the women marchers as the police looked on. But afterward, Paul and her fellow suffragists made headlines across the country.

Soon, Paul and several allies found themselves at odds with NAWSA’s leadership and they broke off and formed the National Woman’s Party (NWP). The NWP engaged in more active efforts to advocate for suffrage, including protesting the president during World War I, a serious break from prior protocol. The suffragists were painted as unpatriotic and were arrested or attacked by angry mobs. The threats of violence and imprisonment did not dissuade Paul or the other suffragists, even when the threats of imprisonment were carried out. Suffragists in prison were not passive, they engaged in hunger strikes and many came to support the cause of women’s suffrage because of the treatment of Paul and others.

Not long after Paul was released from prison, Congress passed the 19th Amendment and sent it to the states for ratification. It soon passed, after a 72-year-long battle. Afterward, many suffragists left public life as much of the movement had been focused solely on winning the vote. But many activists, like Paul, saw suffrage as the beginning, not the end goal. In 1923, on the 75th anniversary of the Seneca Falls Convention that launched the women’s rights movement, Paul began work on what she called the “Lucretia Mott Amendment,” in honor of one of the key Seneca Falls activists. The Mott amendment was the beginning of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) that is still being fought for nearly a century later. The ERA was introduced in every session of Congress beginning in 1923 up until 1972, when it finally passed Congress. Beginning in 1943, the ERA was rewritten and popularly called the “Alice Paul Amendment.” 

Paul continued to work on ratification of the ERA for the rest of her life. She also became a strong proponent for women’s rights internationally. She was a founder of the World Woman’s Party, which worked to make sure gender equality was included in the United Nations Charter. She also led numerous legislative victories in the United States, such as adding a sexual discrimination clause to the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Paul died in 1977 in Moorestown, New Jersey, only a few miles from her birthplace. The years in between were marked by the efforts of an incredible woman whose efforts and agenda still dominate the civil rights sphere in 2020. We are working on continuing the legacy left by Paul and so many other women who fought to change the country, and the world, into a better place for everyone.

This blog was originally published by the AFL-CIO on February 4, 2020. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Kenneth Quinnell is a long-time blogger, campaign staffer and political activist. Before joining the AFL-CIO in 2012, he worked as labor reporter for the blog Crooks and Liars.


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Building Power And Raising Voices Of Rural Women

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Here in North Carolina, like many other rural areas around the country, reactionary forces have used trends like the decline of jobs, infrastructure, and public services to consolidate power, advance racist and misogynist narratives, and erode public confidence in the power of government to work for the common good.

The impact is real: every day, people in rural areas of North Carolina get sicker, die sooner, and have less access to what they need to thrive than their counterparts in the rest of the state.

Women in rural communities are most affected by these crises. And we are uniquely positioned to be a key part of the solutions.

For rural women in Appalachia, life is a juggling act of caring for family, friends, and community. The many different roles that rural women play in their communities and organizing spaces can be woven together like the quilts that have been beautifully crafted by the women before us. For as long as I can remember, my Nana and Granny and Mimi and all the women in my life have been the pillars that hold up their loved ones and hold folks together — raising the children, keeping everyone fed and clean, and carrying the traditions of our history.

In the past decade, the right wing capitalized on a void in North Carolina left by the lack of progressive investment in rural and small-town communities. Where progressive organizing might have offered working-class residents of rural counties opportunities for engagement, white supremacist and neo-Confederate groups stepped in. Today, progressive community organizing led by rural women is emerging as a tool to keep one another alive through times of desperation and struggle.

Down Home North Carolina, part of the People’s Action network and a founding member of the Rural Women’s Collaborative: Uniting Across Race and Place for Racial and Economic Justice, is organizing working people to grow democracy and improve the quality of life, so that our grandbabies inherit a state that is healthy and just. We are shifting what’s possible in rural America by building the feminist leadership of rural women and promoting values of inclusion in communal life, interdependence, care for the elderly, love of earth and humanity, dignity of all work, and protection of the vulnerable.

