Our Days, Our Lives: Working Women Need a Voice on the Job

, Secretary-Treasurer of the AFL-CIO

Shirley Chisholm broke ground as the first African-American woman elected to Congress. But back in 1970, she knew her story was the exception, not the rule. Speaking during a debate on the Equal Rights Amendment, she said and I quote: “Discrimination against women, solely on the basis of their sex, is so widespread that it seems…normal, natural and right.”

Normal, natural, and right. With three simple words, Chisholm captured just how pervasive gender discrimination had become. But what about now? What exactly is the state of working women 45 years later? Or as someone might say in the midst of a long journey: are we there yet? The answer is complicated. While the ERA ultimately fell short, women in the workplace have gained a great deal — laws to protect our rights, new freedoms, and career opportunities that were once thought unimaginable.

Today women serve as doctors, lawyers, soldiers, and astronauts. They run big corporations like Yahoo and Pepsi.

They are police chiefs and baseball umpires and electricians — jobs once reserved exclusively for men. And there’s a pretty good chance a woman will be leading the free world in January 2017. No one can deny that progress has been made.

But there is another side of the coin. While the discrimination that Chisholm referred to as pervasive and widespread is less overt today, it still exists. It is experienced by every woman who takes home a smaller paycheck than her male counterpart for doing the same job. It is felt by every mother who is denied a promotion because she wants to balance work and family. It hangs like a dark cloud over every victim of workplace harassment, discrimination, and violence.

Even as we celebrate the advancement of women in work, the harsh reality is too many of us struggle when we shouldn’t have to. Sheryl Sandberg asked us to “lean in.”

But most working women are already leaning in so hard we are practically falling over. We are being forced to hang on, scrape by, and make do.

But, as usual, working women are rising to the occasion. We understand that our growing role in the workforce carries new responsibilities — financial responsibilities, for example, as heads of households, and decision making responsibilities in our homes, communities and jobs. We embrace these responsibilities as part of making progress.

What we don’t accept — what we have to stop accepting — is the price society demands from us in return: little to no say over the days of our lives.

The feminist author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie put it this way, powerful words brought to light in Beyoncé’s hit song Flawless:

We teach girls to shrink themselves.

To make themselves smaller.

We say to girls.

You can have ambition.

But not too much.

You should aim to be successful.

But not too successful.

Otherwise you will threaten the man.

For too long, women have been told to reach high, but not too high. To dream big, but not too big. And at the same time, working women have been asked to shrink ourselves. To assume it is our job to tidy up after a meeting. To duck our heads when men stare at us. To smile when we don’t feel like it. To be happy we have a job at all. And when we dream, to do it quietly and be content that it probably won’t work out.

Not anymore. We need to make our voices heard.

The status quo is not working. A typical woman who works full time loses more than half a million dollars over her lifetime because we are paid less than men. Women are the majority in low-wage jobs. Women have a greater share of responsibility at home but, if we don’t have the benefit of a union, are unlikely to have earned sick leave or paid family leave.

This is especially the case for women of color. I’m a proud feminist and I suspect many of you are as well, which has guided our progress on issues from health care to reproductive rights.

But we feminists cannot ignore who has been left out and left behind — namely women of color.

Women of color experience lower median weekly earnings, higher rates of poverty, and greater unemployment. While women overall make 79 cents on the dollar, black women and Hispanic women only make 63 cents and 54 cents, respectively. Yet the women’s movement — and yes, the labor movement — have been slow to address these issues. We cannot outsource this work to others. As feminists, we must stand up for all working women.

We need to stand up for workers like Tina Sandoval. I had the privilege of meeting her last week in Oakland. When I got the chance to speak with Tina, she had just finished an overnight shift at McDonald’s and only gotten an hour of sleep. With tears in her eyes, she talked about being paid barely enough to afford her 500 square foot apartment, let alone care for her children.

“We’re all struggling,” she said to me.

Managing life on a low income can be a full-time job in itself. Take three buses to work because you can’t afford to live closer. Take another bus to the grocery store because your corner market doesn’t have fruit or vegetables. Have two extra trips to the doctor because you don’t eat enough fruits and vegetables. Hunt for where you can buy a pair of used skates for your son’s birthday because you can’t afford new ones.

Struggling is a verb. It is hard work.

Unfortunately, corporate policies are making our schedules less predictable, less flexible, and less fair. Just look at the practice known as “clopening” — where workers are forced to come in for back to back closing and opening shifts — with only 7 or 8 hours between. Working women are being left with less control over how much time we can spend with our families, and when. Less say about simple things, like getting ourselves or our kids to the doctor, being active in our congregations, meeting with a teacher, getting more education or training, reading a book, or watching our favorite show. Advancing at work shouldn’t mean surrendering the rest of life.

