Unionization and the Second Wave: A Facility for Change

Founder of the NWDA, Ai-Jen Poo

"Respect All Work"

When looking over the history of Second Wave Feminism, one wonders how the labor movement, and unionization in particular, contributed to attaining social justice. Each movement exerted influence in seemingly different spheres with seemingly different groups of people. Perhaps, it might be easy to come to the conclusion that unions did not advance feminism and were simply an emergent phenomenon.

Yet, upon closer inspection, it is clear that unions and Second Wave Feminism were closely intertwined. Unions answered many questions of the second wave conveniently; for example, unionization answered how the increasing number of women were going to be integrated into the workforce and how they should be compensated. From this, one can see that even though the unionization spike was short-lived, it provided a vector for the Second Wave to influence legislation on the labor front.

The ultimate question about union's influence then becomes about whether they were not just a vector, but, as Dorothy Sue Cobble wrote, continued to be an "effective vehicle for the advancement of feminism," as they had been in the First Wave [10]. This is an important distinction; simply exisiting as an attachment to the movement does little to solidify unions' benefit to social justice as well as labor justice. With a judicious examination, unions did turn out to be just the effective vectors as Cobble would have hoped - but how? What exactly did unions do during the Second Wave and how did they become such an effective vehicle?

What Problems?

When attempting to discern how unions were valuable instruments of social change during the Second Wave, one must first look at what problems unions attempted to address. Relevant topics to the members of the Second Wave were skyrocketing, especially regarding labor rights [1].  Such issues contained both new problems from the Second Wave as well as continuations of those from the First Wave. Luckily, Second Wave unions solved many of these problems, but there are still some that continue to this day.

One of the major issues that unions attempted to tackle was pay. Deciding how to compensate women was difficult, as they were traditionally isolated from the male job sphere. However, during the late 60s and early 70s, female workers integrated into the economy very quickly. Rising from 34 percent in 1950 to 43 percent in the 1970s, female labor-force participation became a nontrivial issue for business and government entities [2]. They also began to perform conventionally “male” jobs. Unions, therefore, existed as a means to counteract unfair compensation policies.

The predecessor to the problem of pay was the integration of women into the workforce itself. As Milkman describes, the rapidity of the feminization of the work force was so great that it is, “widely recognized as the single most important transformation in the workplace, if not in the larger society, to occur during the postwar period,” [2]. Public sector unionism served as a way to usher women into a changing workforce.

Finally, unions gave women in particular an avenue to fight against the “twin-struggles of gender and class,” [2]. Unlike men in the workforce, women often worked a double day, in which they would attend work at conventional hours and deal with all domestic chores at night. This was, sadly, a continuation of a problem that women had in the First Wave. While imperfect, unions attempted to alleviate some of the stressors of the former half of the day.

Whose Problems?

Secondly, one must discuss who was involved in unions. While many white-collar, middle class white men and women were involved, there were also many people of color were involved, including those of Native descent. In fact, there were more people of color involved than white individuals. Such a ratio reached its peak with nearly twice as many black women enrolled in private unions as of the mid 1970s. A higher proportion of black men and women involved in unions compared to white men and women continues to this day. [4]

This diverse union membership paints a stark contrast to the working-class white women and white-men-only unions that one might have as a mental image. Such membership also represents how intertwined unionization and social justice goals of Second Wave Feminism were: unions were the common settings for people of all background. Unions, therefore, served as a spearhead for the rights of the most marginalized groups of people across the US.

Problem Solving

Unions solved problems very differently. Perhaps most important in the discussion of their structure is the categorization of unions into public and private. Previously, it was discussed that public sector unionism helped women into the workforce, but what exactly does that mean? Public unions are unions which protect employees in the public sector. These employees include government workers such as teachers, principles, and government scientists. Since women were often white-collar government workers involved in education, it was most often public sector unions who helped them [2]. Conversely, private unions deal with private employees; most manufacturing jobs, business administration, and private accountants would be examples of such employees that private unions protect.

Each type of union has certain rules on what it can and can’t do in regards to bargaining and formation. This is codified in the Wagner Act of 1935. Public unions largely were worse off because of this act. As Walker states, “The Wagner Act formally established private sector collective bargaining rights at the national level. This national floor of protection served as an organizing catalyst…. In contrast, the exclusion of public sector employees… meant that individual states and localities were left to negotiate with public sector unions on their own,” [5]. Ultimately, the Wagner Act hurts public unions significantly, and made it more difficult, but far from impossible, for them to contribute to the surge in the labor movement of the Second Wave.

When unions were able to solve problems, they took varying approaches. They most importantly served as an organizational structure for all social justice goals, but formally issued contracts between workers and employers. Such contracts were important for the unions survival, and cause unions to fight with each other for membership, such as in the Coachella Strikes of 1973 [6]. Indeed, such contracts were the fear of business owners, who would hold conferences with labor lawyers and industrial relations executives to attempt to gain the upper hand in such contracts [7].

