Major Unions Begin Campaign to Enlist More Women

With the majority of the world's female workers living in poverty, two of the largest unions launch a three-year campaign to organize more women and improve their prospects for health and financial success.

Karen Nussbaum

NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)-Two major unions are launching a global, three-year campaign designed to increase women's bargaining power with employers and improve what critics say are dismal conditions in their places of work.

The AFL-CIO, the nation's largest union with nearly 5.5 million female members, and the Brussels, Belgium-based International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, with about 63 million women members, announced the campaign Thursday, saying they intended to work together to improve job security and health and safety for women at work, especially migrant women, young women and women from ethnic minorities.

The beginning of the “Unions for Women, Women for Unions” campaign coincided with the 46th meeting of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women and is part of a larger effort by the AFL-CIO to change the role of women in the global economy, said Karen Nussbaum, director of the union's working women department.

Union membership is crucial to women, Nussbaum said, because without rules to protect basic rights, working women are denied the opportunity to feed their families and contribute to their communities.

“People say economic issues are gender-neutral; it's simply not true. They are directly affected by privatization and trade rules,” Nussbaum said. “We believe that a framework has to be imposed on the global economy and companies should work within it. These are fundamental tools that will give workers the right to self-determination.”

As part of the campaign, affiliates of the international confederation will organize events worldwide, including rallies in Kenya, workshops in India and protests in South Africa, designed to recruit and organize women. Organizers of the campaign in the United States will focus on achieving equal pay and opportunities for women.

Women make up 45 percent of the world's workforce, but they represent 70 percent of the 1.3 billion people who live in absolute poverty, according to the United Nations Development Fund for Women.

Nancy Riche

Nancy Riche, chair of the international confederation's women's committee, said that women in unions are more likely to receive higher salaries, have medical benefits and pension funds and be protected from sexual harassment.

“It's more than just about money,” Riche said. “It is crucial that we break down the barriers which prevent women from becoming union members, activists and leaders.”

A Multitude of Factors Create Barriers to Organizing Women

Yet 90 percent of the 27 million workers in so-called “export-processing zones” are women, most of them between the ages of 16 and 25, according to the AFL-CIO. These “EPZs” are tax-free, industrial areas for foreign companies and in such zones labor laws often are suspended.

In Central American export-processing zones, for example, women face anti-union attitudes from supervisors, double shifts and gender-based discrimination, according to the International Organization of Labor, an arm of the United Nations.

Women are often denied access to critical resources such as credit and land, and their health care and nutritional needs are not given priority by employers, according to the United Nations Development Fund for Women. The agency contends that women often lack sufficient access to education and support services and their participation in decision-making at home and in the community are minimal.

Cindy Berman, a program officer at the International Organization of Labor, said she applauded the unions' initiative to organize women, but added that the barriers to success were high.

“The majority of women in developing countries work in the informal economy; unions need to reach out to them to protect them,” she said. “Their level of exploitation is great and they live in the poorest conditions.”

She added that the initiative will have to overcome the harassment and discrimination women typically face when they organize, as well as the time constraints that prevent them from participating in union activities. Women's male partners, she added, often impede them from joining unions.

“Unions will have to address the broader community issue,” she said.

Yael Bizouati is a freelance writer who recently graduated from New York University's Department of Journalism and Mass Communication.

For more information:

United Nations Development Fund for Women:

AFL-CIO Working Women's Department
Worker's Rights are Women's Rights:

International Confederation of Free Trade Unions: