A Labor Movement That’s More About Women

America’s most significant worker protections are failing to protect millions of female employees. As unions decline, can smaller advocacy groups change that?

Restaurant Opportunities Center co-founder Saru Jayaraman leads a 2005 meeting. (Bebeto Matthews / AP)

The labor movement was once led by male union bosses representing a mostly male workforce. They fought for protections that tended to benefit men; in some cases, male union leaders brushed aside the needs and priorities of women or excluded them altogether.

The University of Toledo law professor Nicole Buonocore Porter writes that many unions in the early 1900s excluded women from their ranks because they feared that the competition would lower men’s wages and harm the traditional family structure. As late as 1992, only 7 percent of women in unions had contracts that guaranteed equal pay for equal work. Even the Fair Labor Standards Act—one of the most significant pieces of pro-labor legislation in American history—was the result of compromises that excluded many low-earning women, such as domestic and clerical workers, from its key protections such as the minimum wage, according to the University of Virginia law professor Risa Goluboff.

But today’s working world is different. Women now make up 47 percent of the American workforce and are the equal if not primary breadwinners in 40 percent of families. In 2014, about 60 percent of women aged 16 and older worked outside of the home, up from about 33 percent in 1950 and 43 percent in 1970. As the workforce’s demographics have changed, so have unions. About half of union members today are women, many of the highest positions are held by women, and the issues that most affect women—such as paid family leave and child care—have landed among their top priorities.

At the same time, though, unions aren’t the powerhouses they once were. Since the 1950s, when unions had their highest rate of membership, the economy has changed and anti-labor legislation has proliferated. The vast majority of working women—about 90 percent—do not belong to unions. (Nor do the vast majority of men, for that matter.) As a result, for millions of working women today, improving working conditions at the bargaining table—the traditional and arguably most effective way of doing so—is just not an option.

The decline of unions has contributed to a flourishing of labor advocacy groups that are often called either “alt-labor groups” “new actors,” or “worker centers.” Janice Fine, a professor at Rutgers University, has been researching these kinds of organizations since 1992. Back then, there were only five worker centers in the country, she says, and they focused mainly on helping workers understand what rights they already had, and then helping them to make a legal case when those rights were violated, but not obtaining new rights.

But by 2012, the number of worker centers had grown to 214 and expanded their scope. Now, they wage campaigns for pro-labor legislation, experiment with new forms of organization and coalition building, conduct research, and provide resources and education to workers and employers. As they’ve grown, worker centers have become one of the most potent forces for advancing women’s economic interests, such as equal pay, equal protection under the law, and access to family-friendly workplace benefits. It’s no coincidence that many of the most prominent alt-labor groups are run by women.

One of these is the Restaurant Opportunities Center United, or ROC, led by the organization’s co-founder and co-director, Saru Jayaraman. A lawyer, professor, and acclaimed labor organizer, Jayaraman and her colleagues created ROC to support the surviving workers of a restaurant located at the World Trade Center in 2001. Since then, they have won more than $10 million in back wages for restaurant workers, waged successful political campaigns, and built a membership of 18,000 restaurant workers in 15 states.

Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that the restaurant industry is one of the country’s largest and fastest-growing employers, with more than 11 million employees, many of whom depend on tips. According to the National Women’s Law Center, tipped workers face poverty at twice the rate of the rest of the workforce. Two-thirds of that group are women.

In the course of widespread debate about whether to raise the federal minimum wage above $7.25, the fact that there are actually two federal minimum wages is often overlooked. Most workers are supposed to get $7.25 per hour (or more, where states have imposed a higher minimum rate), but tipped workers are promised a base rate of only $2.13 per hour. While employers are required to “top off” their staff’s wages when tips don’t bring their wages up to at least the higher minimum wage, many employers neglect to make up the difference—and they rarely face penalties. This state of affairs is in large part because each time the federal minimum wage has been raised, the National Restaurant Association, one of the nation’s most powerful lobbies, fights hard to keep the minimum wage for tipped workers frozen, arguing that raising the minimum wage would force restaurateurs to reduce hours, lay off staff, or close their doors.

