On Unions and Gender

By , 8 June, 2012, No Comment

I’ve got a post up at Foreign Exchange, my Forbes blog, today about some new research on the British labor movement. The paper takes two trends of the last 30 years – increasing numbers of women in the workforce and declining union participation – and wonders whether they are related. The researcher, Getinet Haile, finds a few ways they are:

1. As more women enter a workplace, union participation falls. Namely, workplaces with more than the median percentage of women see a 12-percentage point decline in union density relative to workplaces where the balance is below the median.

2. That decline has more to do with men than women. Men in the workforce are 15 percent less likely to be union members if their workplace – and therefore their union – has an above-the-median level of female participation. Women in the workforce are just 7 percent less likely to be union members in a diverse workplace.

3. In female-dominated workplaces, common in fields like education or social care, union membership is still strong, and indeed, actually increases with overall diversity – i.e. the entrance of men into these fields.

4. All of the above trends are stronger in the private sector than in the public sector.

Haile goes on to explain how cultural tensions inside unions may explain some of these trends. It’s a powerful reminder that while we talk about unions as built on an assumption of class solidarity, the union movement has historically relied on the common demographic makeup of the workforce (mostly white, mostly male) to act as a kind of social glue between workers. As the workforce grows more diverse – something we should celebrate – unions may have to find new ways of binding workers together. Or they may simply fade from relevance.

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