American Women Gain Clout in Unions After Pandemic Sacrifices

The unprecedented exodus of women from the workplace during the pandemic is empowering those who remain, helping spur a resurgence in labor organizing as industries such as health care, education and retail confront an acute shortage of jobseekers.

As unions and advocates gain more clout than they’ve had in years amid an increased appreciation for so-called essential workers, female-led professions like teaching and nursing are leading the way. Women are becoming a bigger share of the unionized workforce, and have played key roles in some of the 45 strikes since August tracked by Bloomberg Law.

More action could be on the way. Teachers in Scranton, Pennsylvania, plan to walk off the job today. Flight attendants at a regional carrier for American Airlines authorized a strike last month, and nurses are on the brink of striking at the Kaiser Permanente healthcare system in California. Workers at McDonald’s Corp. restaurants in 12 cities walked out Oct. 26 to draw attention to accusations of sexual harassment.

And while strikes among manufacturing workers at tractor maker Deere & Co. and cereal company Kellogg Co. are the most high-profile disputes of late, labor experts say industries with a higher percentage of women are poised to set the agenda for worker rights in the years to come.

“The most dynamic leaders in the labor movement, both on the national and the local level, are women,” said Brishen Rogers, a professor at the Georgetown University Law Center who focuses on labor and employment law. “Class and gender are completely intertwined here.”

Rogers is pointing to people like Liz Shuler, recently named the first female president of the AFL-CIO, the largest U.S. union federation; Sara Nelson, the international president of the Association of Flight Attendants; and Mary Kay Henry, the leader of the Service Employees International Union. They’ve emphasized the need to prioritize not only pay and benefits, but also issues that are traditionally less prominent -- like paid sick time, minimum staffing levels, schedule flexibility, mental health and workplace safety.