Liz Shuler's Leadership of AFL-CIO Comes at Critical Time for Women in the WorkplaceRoundup
tags: AFL-CIO, labor history, womens history, Liz Shuler
Katherine Turk is an associate professor of history and adjunct associate professor of women’s and gender studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the author of Equality on Trial: Gender and Rights in the Modern American Workplace. Her next book, A Nation of Women: The Visionary and Volatile Feminist Organization that Transformed America, will be published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
On Friday, the AFL-CIO, the nation’s largest federation of labor unions, named its first woman president in its 65-year history. To judge by the AFL-CIO’s website or by recent headlines, Liz Shuler’s election simply confirms the federation’s stated commitments to social justice and represents the choice of a well-qualified candidate, as Shuler has long been the organization’s secretary-treasurer. But Shuler’s ascent was far from inevitable. Laboring women have always had to fight on two fronts at once. They have pursued rights and respect from employers, but they have also struggled with union “brothers” who often clung to exclusionary notions of labor by protecting white men’s prerogatives. While Shuler’s election reveals just how much has changed, it also signals the challenges to come.
The American workforce has been consistently unequal, reflecting the sexist and racist logics that shaped the nation at large. And while women’s labors have been essential to the economy, they have also been devalued, whether by being extracted through enslavement or culturally compelled by the ideology of domesticity. Despite that enduring trope, which held that women’s main duty was to care for their own families at home, most working-class women and women of color have historically had to keep their families afloat by earning a wage themselves. Since the 1960s, the percentage of all women who fit that description has only grown.
Rather than embrace laboring women as their comrades, the men who formed unions in the 19th and early 20th centuries generally tried to keep them out. They viewed women as competitors who would do their jobs at lower pay, and they defined themselves as breadwinners who needed wages that could sustain their dependent wives and children. When the American Federation of Labor formed in 1886, its mostly white and male members did not treat women as their equals even when they needed to collaborate across gendered lines to improve their workplaces. As women increasingly entered the industrial labor force in the early 20th century, the AFL responded by forming separate “ladies’ auxiliaries” and promoting protective labor laws that explicitly limited women’s hours and working conditions. Such provisions offered women some benefits, but they also “protected” them out of the highest-paid, most desirable jobs.
Women flocked to the industrial unions of the upstart Congress of Industrial Organizations amid the economic despair and labor militancy of the 1930s. Through violent struggle, these workers won access to good wages, seniority, and paid vacations. But male-led unions mostly stood by as employers kept men on top, retaining sex-based job classifications and discrimination in wages and benefits. The New Deal, a watershed for the nation’s working class, also hardened the divides within that population by giving primacy to white men and excluding many working women, especially women of color, from its provisions. The National Labor Relations Act of 1935, for example, protected workers’ right to form unions and strike but left out domestic and agricultural workers, which employed many of the most vulnerable laboring women.
At government officials’ urging, more women entered industrial work during World War II, where the gendered division of labor shifted but held. Most “Rosie the Riveters” lost those jobs at war’s end, but the work had raised their expectations, and they seized an important foothold in the labor movement by the 1950s. Often working through AFL-CIO-affiliated unions, an outspoken generation of midcentury feminists demanded justice for working women that included but far surpassed access to male-dominated jobs: economic security, racial equity, and acknowledgement by both unions and employers that women worked a “double day” on the job and at home.
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