Academic journal article Hecate

What Do Women Want from Union Representation?

Academic journal article Hecate

What Do Women Want from Union Representation?

Article excerpt

Why women join unions is not a question that has elicited much interest from the industrial relations community. Despite the many studies of union organizing efforts among men, there are but few that investigate this issue in relation to women. [1] Given the central role that women have played in sustaining the union movement in Canada [2] and elsewhere, one would expect the field to be awash with new research. That this is not the case tells us that, insofar as women are concerned, the academic discipline of industrial relations is out of step with practice.

What we know (or think we know) about women and unions in industrial relations comes not from the study of women themselves but is largely a by-product of the research on union growth. [3] Perversely, this literature tells us both that women are fundamentally different from men and that women are just like men. The earliest studies marked women as a problem for unions. From the 'fact' of women's historically lower rates of union membership was deduced the 'theory' of women's lower propensity to unionize. When the literature was blunt and at its most sexist, the argument was simple. Whether by nature or by socialisation women were not willing to join unions: '[a]s many observers know, women are (generally) not union-oriented. They dislike the thought of strikes, pickets, violence.' [4] For many scholars it was self-evidently true that the future growth of the union movement was severely limited by the growing number of women entering the labour force. This 'saturation school' assumption was so widely accepted in the discipline that many studies (both macro and micro) employed gender as an explanatory variable without any discussion whatsoever. [5] Others justified the use of gender as an independent variable, reciting the well-rehearsed but little-investigated argument that unionisation was less cost effective for women because they were only temporarily attached to the labour force or because they considered their wages to be a supplement to the family income. Some even argued that women should be excluded from the union density equation [6] altogether on the grounds that 'they are either 'unorganisable' or that their organisation is not 'essential' to the trade union movement.' [7]

The idea that women were innately 'hard to organise' was exposed as wrong-headed once researchers adopted more sophisticated statistical tools. Notwithstanding the fact that union density remains lower among women, studies of union growth that utilised regression or discriminant analysis revealed that gender was rarely a statistically significant variable. Using time-series data from eight countries, Bain and Price showed that patterns of union growth among women mirrored those of men. And similar findings have been reported by researchers engaged in micro-level studies.8 In their review of the literature, Wheeler and McClendon conclude that individual-level research 'has revealed no relationship between gender and propensity to vote for union formation' (emphasis in the original).[9] Also telling were data from surveys of workers' attitudes which indicated that women, today, may be more inclined to join unions than men.[10]

These findings forced researchers to abandon their sexist assumptions about who women are, in favour of a more systematic investigation of what women do)' Clearly, such a shift in understanding is of great importance to both women and the study of industrial relations. To move away from a theory that tags women as reluctant trade unionists by nature (or nurture) to one that focuses attention on their work experiences, is potentially to move women from the margins of the discipline to the centre. And yet, it is hard to be enthusiastic about a change in theory that arose entirely through empirical investigation. That industrial relations thinking about women and unions has slipped seamlessly from 'pre-feminist' to 'post-feminist'--that is, from a model of gender difference to one of gender similarity--is a less thorough-going change than it might appear. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.