March is International Women’s Month, which both celebrates women’s accomplishments and reminds us what we must do to protect and extend those gains.
We can celebrate some recent victories. Last week, for example, the Republican-led House of Representatives finally relented and voted to approve the renewal of the Violence Against Women Act. Last November’s election was a significant victory, due in no small part to the large percentage of women who voted for the president and elected some 101 women to the new Congress. That is a record number, but it’s still far below where it should be.
But we should hold the applause. Today, women find themselves and the progress they have made increasingly under attack. Extremists, for example, continue to work overtime to deny women their inalienable health care and reproductive rights.
That’s not the case everywhere. Over the past few decades, nations around the world have addressed the increasing number of women in the workforce, implementing family-friendly programs such as equal pay and benefits for part-timers, limits on the workweek, affordable child care and paid family and medical leave. It’s past time for our 20-year-old Family and Medical Leave Act to include paid leave. In fact, by virtually all measures, when America’s family-friendly work policies are compared with other advanced industrial nations, we finish dead last.
Such policies place an undue burden on families, but especially on women and mothers. We should address all aspects of female oppression, but as a union leader, I am especially concerned about the gross economic inequality that weighs down working women.
Women are still paid less than men at every educational level and in every job category. Full-time women workers are paid 77 cents for every dollar paid to men. It’s worse for women of color, with African-American women paid 64 cents and Latinas 55 cents for every dollar paid to white men. That is why we must strongly support all legislative initiatives to help correct the imbalance. For example, the stalled Paycheck Fairness Act would strengthen laws against wage discrimination by protecting employees who share pay information with colleagues, fully compensating victims of pay discrimination, helping train women and girls and rewarding employers that have good pay practices.
Unfortunately, the Republican majority blocked the act in the House last year. In the absence of a broad and loud coalition, that also will be the fate of President Barack Obama’s attempt to raise the minimum wage. Winning passage would have a profound effect on low-wage women workers who constitute the majority of minimum-wage earners. But for these women, nothing would help to lift them out of poverty as much as a union card. The Center for Economic and Policy Research reports that women who are union members typically earn 11.2 percent more than their non-union counterparts.
When 1199 began organizing New York City hospitals in 1959, the workers–mostly women–earned $28 a week with little or no benefits. By 1968, through unity, organization and struggle, the workers won a $100-a-week minimum. In subsequent years, the union was able to win the nation’s finest health coverage and first-class pension, along with training and child care benefits for its members.
But times have changed. We are in the midst of a relentless attack on unions, workers and their families. It has taken its toll. Today, one in five of our nation’s children-more than 16 million-live in poverty, reports the Children’s Defense Fund. The majority of these children live in working families, many headed by single mothers.
Sadly, as vital programs fall under the sequestration knife, the pain will increase, and women will bear the largest burden. The best way for us all to show solidarity with our sisters is to continue to organize and fight, while declaring loudly and clearly that women’s inequality is not a women’s problem. It is ours.