Missing Women: It’s Time for Legislative Quotas in British Politics


Where are the Women? PSA Women & Politics Group demand action

Originally posted on UK PSA Women & Politics Specialist Group:

Rosie Campbell, Sarah Childs, and Meryl Kenny

and the other members of the UK Political Studies Association (PSA) Women and Politics Specialist Group

Last week the Counting Women In coalition published its 2014 report into Sex and Power in the UK. Yet again women will be reading that they are under-represented in British politics: at Westminster, Holyrood, Cardiff, Stormont, and in local government across the UK. Meanwhile, resistance to gender quotas continues, with a recent YouGov poll highlighting the lack of popular support for all-women shortlists. It’s time for political parties to show leadership on this issue and follow the global evidence – well-designed and properly implemented quotas are the most effective way to address the under-representation of women. Patience is no longer an option – the time has come for legislative quotas in British politics.

Still Counting

The findings from last week’s Sex and Power in the UK…

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Presenting Feminist Institutionalist Perspectives

Rowman & Littlefield International have launched a new series – Feminist Institutionalist Perspectives – which seeks to publish cutting-edge work on gender and political institutions. Edited by Fiona Mackay, Elin Bjarnegard and Meryl Kenny – and launched in partnership with the Feminism and Institutionalism International Network (FIIN) – this series represents the ‘next stage’ of development of Feminist Institutionalism.

FIIN logoAccording to new institutionalist scholars, institutions – the formal and informal ‘rules of the game’ – shape politics and political outcomes. Feminist political scientists, applying a gendered lens, illuminate the ways in which political institutions are gendered, and the processes by which particular gendered patterns of power are replicated or challenged. There has never been a more pressing time to expose, understand and explain the dynamics of gendered power inequalities in public and political life. So, how do feminists challenge and change global and local institutions of governance, security, development and justice?

Our new series, Feminist Institutionalist Perspectives, represents the ‘next stage’ of development of Feminist Institutionalism, a novel approach to the study of politics which combines the insights of gendered analysis and institutionalist theory. It is animated by questions such as how and why do seemingly neutral rules (such as constitutions, peace agreements and laws) and institutions (such as parliaments, courts and international organisations) continue to affect the daily lives of women and men, and different groups of women and men, differently? Why do institutions often reproduce or exacerbate patterns of disadvantage and discrimination, even when formally espousing ideals of equality? As well as seeking to expose the rules, norms and practices through which institutions produce gendered outcomes, it is also concerned with the potential for, and limits of, institutional innovation and reform in pursuit of gender equality, gender justice and the promotion of women’s human rights.

Launched in partnership with the Feminism and Institutionalism International Network (FIIN network), Feminist Institutionalist Perspectives will publish leading, cutting-edge work on gender and political institutions from around the world. We welcome manuscript submissions using feminist instutitutionalist approaches in all their diversity, ranging from rational choice to discursive paradigms, as well as those which combine elements from across the variants. Our series will cover single and comparative cases from the global North and global South, as well as the international system – and an important part of our agenda is to explore the interplay between the local and the global; the domestic and the international. Whilst the primary focus of the series is on gendered institutional analysis, we also welcome submissions which take an intersectional approach as well as interdisciplinary projects whose work on political institutions intersects with feminist institutionalism, including state feminist approaches and feminist critical frame analysis.

The aims of the Feminist Institutionalist Perspectives series are:

• To provide a ‘home’ and ‘brand’ for Feminist Institutionalism as a distinctive approach to politics; and for feminist institutionalist scholars as an emerging intellectual community

• To consolidate, refine and advance core concepts and theory building, facilitating the development of feminist institutionalism in the academy including its incorporation into undergraduate, Masters and doctoral training

• To showcase book-length studies that apply feminist institutionalism in single case studies and comparatively

• To bring together the very best work in the field, primarily, but not exclusively, by early career scholars including those beyond the global North

• To promote dialogue with wider academic and engaged practitioner communities by providing a bridge between feminist institutionalist work and ‘non-feminist’ political science, and between feminist institutionalism and feminist scholarship in law, organisational studies, sociology and beyond.

Series Editors:
Professor Fiona Mackay, University of Edinburgh
Dr. Elin Bjarnegård, Uppsala University
Dr. Meryl Kenny, University of Leicester

For further information on the series, please visit: www.rowmaninternational.com/series/feminist-institutionalist

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Where are all the women?

Originally posted on Andrew McFadyen:

The creation of the Scottish Parliament was a giant leap forward for women’s representation in Scotland.

In the first Scottish Parliament elections, in 1999, 48 women were elected, out of 129 MSPs. To put this in context, it was a greater number than Scotland had sent to the House of Commons in its entire history. 

But the hopes of some campaigners for a ‘new politics’ that would be more open and transparent have not been realised. Holyrood can be even more small-minded and tribalistic than Westminster.

Perhaps one of the reasons for this is that even though there are more women in Parliament, the media narrative is still written by men.

The Sunday Herald’s Investigations Editor, Paul Hutcheon, tweeted a very telling image of what he called “the seekers of truth and justice” ahead of STV’s recent debate between Alex Salmond and Alistair Darling. Strikingly, there is not a single…

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Tackling Sexual Violence in Conflict: A Report from the Global Summit

The Global Summit on Sexual Violence is the largest and most high-profile event ever held on this topic. But while it has brought much needed attention to the issue of sexual violence in conflict, it has also attracted significant criticism. Genderpol member Claire Duncanson reports from the summit and reflects on its achievements and limitations.

s300_ESVIC-Global-_-London_960x6The tone of the Global Summit on Sexual Violence, hosted by UK Foreign Minister William Hague and UN Special Envoy Angelina Jolie, was confident and ambitious: sexual violence is not inevitable, it was repeated often, and we can end it. Nobel laureate Leymah Gbowee inserted a dose of reality into the proceedings when she pointed out that to imagine that we can stop sexual violence in conflict without stopping war itself is like imagining we can draw blood without breaking the skin. Until then, at least in the sessions I attended, war was very much the elephant in the room. The plenaries were full of rousing speeches full of conviction that sexual violence in conflict can and will be eradicated, and that this summit marked the beginning of the end of sexual violence in conflict. Of course, plenary speeches are supposed to be full of aspiration and inspiration, but even in the breakout sessions, there was very little mention of violent conflict itself.

Many feminists have made this point before. Cora Weiss, President of the Hague Appeal for Peace, has argued that our focus must not be on making war safe for women; it must be on abolishing war. The Democratic Republic of Congo, the rape capital of the world, was repeatedly cited at the summit, but I heard very little about the context or causes of the conflict, and the role of international actors in fuelling the violence. Indeed, such discussion may have been actively blocked. The DRC sits on vast resources of minerals needed for the electronic goods industry, such as tin, coltan and tantalum, estimated to be worth $24 trillion. With so much at stake, conflict over control of the mines is brutal. The focus on tackling the impunity of perpetrators through improving the judicial system and the education of soldiers seemed too narrow, given the incentives for continued lawlessness and fighting.

Maria Eriksson Baaz and Maria Stern’s recent book reminds us that the horrors of war are not experienced by women as single-issues. They note that most rape survivors tell of the many violences they have experienced: stories of pillage and of family members being killed, tortured, or abducted. Their main worries are often the lack of basic means of survival, lack of land to cultivate, lack of clear water, and concerns about hungry and often malnourished children. These insecurities will not be resolved by tackling sexual violence in conflict.

Many feminists have also pointed to the analytical myopia inherent in separating sexual violence in war from the sexual violence which occurs in ‘peace’. Gender-based violence affects women in all countries, and is endemic even in societies which have not experienced ‘conflict’ for decades. In this vein, Caron Gentry has expressed frustration with the Summit for the way in which it constructs sexual violence as a problem which happens ‘over there,’ denying the extent to which violence against women happens within western ‘civilized’ countries

Meanwhile, Sanam Naraghi Anderlini suggests that William Hague has taken the wrong tack with his inclusive approach to the Global Summit. 151 countries were invited and 123 were said to have attended – an impressive gathering on a subject which has hitherto been very much neglected by state leaders. Anderlini argues that countries with a bad record on gender based violence should not have been allowed to attend, but this risks ranking different countries in ways which could reinforce the colonial Othering highlighted by Gentry. Anderlini is clear that western nations are far from perfect when it comes to gender based violence, and is as focused as Gentry on the need for the international community to recognise the links between sexual violence in war and peace, but the different approaches illustrate the complexity and difficulty of tackling sexual violence. If there is consensus in the commentary, it is on the argument that achieving gender equality is fundamental if sexual violence, and war, are to be abolished.

Of course, the more focused the topic of a global conference, the more likely it is that clear action points and policies can be agreed on by nation states. Indeed, the narrow focus and goals arguably made it possible to get so many countries to attend. To some extent, then, it’s understandable why the focus was restricted to ending sexual violence in conflict, and why many speakers avoided mentioning sexual violence in peacetime and the need to tackle militarism and war itself.

This approach did result in more concrete discussion and recommendations to the Ministers than many conferences I’ve attended. There was much focus on tackling impunity, including promises from western countries to provide more resources to judicial systems in conflict affected countries in order to tackle the problem of impunity. There was also a focus on training militaries – both on how to respond to sexual violence, and on gender equality and sexual violence more broadly, so that the scandals of peacekeepers themselves sexually exploiting and abusing civilians could be consigned to the history books. There seemed to be careful attention to the fact that men and boys are also victims of sexual violence. An excellent fringe event organised by the OSCE and DCAF on changing military culture was addressed by Australian Army Chief, Lt Gen David Morrison, who tackled the issue of militarised masculinities head-on, in ways reminiscent of his 2013 address, which has become something of a You-Tube sensation.  Perhaps the most concrete commitment was given to the need to provide more services to survivors, and the Summit ended with the launch of a global advocacy and support network, Survivors United for Action.