They say it takes a village to raise a child. What I have noticed from the rural women in my life is that they come together as a village to care for one another. They know what it means to be stronger united, to put their brains and bodies together to do what needs to be done to keep moving forward with all the weight that they are carrying.

In the 1970s, the women of Harlan County catalyzed the multi-gender, multi-racial solidarity and civil action that won recognition for striking coal miners. In the 1960s, it was Ollie Combs, a rural woman, who laid her body on the line in front of a bulldozer to save the foundation of her family’s livelihood and led to the first stripmining legislation. It was rural women like Judy Bonds who risked everything to pioneer the fight against mountaintop removal.

Today in Down Home Alamance County, the story of our rural women looks like Robin Jordan, who lost her daughter in 2018 because she didn’t have access to the healthcare that she desperately needed. Robin fights to protect families across North Carolina from experiencing the loss that she had to go through, while she — like many rural women I know — raises her granddaughter.

In Down Home Jackson County, the rural women’s story looks like Kellie Smith, who still has her waitress apron tied around her waist from working her 8th shift trying to catch up on rent after relentlessly searching for jobs in a depleted market for months, but who shows up anyways because there’s nothing left to lose and “we can’t afford to keep sitting around not doing anything.”

The story looks like Carrie McBane, who despite facing the views against her as an “outsider” for the brown hue of her skin, still pushes against the struggle to communicate with her neighbors and to build bridges across her community because “we are all stronger when we work together.”

In Down Home Haywood County, the story of rural women is painted by Natasha Bright, who brings her two kids with her to organizing meetings after spending a whole day working full-time to support her family and her husband, who is a veteran. Natasha, who doesn’t have health care for herself, fights for her community because “no one is going to fight for us.”

Building on these legacies, our Radical Hope Fund grant has allowed us to invest in the feminist leadership of a multiracial cohort of rural women to lead transformative campaigns bridging urban and rural communities across race and gender, while restoring democracy, confronting corporate abuse, and helping build models of community control of the economy.

Rural women have served as the educators, healthcare givers, nurturers, and fighters for our community for generations. Now the women of Down Home are carrying forward this torch.

This piece is part of the NoVo Foundation’s Radical Hope Blog Series, a platform for social justice movement leaders from around the world to share learning and insights, hear what’s working and what’s not, build solidarity, and spark opportunities for collaboration. Amid daily headlines of division, this blog series is intended to serve as an active and dynamic beacon of hope, possibility, connection, and healing.This piece was published by the AFL-CIO on December 4, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 


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This Women’s World Cup is reaching new heights thanks to collective actions from female footballers

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Inside the labor movements that are taking women’s soccer to new heights.

The 2019 Women’s World Cup in France is already on its way to being the most successful edition of the event ever. Though the tournament is still in the group stages, it is already breaking viewership records around the globe.

FIFA likes to take credit for this increase in popularity, but that credit is, of course, wholly unearned. In the past four years, as more and more people called for the sport’s governing body to close the gap in prize money between the men’s and women’s World Cup, FIFA actually increased the disparity between the two by $40 million, and on the ground in France, it seems that FIFA has not done an adequate job of promotion or ticketing.

Rather, the increased excitement is owed largely to the overall growth of women’s football; and that growth is due solely to the women who not only play the sport, but have taken it upon themselves to be its fiercest and most effective advocates and activists. Female footballers have always had to fight for the right to merely exist, but since the 2015 Women’s World Cup in Canada, collective labor actions from teams around the world have extracted more concessions and progress from federations than FIFA ever has.

Even the most casual sports fans have likely heard about the defending World Cup champions, the U.S. Women’s National Team (USWNT), suing U.S. Soccer for gender discrimination, arguing that it pays the men’s team more money than the women’s team, despite the fact that they do the same job, and have achieved more success than their male counterparts.

The USWNT — which has been battling U.S. Soccer for more equitable treatment since it was founded — really brought their fight with the federation into the public square after winning it all in Canada in 2015 and being subjected to a Victory Tour of exhibition games that were played primarily on subpar turf, a surface the men’s team hardly ever has to play on. After boycotting a match in Hawaii because of the dangerous field conditions, the USWNT launched an #EqualPlayEqualPay campaign in 2016 and filed a wage-discrimination suit with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Since the issue still has not been remedied to their liking, the USWNT has now taken its fight to the biggest stage in the sport.

The Spanish women’s team actually began its collective action in 2015, when the Women’s World Cup was still happening. After the Spanish women finished in last place in their group in their World Cup debut, the players wrote an open letter asking for the firing of their manager, Ignacio Quereda, who was allowed to oversee the team for 27 years despite only winning 38% of their matches under his direction. As detailed by Deadspin, he also emotionally abused the players by attacking them for their weight and calling them immature little girls (“chavalitas”); kept players off the team if they crossed him; and did so little actual coaching that the players actually had to scout their opponents on YouTube themselves.

The letter received enough attention that Quereda ultimately resigned, and the Spanish football federation — which spent less than 1% of its budget on women’s football in 2014 — has begun prioritizing the women’s game a bit more. At this year’s World Cup, the Spanish team has already advanced to the knockout rounds.

In the fall of 2015, the Australian women’s national soccer team canceled a sell-out tour of the United States because players were so upset over their pay, which was far below minimum wage. Despite the fact that the Matildas reached the quarterfinals of the 2015 World Cup, they left Canada with just $2,014 in their pockets, which did little to boost their $14,844 annual salary. The strike was effective — their annual salary has essentially doubled, and contracts in the Australian pro league have increased significantly as well.

In 2016, the Chilean women’s team was fed up after years of neglect, and decided to form a players’ union. This union ended up integrating with the men’s union, and gained enough power to convince the Chilean federation to host the Copa América, a major women’s football tournament in the region, which ended up being the launchpad for Chile to earn its maiden Women’s World Cup bid.

“The Chilean team would not be playing in the 2019 World Cup were it not for the voluntary labor, blood, sweat, tears of the players themselves,” said Dr. Brenda Elsey, an associate professor of history at Hofstra University and co-author of Futbolera: A History of Women and Sports in Latin America.

In December 2016, the Nigerian Super Falcons decided to stage a sit-in at the Agura Hotel in the nation’s capital until they received their bonuses for winning the Women’s Africa Cup of Nations — a total of $23,650 per player. Janine Anthony, a presenter and reporter for BBC South Africa, told ThinkProgress that it is not uncommon for bureaucracy in Nigeria to complicate payments, since most of the money for football comes from the government. However, those complications disproportionately impact the women.

“You just know that if it was for the men’s team, a lot of things would be faster,” Anthony said. “Every time you have issues, the girls have to be the one to … just understand. ‘Oh, please bear with us.’”

This time, however, they were done bearing with anybody. Their protest garnered national attention, and the federation very quickly found a way to access the money that had been so unobtainable just a day prior.

The following year, the Swedish women’s football team threatened to boycott the Player Awards Gala and their friendly against France if a new contract wasn’t reached, and Scottish players implemented a media blackout to raise awareness about the lack of financial support and respect shown by the Scottish Football Association. Both actions led to improved contracts.

Also in 2017, Argentinian and Brazilian female players followed in Chile’s footsteps and challenged their federations. In Brazil, multiple players retired in protest and a group of former and current players released a powerful letter denouncing the federation’s abrupt firing of Emily Lima, the team’s first female coach. The Brazilian federation launched a commission to address the concerns raised in the letter, but it was disbanded four months later, without any concrete advances.

The Argentinian women had a bit more luck. In the spring of 2017, the Argentinian women’s team was convened after an 18-month hiatus to play a match in Uruguay. But players had to travel in and out of the country on the same day as the match, there was hardly any support staff present, and the players didn’t even receive their paltry $8.50 per day stipends. So, they went on strike, and wrote a letter as a national team.

