Free Choice Act a change women need

Posted Dec. 11, 2008, at 10:20 a.m.

Many women are the sole breadwinners for their families and may be the hardest hit by the downturn in our economy. During this holiday season, mothers are pondering how they will be able to purchase gifts for their children, pay their home heating costs or scrape together mortgage payments.

Even for two-parent families, the chance for women to increase their household income can make the difference between financial stability and hardship. Fortunately, just-released data from the Center for Economic Policy and Research indicates union membership strengthens the pocketbooks of Maine’s female workers struggling to make ends meet.

This should not be surprising for Maine policymakers who have long recognized and supported the two clear pathways for women’s economic opportunity: 1) increasing access to education and training to secure good jobs with benefits, and 2) improving wages and job standards. And simply put, the best way to improve wages is through participation in a union.

The new findings from the Center for Economic Policy and Research show, on average nationally, membership in a labor union raised a woman’s wages by 11.2 percent, or $2 per hour, compared to nonunion women performing similar jobs. In Maine, this number climbs to 12.2 percent. Moreover, female union members were about 19 percent more likely to have employer-provided health insurance and 25 percent more likely to have a pension than their nonunion counterparts.

Unions provide working women with the opportunity for a middle-class lifestyle through adequate pay and earned benefits such as paid sick days, health coverage and vacation time. But when profit-before-people corporations undermine workers’ ability to form unions and bargain for better wages, this opportunity slips away. That’s why now is the time for much-needed reforms of our outdated federal labor laws, which largely have remain unchanged since the National Labor Relations Act was passed more than 70 years ago.

Corporate greed and CEO mismanagement have gone too far, and America’s women are paying the price. Workers are often retaliated against for their support of a union. In fact, 30 percent of employers faced with a union organizing effort fire workers for their support of a union. For the millions of women who depend on a job to keep themselves and their families afloat, this has to change.

The Employee Free Choice Act will give us the change we need by restoring balance and helping our economy work for everyone again. It will fundamentally make it easier for workers to form unions and have an opportunity for better pay and benefits. The legislation would give workers a fair and direct path to form unions through majority sign-up, a process where employers agree to recognize a union when the majority of employees have demonstrated their desire for one. Since 2003 alone, over half a million workers, including female engineers, nurses and customer service reps, have organized using this process. Furthermore, the Employee Free Choice Act will toughen penalties against unscrupulous employers and will help employees secure a contract within a reasonable period of time.

In essence, unions can make or break the bank for women in this tumultuous economy. The Employee Free Choice Act will allow even more workers to gain the same kind of financial advantages offered through union membership. All we need is for our members of Congress to demonstrate the conviction and compassion necessary to make economic opportunity a reality for Maine women.

Sarah Standiford is executive director of the Maine Women’s Lobby.

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