Barbara Esuoso

Barbara Esuoso is an editorial intern at The American Prospect.

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New Initiative Takes on Fight for Women’s Leadership in the Labor Movement

Women are set to overtake men in union membership in less than a decade, but their representation in the labor movement’s leadership lags far behind. Georgetown and Rutgers are joining forces in a new project to help bridge the leadership gap.

Women already make up nearly half of union membership, and the Center for Economic Policy Research estimates they will comprise the majority by 2023. But only about 20 percent of the AFL-CIO’s executive council are women, as is just a quarter of the International Vice Presidents of AFSCME.

The Women Innovating Labor Leadership (WILL) Empower project launched in June, when the Berger-Marks Foundation (dedicated to Edna Berger, the Newspaper Guild-CWA’s first female lead organizer) closed its doors and announced it was passing $1.5 million in assets to the program, a legacy project to continue and expand the foundation’s work in supporting female leadership in both union and non-union organizations. The project brings together Georgetown’s Kalmanovitz Initiative (KI) and Rutgers’s Center for Innovation in Worker Organization (CIWO). Windham of KI and Sheri Davis-Faulkner of CIWO lead the project with decades of experience in worker’s rights and women’s rights as organizers, leaders and scholars.

“The project is coming at a very crucial moment for the labor movement, especially for women who are more likely to be affected by recent economic transformations,” says Joseph McCartin, the director of KI.

The 1970s represented a “moment of working-class promise,” says Lane Windham, co-director of WILL Empower, as new laws brought more women and people of color into the work force. The union participation rate for all African American women rose to about 25 percent, and 30 percent for all women. Organizing jobs opened up in unions and women took on jobs as organizers and elected leaders. But when the 1980s saw greater employer resistance lead to a downturn in union activity, women were disproportionately affected.

“On one hand, I knew I had to work twice as hard to show that a woman could lead the biggest department in the AFL-CIO,” says CIWO Director Marilyn Sneiderman, who was the union’s first female national field director from 1995 to 2003. “But on the other hand, I needed to create space for more women to be involved in those roles. WILL Empower is a continuation of my passion in life to support emerging women leaders and help create space for them to lead.”

WILL Empower, scheduled to open its doors in September, will use a multilevel approach to support women in the workforce and the rise of women in leadership positions. According to Windham, the project will offer fellowships to people who want to step away from day-to-day work to build the workers’ movement, and an interactive educational project to students. Georgetown and Rutgers will also run cross-organizational leadership cohorts for women in executive leadership positions.

“There is nothing in the labor movement that helps women who are going to be taking over as regional directors and presidents,” Sneiderman says. “But people can learn so much from each other on how to build the most effective organization they can.”

According to McCartin, WILL Empower’s grassroots collaboration is the key to changing the labor movement.

“We can’t wait for action from Washington or the passage of legislation,” McCartin says. “Change has to happen from the bottom up.”