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Robert Drago's picture

Back in the day, the average American thought of unions as mainly involving white guys who work in factories, pull down enough income to support a wife at home raising children, have two cars and a house in the suburbs, and look forward to a comfortable retirement at the end of the road. That stereotype was always inaccurate, as it ignored the fact that most unions have and do struggle to represent the rights of relatively powerless workers. And that myth is, if anything, more exaggerated in the media today due to the current battle between the wealthy owners of the National Football League and the high-priced members of its players' union.

None of this alters the fact that the myth is... just a myth. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), only three groups increased union membership numbers between the years 2000 and 2009: women, Hispanics, and part-time employees. For each group, the increase involved between 200,000 and 300,000 new union members, and that is after accounting for the recession year of 2009.

These are not privileged groups. As of 2009, the median weekly earnings of unionized women were $833, with a comparable figure of $763 for Hispanics. The BLS does not report figures for unionized employees working part-time, but the 2009 figure for all part-timers was $226 per week, and the figure for union members cannot be a lot higher. So, the highest wages among the fastest-growing groups of union members amount to a little over $41,000 for a 50 week year (that would be for women). I do not believe there is any location in this country where $41,000 would be enough to spring for a house and two cars and to financially support a non-employed partner and children.

How are unions attracting these new members? A recent report from the Berger-Marks Foundation spotlighted the results of a summit involving different generations of women union activists, and the conclusions of the young participants are particularly striking. Surprisingly to me, they suggested that Facebook and Twitter are not all that important - people are more likely to join a union when there is face-to-face contact, and when they feel like they are part of a 'real' instead of 'virtual' community. These tactics are all the more important when those being organized do not have and cannot afford an internet connection (duh...).

More generally, these young women are striving to create a union movement that is more inclusive of those who are young and diverse, and leaders who are team-oriented, promote open-minded thinking, exhibit mutual respect, and value work and life balance. The numbers provided above suggest this is already happening, but these young women want to go further. Indeed, some even expressed empathy for "tea party" members, demonstrating a remarkable understanding of the deep anger and sense of powerlessness that motivates many to identify with the tea party.

The values expressed by these young women bode well for the future of the union movement. I believe they have the ability to bring together disempowered individuals and groups across the spectrum of difference - ranging from gender to occupation, to race, ethnicity, age, religion, and sexual orientation. They may tend to use contemporary phrasing like "inclusion" in their thinking, but they clearly recognize a historical constant in the underlying purpose of the vast majority of unions: to provide voice to those with none, power to those who have little, and respect to those being disrespected in the workplace. That is a noble calling, and we are fortunate to have such committed and principled women working on this mission. And, oh yes, did I forget to mention that they are already making a difference? They are: the numbers don't lie.

Robert Drago is Research Director at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research and a Professorial Fellow at the University of Melbourne, is a co-founder and co-chair of the TakeCare Net. He previously served as a Senior Economist for the Joint Economic Committee of Congress, as Professor of Labor Studies and Women's Studies at Penn State University, and is past president of the College and University Work-Family Association. He holds a Ph.D. in Economics from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and was a Senior Fulbright Research Scholar. The author of four books and over 70 articles, his most recent books are Striking a Balance: Work, Family, Life and the 3rd edition of Unlevel Playing Fields:Understanding Wage Inequality and Discrimination, published by Dollars & Sense in 2007and 2010, respectively. His research concerns working time flexibility, pay equity, biases against caregiving in the academic workplace, and public policies for working families. He is a member of the Council on Contemporary Families and the International Association for Feminist Economics.

Truth in advertising: I recently became Research Director for the Institute for Women's Policy Research, which has a long and distinguished record regarding women's activism and leadership in unions.

This blog is part of the Peaceful Revolution series that explores innovative ideas to strengthen America's families through public policies, business practices, and cultural change. Done in collaboration with, read a new post here each week.

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