With Mother’s Day approaching, there will be countless tributes and remembrances dedicated to the first person who welcomed us into the world after a nine-month wait. Over the years, some acknowledgments have been happy; some, unfortunately sad; but all make an important statement of fact: “Mom made a difference in my life.”
Maya Angelou said: “There is no influence as powerful as that of a mother.” Former President Barack Obama credits his mother with “What is best in me I owe to her.” Michael Jordan called his mother “his root, my foundation,” while Stevie Wonder said, “Mama was my greatest teacher, a teacher of compassion, love and fearlessness.”
Clearly, we know that mothers have a huge impact not only on their own children, but on other peoples’ kids as well. Throughout history, mothers worldwide have played roles from warrior to waitress for their offspring and those of others. In our country, from protesting our involvement in Vietnam to drunk-driving to Black Lives Matter—and so many more issues, mothers have led the marches and held the banners: Mothers Against Drunk Driving, Moms Demand Action, Moms United for Black Lives, Another Mother for Peace, Wall of Moms, and Harlem Mothers S.A.V.E., to name just a few. In each, mothers made a difference for the better, fueled by their personal pain and instinctive empathy.
The same is true of the labor movement. Over the past decade, about 60% of newly organizing workers have been women. Women now are also the faces of some of the largest labor movements in years. For example, after the death of AFL-CIO president and prominent national union leader Richard Trumka in 2021, Liz Shuler, longtime labor leader and supporter of Moms Rising Together, 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.
The pandemic created an opportunity for new movements in industries that haven’t organized before—movements also led by women. In 2021, the gender gap in union representation narrowed: About 10.6% of men are members of a union, compared with 9.9 percent of women, a proximity not achieved since statistics were recorded in the 1980s.
Among the factors contributing to this narrowing gap is that unions can be a route to equal pay. Especially with approximately 25% of households nationwide now headed by a single parent—80% of whom are women—and 21% of children living primarily with a single mother, unions provide the much-needed pathway to worker safeguards and benefits that are of particular concern to women, such as maternity leave, childcare accommodations, paid vacations, and so much more. In fact, studies have found that unionization tends to benefit women more than men, especially in eliminating pay disparity.
Trying to fight the fight without strong union backing can be a most exhausting, costly, and disappointing struggle. Just ask another hard-working Alabama mom, Lilly Ledbetter, who unbeknownst to her, worked for over two decades in a Goodyear tire factory for lower wages because of her gender than those doing similar work. It was only when she was cleaning out her locker upon retirement that she discovered she hadn’t been paid equally, thanks to an anonymous note slipped into her locker.
Ledbetter went on to fight the battle for pay equality for years, first filing a formal complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and later initiating a lawsuit under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Equal Pay Act of 1963. Although a jury initially awarded her compensation, Goodyear appealed the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, which overturned the ruling on the grounds that her claim was filed too late—outside of the 180 days from first being employed as required by law.
She received nothing, but she persisted, and in 2009, President Obama, just nine days after being sworn into office, signed into law his first piece of legislation: the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act.
In my own union, Local 237, we fought and won an historic gender-based class action lawsuit, too. We filed against New York City on behalf of school safety agents—70% of whom are women, mostly Black and Latina—performing similar duties as peace officers working for other City agencies, 70% of whom are men—but who earn approximately $7,000 more per year than their counterparts working in public schools.
Our union may have brought the legal action against the city but it was three school safety agents—Patricia Williams, Bernice Christopher, and the late Corinthians Andrews, all mothers—who made personal sacrifices and persevered throughout years of court wrangling that resulted in equal pay for not only their co-workers, but for retirees as well.
As we remember Mom on her big day, let’s also think about the contributions that all moms make to help the world become a better place both within and beyond their own families. Especially in the labor movement, mothers will always hold a special place. They are the soul. It’s the Sisterhood alongside the Brotherhood, working in partnership for all families, helping them not just survive but thrive.
Gregory Floyd is president of Teamsters Local 237 and vice president at-large of the General Board of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.