“Hot Strike Summer:” How Increased Union Actions Stand to Benefit Women Workers

| Aug 16, 2023

For many, summer is the season of blockbuster movies, with fast-paced action films and nostalgic rom-coms taking over theaters and their stars taking over red carpets across the country. However, this summer, the movie season looks a little different. On May 2nd, the Writer’s Guild of America (WGA) went on strike, meaning that no writers belonging to the union would continue writing for film or television. And on July 13, the Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) announced that they would also begin a strike against the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), which is a federation of the biggest film and television studios in the country.

These strikes come in a year that has been filled with strong union actions, from Starbucks workers organizing their stores across the country, many as part of Starbucks United, to the UPS Teamsters, who have reached a tentative contract that includes significant raises, an end to an unfair two-tier wage system, a mandate requiring air conditioning in new delivery vehicles, and more. Workers bargaining collectively through unions build power to obtain strong benefits, fair pay and protection against retribution. In fact, unions are often most useful to marginalized workers – including women, people of color and disabled people – who often have less power than their coworkers to negotiate as individuals.

Unions play a significant role in helping women, especially women of color, by minimizing the pay gap through strengthening negotiating positions and providing transparent pay scales. According to our recent analysis, women workers receive a larger “union bump” compared to men (23 percent for women, compared to 12 percent for men) and Latinas see the largest bump, at 36 percent. And women who are members of a union make 90 cents on the dollar compared to what men in unions do, yet women who are not represented by a union make 82 cents on the dollar compared to men who are not in unions. Unions also undeniably help women achieve greater autonomy, whether through increasing their financial means or ensuring better access to paid leave, as women enrolled in unions are up to 17 percent more likely to utilize paid maternity leave than comparable women not in unions.

In addition to helping narrow the pay gap, unions also help women access benefits, especially in areas that largely impact women and families such as paid family and medical leave. According to research by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, women in unions participate in pension plans at a rate of 62.1 percent compared to the 33.4 percent of women not in unions who are enrolled in a pension plan. There is also an increase in participation in employer- or union-sponsored health care plans for women in unions, as 80.5 percent of women in unions have such a plan, while only 70.8 percent of women not in unions are enrolled in employer- or union-sponsored health care.

These differences in both pay and benefits indicate that building union membership and power is necessary to helping many women achieve equitable treatment at work. Yet, women’s rate of union membership is at an all-time low – even for Black women, who have the highest unionization rates among women. While data from the Center for Economic Policy and Research shows the gap between men and women’s rates of unionization has continued to shrink over the years, this is only due to precipitous declines in men’s unionization rates. There is still a long way to go to ensure that union membership is available to all women who want it.

Many women still do not have access to strong union benefits, often because of individual corporations’ union busting practices or because they live in states with so-called “right-to-work” laws, which weaken unions and reduce wages. Women in “right-to-work” states face even greater wage decreases than men in those states, seeing wage reductions of 4.4 percent compared to the 1.7 percent lost by male workers. This indicates that women have more to lose when their access to strong unions is threatened, making strong labor laws and policies that support unions even more important to economically uplifting women.

Union access and membership is vital to helping women attain equity in the workforce, both in terms of pay and benefits. Congress and state governments must work to enact stronger labor policies that ensure women are able to form and join strong unions. These policies not only help women during their working hours, but also allow them greater financial freedom and the ability to better balance work and personal responsibilities. As union actions ramp up this summer, there’s a lot we can do to keep the struggles of working women, especially women of color, at the forefront of the conversation – support organizing for worker power.

  • Congress should pass the PRO Act to help level the playing field for workers seeking to organize and bargain collectively and support the Biden Administration’s request for a $76 million budget increase for the National Labor Relations Board.
  • Visit the Department of Labor’s WORK Center to learn more about your labor rights.
  • Speak up in support of workers who are on strike. You can visit this site to find solidarity actions for striking SAG-AFTRA and WGA workers.