By Laurel Brennan
During the month of March, we celebrate Women’s History by honoring the heroic deeds of the many women who have made life better for families through acts of selflessness. We remember such pioneers as Charlotte Forten, a Philadelphia teacher who was among the first to volunteer to educate newly freed slaves in the South; Mary Harris "Mother" Jones, who fearlessly fought for workers’ rights during the early 1900s; and Alice Paul, a New Jersey resident who was the strategist in the campaign for women’s right to vote.
As is evident from these examples, the struggle for women’s equality and economic justice often has been led by trailblazers in the labor movement. As the beneficiaries of their actions, we pay homage to our union and non-union sisters alike.
The courage of our predecessors will be celebrated March 4 & 5 when more than 200 women of New Jersey’s labor movement come together for the 13th annual New Jersey State AFL-CIO Women in Leadership Development Conference. WILD, as the conference is commonly known, presents a unique opportunity for women from all sectors of the labor movement to share information and resources about the policies that support and advance working families. This year, the multi-media presentation “We Were There” allows participants to interactively explore how the lessons of the past help us build a stronger future.
At WILD, we galvanize union women around programs and issues that impact their pocketbooks. This year, gender pay equity, ensuring that all workers earn a living wage and organizing workers against vicious right-wing attacks are of particular concern. Despite gains, women are still paid less than men for equal work. (Legislation recently introduced in Trenton would make it more difficult for employers to get away with paying women less than men when performing comparable jobs.) Though New Jersey voters approved an increase that raised the minimum wage to $8.38/hour, we recognize that that isn’t enough. Our union sisters and brothers fully support increasing the wage so that every worker has the opportunity to earn a living wage. Meanwhile, the uber-rich Koch Brothers and their right-wing network continue their assault on unions, why? Because unions are beneficial for women and working families trying advance economically.
The greatest equalizer for women is a union contract. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that union workers earned 21 percent more, on average, than non-union workers last year. In actual dollars, non-union workers earned $776 per week, compared with $980 for union members. The BLS report shows that unions help narrow that gap for women.
Women’s History Month fulfills an important role in highlighting how far we’ve come over the past two centuries. But it also reminds us that our journey won’t be finished until women receive equal pay for equal work, the minimum wage is a living wage and attacks on labor unions are overcome. Right-to-work laws, which more accurately mean, “Right-to-work-for-less,” must be overturned in the 26 states that have enacted them, and the workplace must once again be a place where workers’ voices are heard. The torch has been passed to us and together we will press on in our fight for economic justice.