The federation ended up re-hiring head coach Carlos Borello, who they had let go after the team failed to qualify for the 2015 World Cup, adding a bit more support staff, and paying the players a stipend. It’s far from equality, but it did lead to the Argentinian women making their World Cup debut in France.

Of course, these examples only come from the 24 teams that qualified for the World Cup. These labor movements are happening throughout the ranks of women’s football.

Last September, the Puerto Rico women’s team actually stopped playing right after their friendly against Argentina kicked off and stood united facing the main stand, putting their hands to their ears, signaling for the Puerto Rican Football Association to listen to their complaints about working conditions and support.

In December, The Guardian reported on allegations that Karim Keramuddin, a top official with the Afghanistan Football Federation, had been sexually abusing players on the Afghanistan women’s national team. The players — who do not all live in Afghanistan, but rather are spread out around the globe — came together and reported the abuse. Just last week, FIFA banned Keram for life, and Afghan officials have issued a warrant for his arrest.

“I think the executives and the men complicit in this abuse were feeling like, because the women were not all in one place that they would not be unified or have that network. But sometimes WhatsApp does wonderful things, and it can keep you bonded. And these women really, literally decided to stick together,” said Shireen Ahmed, a freelance sports reporter and co-host of Burn It All Down, a weekly feminist sports podcast. [Editor’s note: the author of this article is also a co-host of the podcast.]

Thanks to all of these collective actions, progress is slowly unfolding.  In the past couple of years, both Norway and New Zealand have struck historic equal pay deals with their women’s teams, and in 2019, just before they left for the World Cup, the South African football federation told the women’s national team that it would earn the same bonuses that the men earn in tournaments from here on out.

All of these gains are only possible because female footballers worldwide are banding together and demanding their worth, recognizing and embracing the power of solidarity.

Of course, until FIFA itself decides to get its act together and close the $410 million prize money gap, and mandate that federations spend more than 15% of their FIFA funds on programs for women and youth, the gender gap in football is always going to be gaping.

“FIFA is ultimately the gatekeeper because they have the most amount of resources,” said Meg Linehan. “U.S. soccer isn’t happy with them but no one in the world was happy with them either.”

This article was originally published in ThinkProgress on June 19, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Lindsay Gibbs covers sports. SportsReporter CoHost  Tennis  Mystics   


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Serena Williams’ French Open ordeal proves maternity rights in pro sports have a long way to go

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Last month, Serena Williams — the greatest athlete of our time (don’t @ me, it’s true) — played in her first major tournament since giving birth to her daughter. But, as excited as fans and media touts were to have her back competing, most were outraged when they discovered that she would have to enter the French Open unseeded, as her protected No. 1 ranking from the Women’s Tennis Association did not apply to the tournament’s seeding.

Ivanka Trump weighed in on Twitter, saying that Williams was being “penalized professionally for having a child,” and calling on the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) to change the rule “immediately.” USA Today said that Williams was being “punished” for having a baby.

The outrage cycle was effective. Wimbledon seeded Williams No. 25 for the Championships — not high enough for the liking of many, but far better than nothing — and the U.S. Open announced that it would change its seeding protocol to account for pregnancies. Behold, the power of Serena! Mission accomplished, right?

Well, not so fast. Because when it comes to maternity rights for professional female athletes, seeding for top players isn’t even in the top half of the list of their biggest concerns. And the outsized focus on Williams’ seeding folderol could end up distracting attention from the biggest problems that pregnant athletes face — both during their pregnancies and in their comebacks — such as insurance, protected contracts, and child care.

If those sound like the kinds of basic things that should have already been taken care of long ago, well then, you’re absolutely right. Unfortunately, the ideal is far from the reality.

Women who compete in sports can’t simply continue to work right up until the moment they’re ready to pop like their desk-bound counterparts, so it’s not unusual for them to take a year — or more — out of competition and training. And in many cases, these pro athletes have little-to-no guaranteed income during that time.

