Women are on the front lines

George Gresham | 3/2/2017, 11:01 a.m.

Each March we pay tribute to the generations of women who have made incalculable contributions to our nation, and we recommit ourselves to the ongoing struggle for women’s equality.

We recall, also, that Women’s History Month has its origins here in New York City in the struggle of garment workers against oppressive sweatshop conditions and child labor, and for the right to vote. Originally called International Working Women’s Day, March 8 is celebrated throughout the world. And here in the U.S., the observance has been lengthened to the entire month.

Undoubtedly during the month, elected officials from the White House on down will mouth platitudes about their commitment to women. But talk is cheap. We know that Trump administration officials and their abettors in Washington and state houses across the nation will continue their cruel offensive against many of the hard-won gains of women, children and working people as a whole.

The president, who campaigned on a platform of job creation and the protection of programs such as Social Security and Medicare, has appointed a cabinet of extremists hostile to labor and to government as a whole. The administration has laid plans and taken steps to roll back the rights of women to control their own bodies and their health, to have clean air and water, to access education and training and much more.

The attacks on labor and the right to join unions will have an especially pernicious effect on those at the bottom of the economic ladder. Although women have made significant educational gains in the past few decades, at every educational level, women continue to earn less than their male counterparts. Recent studies show that they earn 80 cents for every dollar earned by men.

The gender pay gap between unionized workers is approximately half—just 9.4 cents—of the wage gap between non-unionized workers. And although women in recent years have become a larger share of the unionized workforce—more than 45 percent—the share of all unionized workers has declined.

By all indications, the administration is committed to continuing that trend, but that won’t happen without a fight. A blizzard of protests already has led to the resignation of the president’s first choice for labor secretary, the anti-labor, fast-food mogul Andrew Puzder. The president’s second choice for the post, Alexander Acosta, a law-school dean who served in the civil rights division of George W. Bush’s Justice Department, is also widely regarded as pro-business.

In addition to a corporate-leaning labor secretary, the president will be able to appoint two new members to the National Labor Relations Board. Most importantly, the president has selected an anti-labor jurist to the Supreme Court seat that rightly should have been filled by President Obama.

These appointments will hurt working people and the nation as a whole. But the most vulnerable among us, women of color and immigrants, will suffer disproportionately. These women constitute a large percentage of 1199SEIU’s membership. In addition to the unpaid labor these women perform in their homes, they also care for seniors and people with disabilities in nursing homes and as home care workers.

These women are on the front lines of the resistance. These days they are calling their Congressional representatives to urge them to stand strong against the administration’s attempt to eviscerate the Affordable Care Act. They have joined the thousands of voters across the nation who are demanding that Congress “mend it, don’t end it.” They recognize that repeal of the ACA would cut health care for millions, remove patient protections and endanger the jobs of tens of thousands of health care workers.

They affirm that everyone deserves quality, affordable health care, and they know that it’s time for all working people to rise up together to declare health care to be a right, once and for all. We need to follow our sisters’ example and call our Congress members, visit their offices, write to them and tag them on social media. And we need to continue to flood the streets in protest.

We must never forget that we are the majority. But to amplify our efforts and voices, we must build stronger alliances and bridges between our local struggles and broader movements. And we must learn from each other how to translate our movements into political and legislative victories.

To reach our goal, we must forge movements in which all can make their maximum contribution. We are all diminished when we relegate women to the background or subordinate positions throughout society. Those who hold up half the sky should hold at least half the leadership. Let us commit ourselves this month to that goal and work toward its achievement each day of the year.

George Gresham is president of 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East, the largest union in New York and the largest health care union in the nation.