Learning First Alliance

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Anti-Union and Anti-Women

Charlotte Williams's picture

A recent Salon article by Natasha Lennard discusses the central role of women’s issues in the current Wisconsin political saga, including this week’s recall elections.  For six months, since Governor Scott Walker sought to strip public workers of collective bargaining rights—among other measures curbing public worker benefits and reducing the state’s expenditures, workers and their advocates have voiced vehement protest, culminating in the recall elections for some of the representatives who supported Walker’s policies. Women’s rights have been central to the debate over teachers’ unions in Wisconsin since the beginning, since Walker targeted teachers and nurses—professions in which the vast majority of workers are women. He exempted the male-dominated (and Republican-leaning) fields of firefighters and police. It’s unclear whether Walker was consciously trying to target women, but, regardless, that is the effect of his policies.

Many in Wisconsin have clearly noted this link, illustrated by the shift, as Lennard puts it, from “a small number commentators arguing that workers' rights are women's rights early this year, to the broad inclusion of women's choice issues in the recall campaigns.” Further, five of the six Democratic challengers in the recall elections this week were women (though only two won their elections, meaning the union-busting Republicans still barely hold the majority in the state house).

In February Alyssa Battistoni similarly noted on Salon that union busting tends to affect women and minorities the most, and that “the continued elevation of traditionally male professions like public safety and law enforcement over traditionally female ones like public health and public education is part of the reason women still earn only 77 cents for every dollar men do.” In addition to financial concerns specifically, Paul Krugman has pointed out  that targeting unions further diminishes the voice of middle- and working-class Americans in a system in which the rich already have a hugely disproportionate hold on political power and policies, and Battistoni added that public unions are especially representative of female and black Americans, who are underrepresented in most government sectors.

It’s relevant here to note the history of teachers unions in America. They arose in large part to address systemic discrimination against female teachers, who prior to the establishment of unions could be dismissed for virtually any arbitrary reason, including dating, getting married or pregnant, and traveling outside of town boundaries without permission. Further, female and black teachers often made less than white male teachers for doing the same work. Teachers unions addressed these issues, and ensure that female and minority teachers are paid the same and have the same rights as white male teachers. The fact, then, that teachers unions in Wisconsin—and generally in the country—are specifically targeted is a disconcerting development relative to women’s (and minority) rights.