On Friday, the AFL-CIO, the nation’s largest federation of labor unions, named its first woman president in its 65-year history. To judge by the AFL-CIO’s website or by recent headlines, Liz Shuler’s election simply confirms the federation’s stated commitments to social justice and represents the choice of a well-qualified candidate, as Shuler has long been the organization’s secretary-treasurer. But Shuler’s ascent was far from inevitable. Laboring women have always had to fight on two fronts at once. They have pursued rights and respect from employers, but they have also struggled with union “brothers” who often clung to exclusionary notions of labor by protecting white men’s prerogatives. While Shuler’s election reveals just how much has changed, it also signals the challenges to come.
The American workforce has been consistently unequal, reflecting the sexist and racist logics that shaped the nation at large. And while women’s labors have been essential to the economy, they have also been devalued, whether by being extracted through enslavement or culturally compelled by the ideology of domesticity. Despite that enduring trope, which held that women’s main duty was to care for their own families at home, most working-class women and women of color have historically had to keep their families afloat by earning a wage themselves. Since the 1960s, the percentage of all women who fit that description has only grown.
Rather than embrace laboring women as their comrades, the men who formed unions in the 19th and early 20th centuries generally tried to keep them out. They viewed women as competitors who would do their jobs at lower pay, and they defined themselves as breadwinners who needed wages that could sustain their dependent wives and children. When the American Federation of Labor formed in 1886, its mostly white and male members did not treat women as their equals even when they needed to collaborate across gendered lines to improve their workplaces. As women increasingly entered the industrial labor force in the early 20th century, the AFL responded by forming separate “ladies’ auxiliaries” and promoting protective labor laws that explicitly limited women’s hours and working conditions. Such provisions offered women some benefits, but they also “protected” them out of the highest-paid, most desirable jobs.
Women flocked to the industrial unions of the upstart Congress of Industrial Organizations amid the economic despair and labor militancy of the 1930s. Through violent struggle, these workers won access to good wages, seniority, and paid vacations. But male-led unions mostly stood by as employers kept men on top, retaining sex-based job classifications and discrimination in wages and benefits. The New Deal, a watershed for the nation’s working class, also hardened the divides within that population by giving primacy to white men and excluding many working women, especially women of color, from its provisions. The National Labor Relations Act of 1935, for example, protected workers’ right to form unions and strike but left out domestic and agricultural workers, which employed many of the most vulnerable laboring women.
At government officials’ urging, more women entered industrial work during World War II, where the gendered division of labor shifted but held. Most “Rosie the Riveters” lost those jobs at war’s end, but the work had raised their expectations, and they seized an important foothold in the labor movement by the 1950s. Often working through AFL-CIO-affiliated unions, an outspoken generation of midcentury feminists demanded justice for working women that included but far surpassed access to male-dominated jobs: economic security, racial equity, and acknowledgement by both unions and employers that women worked a “double day” on the job and at home.
These labor feminists included Addie Wyatt, who had searched in vain for a typist position in hypersegregated Chicago. Wyatt took a job at the Armour Meatpacking Plant in 1941. She never forgot the electrifying first meeting of her union, the United Packinghouse Workers of America: “a room full of Black and white workers, Hispanic workers, young and old, middle-aged workers, male and female,” discussing their common struggles around pay and working conditions as well as the specific problems facing each constituency. “I wanted to be a part of it,” she said. Wyatt was elected the first woman president of her local in 1954, and she rose through her union’s ranks, eventually becoming the first director of its Women’s Affairs Department in 1974.
Labor feminists and civil rights activists like Wyatt sought to make their unions more democratic—sometimes by applying force from outside them. Union women shepherded the creation of the National Organization for Women in 1966, which lobbied unions to strengthen their approach to women’s rights. “Nothing was going to happen unless you had a pressure group that was going to be pressuring,” explained NOW co-founder Dorothy Haener, an employee in the United Auto Workers International Union’s Women’s Department who helped make the UAW the first union to endorse the Equal Rights Amendment in 1970. NOW co-founder Catherine Conroy led a Communications Workers of America local in Milwaukee. She grew frustrated “spending all my time on the problems of these guys,” which seemed “trivial” compared with women members’ concerns. Union leaders passed her over for the position of Wisconsin state director, instead selecting a less qualified man. Conroy “hated” having to file state and federal claims of sex discrimination against her own union; her co-workers called her disloyal. Still, she explained, “if we don’t tolerate discrimination by companies, we certainly shouldn’t tolerate discrimination by the organizations that are supposed to protect our rights.” Wyatt, Haener, and Conroy were all instrumental in establishing the Coalition of Labor Union Women in 1974.
Laboring women fought on in the 1970s as employers squeezed workers in new ways. Despite strong new laws that mandated workplace equality and even affirmative action to address women’s and men of color’s past exclusion, several overlapping crises ended decades of postwar economic expansion. Corporate leaders declared an era of austerity, innovating tough measures that undermined organized labor and eroded the job security many Americans had taken for granted.
White men and the unions they led responded differently to this challenging new climate. Some embraced women as members, organizers, and leaders. For example, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees endorsed comparable worth, the theory that employers should root out pay discrimination by resetting wages based on work value rather than prevailing market rates. Other union men turned inward, defining women and men of color as undeserving of a boost into the blue-collar sphere. They stood by as employers set up court-manded affirmative action programs that funneled women into jobs that were already slated to disappear through automation, and forced Black women to accept lower settlement payouts and compete with white men for clerical positions, with white feminists’ blessing. And in male-dominated uniformed public sectors such as policing and firefighting, some unions backed new barriers to women’s access.
Today’s AFL-CIO, in its public-facing stance, adopts an inclusive approach. But its members—12.5 million American workers ranging from steelworkers and pipefitters to teachers and nurses—represent our nation in all its diversity. Late last week, the executive council of the Connecticut Building Trades debated whether to leave the state AFL-CIO, reflecting the long-strained relationship between the more conservative trades and the more progressive public sector unions the trades workers accused the union’s leadership of favoring. The council voted to remain, but the situation was tense. Organized labor was a “big tent,” explained Democratic Connecticut state Rep. Sean Scanlon. The movement’s diversity was “our greatest strength, but it’s also something that causes issues.”
Americans are currently embroiled in a debate about which kinds of work deserve public investment through President Joe Biden’s pending infrastructure bills. Some advocates are concerned that women workers and women-typed caring labor, which Biden and his allies have termed “human infrastructure,” will be cut out of Congress’ final deal. As California Rep. Katie Porter has pointed out, infrastructure has often been a unifying issue in a fractured capital because it has been “used … as code for ‘jobs for men.’ ” Indeed, men have filled 9 out of 10 “traditional” infrastructure jobs in the past. The AFL-CIO praised the U.S. Senate’s recent passage of the more traditional bipartisan infrastructure deal and called upon Congress to advance the human infrastructure–focused American Families Plan. The federation should do everything it can to ensure that both bills become law.
As Shuler takes office, union women will look to her to champion their expansive visions and specific concerns; employers will continue to try to pit groups of workers against one another in their crusade to depress conditions for everyone. Shuler explained earlier this month that if she were tapped for the presidency, “my job would be to promote unity and solidarity around a common agenda.” She will have to balance that mission against the one she laid out in accepting the office: “This is a moment for us to lead societal transformations—to leverage our power to bring women and people of color from the margins to the center.” Can she and her organization break from history and accomplish both goals at once? This year, they’re at the crossroads.