Making matters worse, the dependence on tips forces many women to stomach frequent sexual harassment from customers. According to ROC, women restaurant workers suffer from “the worst sexual harassment of any industry in the United States.” For example, as Aisha Thurman, a restaurant worker, told ROC, men “think, you know, my body is for them to enjoy, to look at, touch, say what they want. They think if they throw me a couple dollars in the form of a tip, it’s OK.” And bosses often brush aside the complaints of female workers.“I’ve on occasion gone to a manager and told them, you know, ‘This guest is being a little bit difficult, and I’m not sure how to handle it,’” a restaurant worker named Ashley Ogogor told Democracy Now.  “And they ask me, ‘Well, what are they saying?’ Just, you know, comments about how pretty I am, and, you know, I’ve had guests ask me out on dates. And they said….it’s OK, you know? You should be fine.”

In an effort to reduce the widespread poverty and sexual harassment restaurant workers face, Jayaraman and ROC launched a campaign called “One Fair Wage.” The campaign aims to eliminate the lower minimum wage for tipped workers or eliminate tipping altogether. In the past three years, One Fair Wage legislation has been introduced in eight states, and, most recently, won the support of Hillary Clinton and the Democratic party's platform. The primary beneficiaries of such a law would be women, though men who work for tips would of course be helped too.

Another majority-women class that is unprotected by conventional labor laws is domestic workers. According to a national survey, there are between two and three million domestic workers in the United States. Ninety-five percent of them are women, almost half are immigrants, and almost a quarter of them are paid below the minimum wage. Like the separate minimum wage for tipped workers, domestic workers are not protected by one of the broadest and most powerful labor laws in the United States, the National Labor Relations Act. They are prohibited from joining unions or engaging in collective bargaining and excluded from basic overtime and safety protections.

Ai-jen Poo is the founder of the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA), one of the largest of the alt-labor groups. The NDWA may be best known for its campaigns for “Domestic Bill of Rights” legislation, first passed in New York state, with several others following suit, which aim to better align working conditions for domestic workers with conventional labor standards.

Improving working conditions for domestic workers is particularly difficult given that, by definition, they work in private spaces, almost always by themselves. What’s more, the intimate nature of their work—often caring for vulnerable loved ones—means that maintaining the relationship between the employer and worker is critical.

“The traditional oppositional model of bargaining is one that doesn’t work in our sector,” Poo told me. “And that’s forced us to be creative about finding the right partnerships and the right opportunities to elevate working conditions and standards together with employers and consumers.”

In large part, the poor conditions for domestic workers stem from the culture around the work. Many employers of domestic workers don’t think of themselves as employers. It’s for that reason that one of the NDWA’s largest priorities in campaigns and partnerships is to open the eyes of employers (who in this case are also consumers), helping them to value the work more as well as understand the difficulties domestic workers face, and to commit to improving working conditions.

With its partners, NDWA has won legislation that aims to protect domestic workers in seven states. Since its founding in 2007, it has formed partnerships with 53 organizations across the country and started its first local chapter in Atlanta, which, all told, represent some 20,000 nannies, housekeepers, and caregivers for the elderly. They’ve also worked with Care.com to raise awareness about the issues domestic workers face and establish high standards for working conditions. They are also experimenting with providing training and benefits to dues-paying members. Taken together, NDWA is using several strategies to find new ways to improve both the culture around its industry and the economic well-being of domestic workers, all without necessarily organizing domestic workers into unions or forming new ones.

“We’re on the front lines of developing a vision for the future of workers’ movements in this country, and there are some unions who are partners in that endeavor,” Poo told me. “But we are trying to look to what’s next.”


Both in spite of and because of considerable obstacles, alt-labor groups like ROC and NDWA have set a promising example of how to advance labor interests. “The shift of activity has clearly moved to more general advocacy than from the unions,” says Ariane Hegewisch, a researcher at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

But what isn’t clear is whether alt-labor groups can scale their impact without unions. The question in part boils down to funding models. Large unions are funded by dues-paying members; by contrast, alt-labor groups often depend on small, foundation-funded budgets and the support of traditional unions whose future is uncertain. Unions have resources, infrastructure, political connections, and members that can be mobilized—all things that non-union groups do not necessarily have. When unions are involved in campaigns, “there are much bigger victories,” says Ruth Milkman, a professor of sociology at City University of New York (CUNY).