Unfair scheduling is not an equal opportunity problem. It primarily affects low-wage workers, two-thirds of whom are women. But many higher income women get trapped in the 24/7 workday too. Their version of “clopening” is falling asleep and waking up with their smartphone clutched in their hand. As one employee at Amazon told the New York Times: “The joke in the office was that when it came to work/life balance, work came first, life came second, and trying to find the balance came last.”

Don’t get me wrong. We understand that the vast majority of CEOs are not sitting around thinking about ways to hurt their workers. What they are doing — what the corporate culture demands of them — is to cut costs and increase the bottom line. But the burden of this system, which is driven by money, is being endured exclusively by workers. CEOs aren’t being asked to “clopen.” Companies aren’t cutting executive pay to save money.

Technology is being used to bolster shareholder profits instead of shared prosperity.

And society is quietly accepting this as nothing more than business as usual. We as women know about quiet acceptance. Too often, we go along to get along. And this enables all sorts of seemingly benign decisions to chip away at our rights, our freedoms, and our opportunities. When quiet acceptance becomes business as usual, we risk relegating ourselves to second class status where it really counts: our daily lives.

We have to make quiet acceptance the enemy. We have the power to change this pattern. We need to join together and speak out for good wages, great benefits, fair scheduling and equal pay for equal work. We need to demand paid sick leave, paid family leave, and quality child care. These things are accessible and available to us if we stand together for them.

With one contract, union membership can achieve most of the goals I just identified. As the single largest working women’s organization in America, we can also drive up wages and standards in predominately female and low-wage industries.

But I understand that unions are not available for everyone. The small business owner, the middle manager, and the independent contractor need a way forward too, as do the workers at companies that make it virtually impossible to unionize.

So whether a worker can form a union or not, it is through collective action — by standing together instead of going it alone — that women can regain control of our lives.

We saw the power of collective action at Walmart. Seven months into her pregnancy, Tiffany Beroid was told by her doctor she needed to take on lighter duties at work. But Tiffany’s managers would not budge. They forced her to take a leave of absence. Eventually she had to drop out of school because she couldn’t afford both supporting her family and paying for tuition.

Tiffany knew what happened to her was wrong. She connected with other Walmart workers from across the country on Facebook and found out she was not alone. They formed a worker-led group called “Respect the Bump,” holding events, sending letters, and even introducing a shareholder resolution. And groups like the United Food and Commercial Workers Union and the National Women’s Law Center took up their fight. Shortly after these actions, Walmart changed its pregnancy policy to allow for accommodations.

If women can change Walmart, we can change the world.

Our movement has always been about being able to control our own destinies. About having the same rights, opportunities, and responsibilities as men. About being equal under the law and in our everyday lives. Now is the time to step back and truly assess what we are missing and what more we can be doing.

First, as a labor movement, our approach always begins with worker voice. What’s good for working women is good for all trade unions. Millions of us will come together this year and bargain for a better life. But we must do more. So today we’re launching a comprehensive survey about the lives of working women. We developed it with broad cross-section of union women… retail workers, school administrators and teachers… home care workers and professional employees… clerical workers, actors and machinists.

This survey will take the pulse of working women inside and outside the labor movement. It will be a baseline measure of working women’s lives, our stories. Stories that we will share over and over again until all working women are heard — women of color, immigrant women, women in jobs across America.

Second, we need to take these stories and unite behind a policy agenda that gives working women more rights on the job and more freedom in their daily lives. Last week, Congressman Paul Ryan made work-life balance a condition of his speakership. That took some nerve, especially for someone who has voted against every single proposal to give workers more time and flexibility.

We support paid leave for Paul Ryan.

But you shouldn’t have to be Speaker of the House to spend time with your family.Tina Sandoval, Tiffany Beroid and workers all across America should have these same rights.

That’s why it’s so important that we pass the Schedules that Work Act, the Healthy Families Act, and the WAGE Act, legislation which would help level the playing field and give working women the opportunity to live healthy, happy, and productive lives.

Finally, there is good old fashioned negotiating. Union women do it all the time — contracts, arbitrations, mediations, disputes, you name it. This is about knowing what we want, determining fair ground rules, and then hashing it out on a level playing field. We want to pass on our experiences and our skills. So we are going to train, cajole, encourage, support, and inspire women to win better wages, standards, and working conditions the best way we know how — through solidarity.

As working women, we have to stretch what we know and expand our idea of progress. We refuse to rest on our laurels. We refuse to leave anyone behind. For every advance we have made, we must ask: what’s next and what’s after that? Simply keeping up isn’t good enough. We have to go the extra mile for all women to truly benefit.

45 years ago, Shirley Chisholm described gender discrimination as normal, natural, and right. We have come a long way since then, but our work is still unfinished.

Working women are a formidable force. Together, we can make equal pay, paid leave, and fair scheduling the law of the land. Together, we can pledge to never shrink ourselves and always stand up for our rights. Together, we can reject quiet acceptance and build an America where all working women can sustain their families and realize their dreams. Today we are closer than ever. Tomorrow, if we do our job, it will be normal, natural, and right.

Crosspost from Medium