In team sports, such as basketball, they’re sometimes eligible to earn 50 percent of their contract when they’re off for maternity leave. But even that isn’t a given. For WNBA players, it is only applicable if they’re currently under a contract; players who are free agents or on expiring contracts when they get pregnant are in a much more precarious position. And while women’s soccer players on the U.S. Women’s National Team (USWNT) are eligible for maternity leave, rank-and-file players in the National Women’s Soccer League, who already earn much less money than their national team counterparts, don’t have any such maternity protections.

But the situation is even worse in individual sports, where the fulfillment of sponsor contracts hinge upon results — or at least appearances — in tournaments, and where if you’re not competing, you’re obviously not getting any prize money.

There was, however, a recent breakthrough for athletes seeking a solution to this problem — though it didn’t come from Serena. Just last week, Stacey Lewis, a two-time major champion on the Ladies’ Professional Golf Association Tour (LPGA), made a landmark announcement: One of her main sponsors, KPMG, is going to pay Lewis the full value of her contract while she is off of the LPGA Tour on maternity leave. Believe it or not, this is the first time this has happened in LPGA Tour history.

“I think a lot of people were shocked to learn that that had never happened before,” Lewis told CNN. “Players that were, that are moms and have kids, they thought it was the greatest thing ever, just because they had been in my position before and they know what that feels like. They just thought it was — I mean, they thought it was unbelievable.”

Getting pregnancy leave written into contracts in both team and individual sports would be a huge boost for pregnant athletes, as would arranging insurance options that would be affordable and effective even if a player found out they were pregnant during, say, free agency. But these mothers also need support when they return to pro competition as well. Babies don’t just watch themselves, you know.

The NWSL currently provides no child care assistance for its players, and neither does the WNBA. (Many individual teams have very family-friendly atmospheres, but that is not the same as actually assisting with child care.) And, in the WTA, former WTA No. 1 Victoria Azarenka, was shocked when she returned from pregnancy last year to find out that the women’s tennis tour offered far less child care than the men’s tour, because historically men have traveled with families, while women have not.

“I have been already talking about this point (of needing daycare services at tournaments) to some of the people in WTA,” Azarenka told reporters. “From my own power, I’ll do anything to make that happen, because I think it’s really important. The guys [playing the ATP Tour] do have that luxury of having the nurseries and stuff at every event and I think it’s time for women to have the same benefit. Because I think for women it’s much more important and harder.”

This year, Azarenka, who is a member of the WTA Player’s Council, said she understood why people were upset with the fact that Williams wasn’t seeded upon her return to professional tennis. However, she pointed out that she and Williams are the exception, not the rule, both when it comes to talent and financial means. They have earned enough in their careers to afford all the child care they need; and have had enough success to earn enough wild cards to get into any tournament they want as they get their body and game back into form.

On that note, in addition to getting more day care services at tournaments, Azarenka wants to work on extending the amount of time that players returning from pregnancy can use their protected ranking (so that they don’t have to rush back to competition), and she would like to see the protected ranking used at more tournaments than a typical injury layoff permits.

“My focus right now is to protect women who want to start a family,” Azarenka said, “because it’s still unusual for women to have a family during their career, especially in tennis.”

In general, maternity policies for pro athletes need to focus on providing care for the parent and child during pregnancy, and providing support and time for the parent during their comeback. This doesn’t mean coddling these athletes — or handing them a competitive advantage. Indeed, the athletes should still have to do the necessary work to get into the physical condition to justify their spot on the roster, earn their place back in the starting lineup, or, as it may be, qualify for a seed in a major tournament.

It’s definitely good that a larger discussion of fair policy governing the seeding for players coming back from maternity leave, has come out of Williams’ experience on the professional tour. But it’s crucial that the conversation doesn’t end there. The correct policies and resources need to be articulated and made available in order to keep pregnancy and child care from being a impenetrable barrier for pro athletes, especially those who aren’t household names.

About the Author: Lindsay Gibbs is a sports reporter at ThinkProgress.