One of the biggest unions, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), has partnered with alt-labor groups and community organizations including NDWA and ROC in campaigns around the country, their best-known being the “Fight for 15.” “[Unions] are the single independent, self-sustaining, self-financing movement in the entire progressive space,” SEIU president Mary Kay Henry told me. “We operate at a scale that nobody else can at this moment.”

One of the best examples of this is California’s Paid Family Leave law. In 2002, a union-led coalition of labor advocacy groups and unions, including the AFL-CIO, campaigned to expand unemployment disability compensation to include people who take time off to care for a loved one or newborn. As the first state to pass a law that requires paid family leave, it was a landmark victory for labor and women in particular. Three other states now have similar laws on the books. According to labor experts, their campaigns would have failed without the work of unions. “We never would have won without labor support,” says Netsy Firestein, who led the coalition that campaigned for the California law and later founded the Labor Project for Working Families.

Another major limitation of alt-labor’s emphasis on broad legislative change is that passing a law is one thing, but enforcing it is another. Perhaps the most important purpose of a union is to make sure that contracts and labor laws are followed and enforced. When workers are on their own, employers routinely violate labor laws because the penalties are small and the Department of Labor is not well-resourced enough to investigate every claim.

Milkman, the CUNY professor, researched the same paid family law in California. She found that most low-income workers were not aware of the program. Thirty-seven percent of workers, even if they were aware of paid family leave and needed it, feared that their employer would be unhappy with them for taking it, would block them from advancement, or fire them. A separate survey showed that only 36 percent of voters in California were aware of the program.

Having led such a challenging campaign to victory, Firestein says that the fact that so many workers did not know about or exercise their new rights after the law passed “drove [her] insane.”

“Enforcement and awareness is a hard slog, and a lot of groups don’t know how to do it,” Firestein told me. “What happens is that groups pass laws, and then they go on to the next thing. Somebody has to stay behind and do that grunt work of making sure people know about it.” (One alt-labor group, Family Values At Work, is focused on precisely that.)

Milkman says that NDWA and groups like them have won significant victories but haven’t figured out how to bring their model to scale. “They’ve  been very successful at naming and shaming, shining a bright light on abuses,” Milkman told me. “But winning concrete benefits for domestic workers, not so much, because the legislation is largely symbolic.”

SEIU sees its partnerships with alt-labor groups as both a way to advance its political ambitions and an investment in the union’s own members. “The only way to address my standard of living is to throw the doors of the union open and encourage as many people as possible to join together and wage a fight, and make what we see as the central demand of [$15 an hour] and a union,” Henry told me.

Karen Nussbaum, the former director of U.S. Department of Labor’s Women’s Bureau and director of Working America, the community affiliate of the AFL-CIO, says that alt-labor organizations are doing exciting and worthwhile work, but eventually will have to find a way to turn their political momentum into economic power. “To make change you need movement and institution,” she told me. “Right now we’re much stronger on the movement side and a little weaker on the institution side.”

Nussbaum continues, “Right now you’ve got huge economic pressures on families, you’ve got the fact that women are still largely responsible for their families and communities as well as their jobs. If we create organizations where women can exert leadership and feel at home, then we’re likely to solve problems that are besetting working people as a whole.”

Even though the majority of the American public has favorable views of labor unions, and unions are one of the institutions that is most likely to improve women’s working conditions, the political climate and segmentation of the economy make their chances of a significant resurgence small. The alt-labor model appears to be capable of taking on some of the union’s mantle and winning victories for large groups of working women. The traditional unions, Jayaraman says, are even copying ROC’s model.

“It’s not just us. It’s lots of people seeing that you can engage people in the shop floor, but you can also engage them in a lot of other ways,” Jayaraman says.

Alt-labor groups are contributing new and creative ways to advocate for working women and workers generally without being confined to the traditional union structure. Without having to invest so much of their time and resources into collective bargaining and drawn-out battles to gain membership, alt-labor groups can move quickly, test new ideas, and find ways to help workers that unions haven’t been able to reach.

For their part, unions still have a critical role. They protect good jobs for their members,  increase those members’ earnings, and have a funding and institutional structure that enables these victories to reach huge numbers of people.

These aren’t oppositional roles. As Firestein told me, “I wouldn’t say [alt-labor groups are] an alternative to labor unions. It’s working hand-in-hand. Nobody’s going to do it by themselves.” The harder question—and the one whose consequences will matter for millions of American women—is whether they can do it together.