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Black Women: Labor Resource in Waiting

Black women join unions at higher rates than all other women, yet they are “the most underutilized leadership resource in the U.S. labor movement,” says a recent report by the Institute for Policy Studies.
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By Joye Barksdale ·
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Black Women: Labor Resource in Waiting
Black women join unions at higher rates than all other women, yet they are “the most underutilized leadership resource in the U.S. labor movement,” says a recent report by the Institute for Policy Studies.

Black women join unions at higher rates than all other women, yet they are “the most underutilized leadership resource in the U.S. labor movement,” says a recent report by the Institute for Policy Studies.

And Still I Rise: Black Women Labor Leaders’ Voices, Power, Promise,” profiles several women who achieved leadership positions within their unions.

The report was the focus of a recent reception and panel discussion at the AFL-CIO, which is exhibiting photos of the profiled women.

The report includes a January 2015 national survey of 467 black women, representing more than 35 unions and the AFL-CIO. Fewer than 3 percent of them held elected positions and fewer than 20 percent held senior staff positions at a director level or higher.

Only 23 percent of the respondents said the feminist movement represents the interests of black women. Almost half said a glass ceiling prevents them from “growth and promotion” in the labor movement.

“This leadership gap for black women is a detriment to the growth and survival of unions,” wrote the authors, Kimberly Freeman Brown and Marc Bayard. Furthermore, they said, it could mean that organizing black women “will not be a high priority for the labor movement.”

The labor movement is not alone underrepresenting black women as managers and leaders. In corporations, black women hold only 5.3 percent of managerial and professional positions, according to the Center for American Progress and Catalyst.

While black women may have mentors at work, those mentors often don’t use their influence to advocate on their behalf, the report concludes. “And those are exactly the types of mentors women need to advance their careers.”

Recommendations of the report include creating a “pipeline project”  to recruit black labor women to key staff positions and boards of directors; expanding existing mentorship programs and creating new opportunities; positioning black labor women as strategists in the media; and creating collaborative organizing projects between labor, community groups and organizations focused on black women.

Three of the 27 women profiled in the report are members of the AFSCME family: Arlene Holt Baker, retired executive vice president of the AFL-CIO and former AFSCME organizer and area director in California; Alice Goff, president of AFSCME District Council 36 and L.A. City Clerical and Support Employees (AFSCME Local 3090); and Pierrette "Petee" Talley, secretary-treasurer of the Ohio AFL-CIO, who began her career with AFSCME Ohio Council 8 and was later AFSCME’s political and legislative director in Michigan.

“There is great promise for the future of the labor movement to grow stronger if it utilizes the intellect, the organizing skills, the political skills, the bargaining power, and the leadership skills of more black women at every level of our movement,” said Holt Baker, who spoke at the reception.

Increasing the number of black women who are labor leaders is about justice as well as success, said AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka.

“The data says that organizing drives led by black women, and organizing black women, have the highest chances for success,” he said. “In fact, when black women use their collective voice to win, our entire society gets a lift.”

The AFL-CIO recently created the Labor Commission on Racial and Economic Justice to explore racial issues within the labor movement. In addition, the AFL-CIO earlier this month hosted the first in a series of 10 Race and the Labor Movement town halls, intended to be conversations on race and the role it plays in the lives of workers across the nation. 

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