Women As Labor Union Organizers

Historically, the overwhelming majority of union organizers have been males. That was true in the pre-Wagner Act era, it was true at the dawn of Feminism’s “Second Wave,” and it’s still true today. There are a ton of precedents for this, and a multitude of reasons to support it—some of which, admittedly, are eminently sensible, and some of which not only make no sense at all, but are disrespectful and snide.

Of course, ingrained gender beliefs are tough to eradicate. Conventional wisdom suggests that because union organizing is (or can be) a rough and tumble enterprise, not recommended for the faint of heart, it’s best left in the hands of men.

But as shamelessly “sexist” and ignorant as that perception is, it’s also so counter-productive as to border on self-defeating. Indeed, when you get down to the part of organizing which salesmen refer to as “closing the deal”—where workers are asked to sign union cards—women are very likely the better recruiters. Who would have thunk it?

In the minority of cases where women organizers have actually been utilized as organizers, they wind up being confined to “women-intensive” or “women-friendly” occupations such as nursing and health care, clerical, hotel housekeeping, and the garment industry.

If there’s a manufacturing, or trucking, or heavy industry, or mechanical tradecraft shop being targeted by a labor union, it’s automatically relegated to the category of “men’s work.” Let the boys handle it. As a consequence, women—even gifted, experienced women recruiters—are almost always excluded from these “masculine” organizing drives. And that represents a tremendous waste of resources.

What upper-echelon union leaders don’t understand is that the decision to join (or not join) a union is based on more than purely practical, economic considerations. By now, virtually everyone in the job market knows that union shops pay significantly more than non-union shops, and that they offer better benefits and working conditions.

Working people don’t have to be told this. They don’t have to be told that a union contract can make all the difference in the world. They already know that. Accordingly, their reasons for choosing NOT to join a union are largely psychological and sociological. They’re complicated.

And this is where women enter the equation. As stereotypical and mawkish as this is going to sound, women have the ability to influence men in ways that men do not. They have ways to appeal to men that men do not. At the risk of sounding like some superannuated crazy person, let us refer to this as “feminine charm.” And this is as true in organizing—recruiting new members—as it is in strikes.

Ask any local union president or strike captain. If they are honest, they will tell you that women are far more valuable on the picket lines than their male counterparts. When a union is out on strike, women rank-and-file members tend to be more resilient, more dependable, more resolute, and more efficient. They whine less, they shout and scream less, and they require less hand-holding.

Which is why, during a protracted and nerve-wracking strike, a group of determined, pro-union women can be so useful to a union local. They have the ability to “shame” men into sucking it up and maintaining their solidarity. I’ve seen it done too many times. I’ve watched in amazement as it happened.

Two men may get into a shouting match or a fistfight over the merits of remaining on strike, with neither man giving an inch, but let a woman step into the fray and accuse a man, a fellow picketer, of “not having the balls” to finish what he started, and it’s a different story. The only noise you’ll hear is the unmistakable squeaky sound of gonads shriveling.

Let a woman publicly show more “guts” than a man—whether it be in a strike situation or as a union organizer—and the entire dynamic changes. It’s a testosterone thing. Men want to impress the ladies; they can’t bear to be one-upped by them.

Thus, if America’s labor unions are to have any hope of getting up off the canvas and continuing the fight, the AFL-CIO must rethink its organizing philosophy. They need to recalibrate. They can start by designating 2017 as the “Year of the Woman Warrior.”

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David Macaray is a playwright and author. His newest book is How To Win Friends and Avoid Sacred Cows.  He can be reached at dmacaray@gmail.com

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