Groups launch new initiative for women’s equality

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WASHINGTON - Saying the nation cannot wait any longer to make women economic equals, women's organizations, activists, and lawmakers got together here Sept. 18 and launched a women's economic intiative that includes not just reproductive rights but pay equity, good jobs, and economic justice.

At a symposium here House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., influential Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., top Obama White House advisor Valerie Jarrett, speakers from the Service Employees and other allies declared the start of a grass-roots national campaign to enact the "Fair Shot: A Plan For Women And Families To Get Ahead."

That campaign, said Center for American Progress executive director Neera Tamden, recognizes the only way to move issues through a gridlocked Congress is to shove lawmakers with mobilized popular support. The Center was the sponsor of the Sept. 18 rollout of Fair Shot.

Pelosi, the keynote speaker, had unveiled a Democratic women's economic agenda last month, with support of the Coalition of Labor Union Women, among others. Both that agenda and the new Fair Shot campaign go far beyond concentration on reproductive rights to embrace pay equity, good jobs and a just economy.

When the 2013 AFL-CIO convention in Los Angeles earlier this month took up women's issues it too embraced the same expansive approach to women's agenda.

Another key similarity between what happened at the labor convention and both Pelosi's and the Fair Shot plan is that a top women's rights group, the National Organization for Women, are playing a leading role. NOW President Terry O'Neill did so at the convention in Los Angeles, where she strongly linked women and unionists on common issues. There, AFL-CIO delegates approved the federation's women's initiative, which called for demanding, "over and over again, shared prosperity for all. Nothing less.

"Over the next four years," the federation resolution adds - in language that Pelosi could herself use - "a core set of values will drive the labor movement's agenda and define our strategy for women's equality." It then lays out the action plan for them.

Equal pay for equal work tops the list of those plans. Fifty years after Congress approved the Equal Pay Act, women's median income is still only 77 cents for every dollar of a man's median income. For union women, it's closer to 90 cents. "Two-thirds of minimum wage workers are women, and women are the majority in the lowest-paying occupations," the resolution adds. "Those are problems for all of us."

The resolution pledged unions to "continue the fight to raise the minimum wage and close the wage gap," along with greater job training and educational opportunities for women - especially in sectors, such as construction, which are traditionally male - and "to make wage and benefit standards more transparent."

The AFL-CIO also linked work and family together in the resolution by reaffirming its support for Social Security and promising to campaign for paid sick leave, paid family and medical leave, creating "affordable and available quality child care," again backing reproductive choice and urging "fair (work) schedules alongside a fair wage."

The labor federation also intends to push more women workers into its leadership ranks, where they are still underrepresented. Seven of the 55 AFL-CIO Executive Council members are women, as is one of the three top officers, Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler.

Two members - Randi Weingarten of the Teachers and Diann Woodward of the School Administrators - are union presidents. Another, Rose Ann DeMoro, is executive director of National Nurses United. NNU's four female co-presidents are not council members. A fourth of the seven, Veda Shook, heads CWA's Flight Attendants sector.

"Women workers will be front and center of our effort to grow the labor movement, revitalize democracy, respond to the global economic crisis and build durable community partnerships," the federation adds. It also says the partnerships with other progressive groups, including women's groups, are necessary for the equality crusade.

O'Neill's NOW will be one of those key progressive groups partnering with the federation.

"At the national, state and local levels, our federations will integrate women's issues in every key strategy" the resolution declares. "Women should be engaged at all levels in strategy, outreach and implementation of political, organizing and issue campaigns, particularly those that have particular...relevance to women workers."

And the federation said its public policy and legislative efforts "will prioritize issues such as equal pay, paid family and medical leave and workforce development." Labor's political campaigns "will include issues such as paid sick days as a measure of commitment to labor's priorities."

In Los Angeles, O'Neill spoke frequently and passionately about the common and shared interests of women and unions in economic improvement and equality.

"In 2012, the 'war on women' became notorious. It's also the war on women's economic life," she told a press conference during the convention. "Two-thirds of minimum-wage workers are women and half of women workers are the sole or essential supporters of their families.

"So if a woman worker gets laid off, the family has to make a choice between food and rent," and the labor movement gets that, she said. She also pointed out that union foes targeted female-dominated unions. "Scott Walker's law went after women's unions -- teachers, health care workers, government workers - and left the police and fire fighters alone," O'Neill said, referring to the right wing GOP Wisconsin governor's 2011 law killing collective bargaining for most state and local government workers.

Photo: Flickr (CC)

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