It’s important to note that, because either union type was so different, they had differing views. For example, in the late 1970s in California, a bill to cap state property taxes and limit tax increases had disagreement among both sides. Private union members, struggling from stagflation, planned to vote for it, directly harming public union members, whose jobs were in government. Thus, unionization could even be at odds with itself [5].

Solutions! ...Now What?

With an overwhelming number of problems to solve, what exactly did unions help achieve? Politically active union members helped to provide support to pass many labor-specific and socially-progressive (for their time) pieces of legislation. Such legislation included the Equal Pay Act of 1963 and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967. Both acts dealt directly with labor issues – equal pay and equal work, which was only accomplished with the help of an organizational structure, unions. Moreover, unions could also by said to have helped pass legislation on the edges of the second wave: the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which dealt with labor and social justice, while the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act (1988) which dealt with telling an employee of his termination before the occurrence of a mass layoff [8].

However, as the Second Wave started to draw to a close, so did the hopes of a fully unionized, collective workforce. With a struggling economy in the late 70s and an increasingly unfavorable environment towards them, private unionization rates plummeted and never recovered [9]. One of the driving organizational factors behind the Second Wave was lost and increasing backlash towards feminism grew at around the same time.

A Problematic Verdict

Now, answering the ultimate question: did Second Wave unions provide a continued, effective vehicle for feminism as they had in the First Wave? The short answer, as stated in the introduction, is yes. Their existence spurred the creation of many labor rights acts. And, even in their sunset, acts like the WARN act would not have come into existence without extensive lobbying. Above all, they provided an organizational structure for marginalized and disenfranchised groups to come together. They acted as a nexus between the twin struggles of social justice and labor – a mirror of gender and class.

Yet, the long answer is more complicated. A difference in opinion between private and public unions made them decidedly at war with each other, albeit indirectly. Moreover, infighting between unions for control of workers does not make a compelling case for them being as effective as originally thought. Indeed, even at their sunset, their were still problems to solve. For example, while they did help to pass the Equal Pay Act of 1963, the pay gap between genders still exists today in some fields. So, perhaps, while they were very formally effective, they might not have been as effective in practice.

Overall, however, with their formal success, it is safe to say that they were an effective enough vector. Their decline at the end of the Second Wave shows how inextricably linked they were with the movement. In the end, the unionization of the Second Wave bolstered the movement with its organizational scaffold, lobbying, and diversity. Therefore, it is safe to say that it was the effective vehicle for the advancement of feminism that Cobble hoped for [10].


[1] Goss, Kristin A. "The Second Wave Surges—And Then?" In The Paradox of Gender Equality: How American Women's Groups Gained and Lost Their Public Voice, 48-75. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2013. Accessed October 29, 2020. http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.3998/mpub.4844961.6.

[2] Milkman, Ruth. On Gender, Labor, and Inequality. University of Illinois Press, 2016. Accessed November 1, 2020. http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5406/j.ctt18j8wg9.

[3] “Navajos Occupy Fairchild Plant.” American Indian Histories and Cultures. AKWESASNE NOTES, 1975. https://www-aihc-amdigital-co-uk.mutex.gmu.edu/Documents/Images/Ayer_Akwesasne_Notes_1975_04Apr/17?searchId=55c339bc-e336-4dcf-9d89-a30a408aa18c.

[4] Rosenfeld, Jake. "The Timing Was Terrible: Deunionization and Racial Inequality." In What Unions No Longer Do, 100-30. Harvard University Press, 2014. Accessed November 1, 2020. http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt6wpnw6.8.

[5] Walker, Alexis N. Divided Unions The Wagner Act, Federalism, and Organized Labor. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2020.

[6] Bruns, Roger. "Coachella Strikes of 1973." In The American Mosaic: The Latino American Experience, ABC-CLIO, 2020. Accessed November 2, 2020. https://latinoamerican2-abc-clio-com.mutex.gmu.edu/Search/Display/1868329.

[7] Milwaukee Star (Milwaukee, Wisconsin) 13, no. 22, February 1, 1973: [1]. Readex: African American Newspapers. https://infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/readex/doc?p=EANAAA&docref=image/v2%3A12A7AE31A7B3CA6B%40EANAAA-12BE215E600B1830%402441715-12BE215E733DEB80%401.

[8] Deslippe, Dennis A. Rights, Not Roses: Unions and the Rise of Working-Class Feminism, 1945-80. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2000.

[9] Ruth Milkman, and Stephanie Luce. "Labor Unions and the Great Recession." RSF: The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences 3, no. 3 (2017): 145-65. Accessed October 29, 2020. doi:10.7758/rsf.2017.3.3.07.were myriad, and

[10] Cobble, D. S., Gordon, L., & Henry, A. (2015). Feminism unfinished: A short, surprising history of American women's movements. New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation.


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