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on July 5, 2018. Reprinted with permission.


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Women Deserve a Raise

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Today is International Women’s Day, and there is no better time to lift up the role unions play in achieving economic equality for women. The Institute for Women’s Policy Research recently released a brief, titled The Union Advantage for Women, which quantifies the benefits of union membership for working women, and the numbers don’t lie!

 IWPR estimates that the typical union woman makes a whopping 30% more per week than her nonunion sister. The benefits of unions are greatest for women of color, who otherwise face stronger economic barriers than their white counterparts. Latina union members make an estimated 47% more than Latinas who are not union members, and the union wage premium for black women is about 28%. For comparison, the union difference for men overall is not as large; union men make about 20% more than nonunion men.

So what’s behind the union advantage? When working women come together (and with our male allies), we are able to bargain for the wages we deserve, robust benefits, and respect and dignity on the job. Outside of the workplace, unions fight for state and local policies such as paid sick leave, family and medical leave insurance, fair schedules, and raising the minimum wage—all which disproportionately benefit women and their families.

Ladies, we deserve a raise! And it starts with a voice and power on the job.


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Unions are Fighting for Families by Supporting Women and Rejecting the Status Quo

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Women in the workplace have made major strides. Women currently make up 48% of the workforce and are the sole or primary breadwinner for 40% of families in the United States. Yet most family responsibilities still rest on women’s shoulders and, too often, women put in a full day’s work only to come home and clock in for a second shift.

As Secretary-Treasurer of the AFL-CIO, I am constantly in awe of the powerful work the 6.8 million women of the labor movement do to advance issues that matter. Consider this: In the past decade, there has been tremendous momentum at the state and local level, with millions of working people winning the freedom to take time off to care for family, and labor unions have been at the center of these wins. Which might explain why states with higher union density are more likely to have paid sick leave and paid family and medical leave laws. And, when unions are strong, women are strong. Unions make a difference for women in dollars and cents—$222, to be exact. That’s how much more the typical woman in a union job makes in a week compared with a woman in a non-union job.

Beyond supporting working women, the labor movement has always advocated for policies that promote a full-employment economy at wages high enough to allow working people to support their families. We work to combat policies that erode the rights of working people, and make sure they’re rewarded for the wealth they help create. To achieve this, we support a broad range of policies, including restoring the minimum wage to a living wage, restoring overtime protections, prevailing wage standards, and putting an end to wage theft and the rampant misclassification of employees as independent contractors. The AFL-CIO adopted this working people’s Bill of Rights at our recent convention to demand that all working people have the right to:

  • A Good Job with Fair Wages: Everyone who wants to work has the right to a good job where we earn wages that allow us to support ourselves and our families.
  • Quality Health Care: Regardless of income, job or a pre-existing condition.
  • A Safe Job: Free from harassment and violence.
  • Paid Time Off and Flexible, Predictable Scheduling: To spend time with family or care for ourselves or a loved one.
  • Freedom from Discrimination: In hiring, firing, and promotions.
  • Retire with Dignity: And financial security.
  • Education: Public K-12, higher education and career training that advances our knowledge and skills without leaving us in debt.
  • Freedom to Join Together: With our co-workers for better wages and working conditions, whether we are in a union or not.
  • A Voice in Democracy: To freely exercise our democratic voice through voting and civic participation.

Building on recent victories, state legislators have demonstrated that they are #FightingForFamilies in 2018 by introducing legislation to advance some of these policies in states across the country, and union members have been advocating alongside them. Sixteen states have bills pending for paid family and medical leave in 2018. Thirteen states are considering bills for equal pay, and 13 states are considering paid sick days. Sixteen states are considering measures to prevent employment discrimination against LGBT workers. Ten states have bills to ensure pregnant workers’ rights. And that’s just the beginning.

Young workers, immigrants, women, LGBT people and communities of color are coming together to advance changes that will improve our lives. When we join in union, we are a formidable force, a political force. Together, we can make equal pay, paid leave, and fair scheduling the law of the land. Together, we can lead a movement to change the world and build an economy that works for us all. Together, we can reject quiet acceptance and build an America where all working women can sustain their families and realize their dreams.

Women fight and win battles every day. By standing and negotiating together, we will continue to make the world a better place for all of us. Unions are rejecting the status quo and are working to build an America where all working people can sustain their families and realize their dreams.

This blog was originally published at AFL-CIO on February 9, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Liz Shuler became the first woman ever elected Secretary-Treasurer of the AFL-CIO when she was voted into office by acclamation at the Federation’s 26th convention on September 16, 2009.


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If Trump Has His Way, You’ll Certainly Miss This Agency You Probably Don’t Even Know Exists

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The Trump Administration has released its proposed budget for the 2018 fiscal year. Who’s set to lose big if this budget comes to fruition? Women—specifically working women and their families.

The only federal agency devoted to women’s economic security—the Department of Labor’s Women’s Bureau—is on the chopping block. The agency, which currently has a budget of only $11 million (just one percent of the DoL’s total budget), would see a 76 percent cut in its funds for the next fiscal year under the proposed budget.

Despite making up only 1 percent of the Department’s current budget and having only a 50-person staff, the Bureau serves in several crucial roles—simultaneously conducting research, crafting policy and convening relevant stakeholders (from unions to small businesses) in meaningful discussions about how to best support working women. The Women’s Bureau’s priorities have changed with the times—focusing on working conditions for women in the 1920s and 30s, and helping to pass the monumental Equal Pay Act in the early 1960s. (President Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act in 1963, making pay discrimination on the basis of sex illegal. However, because of loopholes in the 54-year-old law, the wage gap persists.) Throughout its nearly 100-year history, however, the agency has remained a powerful advocate for working women and families. Recent efforts have included advocating for paid family leave, trying to make well-paying trades jobs available to women and supporting women veterans as they re-enter civilian life.

Eliminating or underfunding the Women’s Bureau would be a huge setback for working women across the nation. Take the issue of paid family leave, for example. In recent years, the Bureau awarded over $3 million in Paid Leave Analysis grants to cities and states interested in creating and growing their own paid leave programs while federal action stalls. With the funding provided by the Women’s Bureau, states and localities have developed comprehensive understandings of what their own paid leave programs might look like. In Vermont, where the Commission on the Status of Women received a Paid Leave Analysis grant in 2015, state lawmakers are now on track to pass a strong paid family leave policy.

So why is the Trump Administration considering cutting such a low-cost, high-impact agency? Some suspect it’s at the suggestion of the conservative Heritage Foundation’s 2017 budget proposal, which calls the Women’s Bureau “redundant” because “today, women make up half of the workforce.”

What this justification conveniently leaves out is that despite important gains in recent decades, too many women, particularly women of color, are still stuck in low-paying, undervalued jobs, being paid less than their male counterparts and taking on a disproportionate amount of unpaid labor at home. It also leaves out the fact that those previously-mentioned important gains are largely the result of targeted efforts led by government agencies like the Women’s Bureau. Eliminating the agencies responsible for immense strides in preserving civil rights is, to quote the brilliant Ruth Bader Ginsburg, “like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.” Instead of punishing an agency for its accomplishments, the Trump Administration should give the Women’s Bureau the resources it needs to tackle the problems remaining for working women.

Donald Trump is happy to engage in shiny photo-ops and feel-good listening sessions about women’s empowerment, but when it comes to doing concrete work to support the one government agency tasked with supporting women’s economic empowerment, this administration is nowhere to be found. If this government actually cares about women at all—that is, cares about more than good press and tidy, Instagrammable quotes—it should step up to defend this agency and its 97-year history. The working women of America deserve better.

This blog was originally published by the Make it Work Campaign on June 21, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Maitreyi Anantharaman is a policy and research intern for the Make it Work Campaign, a communications intern for Workplace Fairness and an undergraduate public policy student at the University of Michigan.


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