Some might say these policies are little more than a sticking plaster. Strengthening the legal and judicial system in the DRC, for example, might lead to an increase in arrests and convictions for perpetrators of sexual violence, but it will inevitably be too little, too late given the extent of the problem and the powerful economic drivers motivating armed militia to rule through terror. Until these root causes driving the conflict are tackled, some argue, attempts to tackle impunity through legal processes have serious limitations.

I would liken the suggested policies and actions less to a sticking plaster, however, and more to rocks forming a dam – each rock seems to do little, but together they can turn a river into something else entirely, a reservoir. The policies do seem to only get at sexual violence in war, not at war itself, but the sorts of actions being talked about – strengthening and improving the implementation of international humanitarian law – add up to challenging war as an institution. Yes, lots of things were not mentioned at the summit, most notably the global networks of profit-making in arms and minerals, but that doesn’t mean that smart feminists weren’t working on getting the policies in place that will address war itself and that will address sexual violence in peacetime. It may have been focused on sexual violence in conflict alone, but the policies recommended do not necessarily leave war or patriarchy intact. If all countries were to commit to prosecuting perpetrators of sexual violence; to training their militaries to the highest human rights standards, including women’s human rights; if all peace processes were to take gender based violence seriously, and include measures to hold perpetrators accountable and to ensure the participation of women; war becomes restricted to so few legitimate means of waging that it can become de facto obsolete. The next step, of course, is to see these policies become a reality.

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Forging New Paths for Gender Justice at the International Criminal Court?


Louise Chappell and Rose Grey (UNSW) analyse recent developments at the ICC

Originally posted on Women, Peace and Security Academic Collective:

The International Criminal Court (josef.stuefer).  Retrieved from Flickr.com, shared under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

The International Criminal Court (josef.stuefer). Retrieved from Flickr.com, shared under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

During the International Criminal Court’s first decade, Prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo was strongly criticised for his failure to use powers available under the Rome Statute to investigate and charge crimes involving sexual and gender violence. The ICC’s first case, concerning DRC warlord Thomas Lubanga Dyilo, was emblematic of this problem. Prosecutor Ocampo came under fire from human rights groups for failing to include any sexual crimes on the arrest warrant, when there was evidence that Lubanga’s UPC-FPLC militia had committed sexual crimes against civilians in the Ituri region of the DRC and against female child soldiers in the group.

The absence of these charges reverberated throughout the Lubanga trial; when the majority of judges handed down their verdict in 2012 they declined to find Lubanga culpable for the acts of sexual violence against child soldiers…

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Read IPSR Editor’s Choice: Gender and Political Institutions

The journal  International Political Science Review has published an Editor’s Choice issue on Gender and Political Institutions  which is now avImageailable on Open Access [click here] .  This brings together in one collection significant contributions on gendering political institutions, by feminist institutionalist scholars.

It leads with the 2010 review essay by Fiona Mackay (Edinburgh), Meryl Kenny (Leicester) and Louise Chappell (UNSW)  – leading members of the Feminism and Institutionalism International Network (FIIN)-  New Institutionalism Through a Gender Lens: Towards a Feminist Institutionalism? International Political Science Review/ Revue internationale de science pol 2010 31:573-588

The Editor’s Choice issue also includes previously published articles by other FIIN contributors Marian Sawer (ANU), Mona Lena Krook (Rutgers), Johanna Kantola (Helsinki) and their collaborators (See full contents list below).

The Editor’s foreword  highlights the influence of FIIN on recent directions in the study of gender and political institutions:

” [The] Feminism and Institutionalism International Network (FIIN) based in Edinburgh has fostered a wealth of new scholarship seeking to identify the gender-specific effects of norms perpetuated within institutions. Even new institutions, designed to be more gender-inclusive, may be overwhelmed by the dynamics of older institutional cultures within which they are nested or by new philosophies of governance.”

IPSR Editor’s Collection 2014 : Gender and Political Institutions

Fiona Mackay, Meryl Kenny, and Louise Chappell

New Institutionalism Through a Gender Lens: Towards a Feminist Institutionalism?

International Political Science Review/ Revue internationale de science pol 2010 31:573-588.

Tahnya Barnett Donaghy

Applications of Gender Mainstreaming in Australia and Northern Ireland

International Political Science Review/ Revue internationale de science pol 2004 25:393-410.

Katherine Teghtsoonian and Louise Chappell

The Rise and Decline of Women’s Policy Machinery in British Columbia and New South Wales: A Cautionary Tale

International Political Science Review/ Revue internationale de science pol 2008 29:29-51.

Marian Sawer

What makes the substantive representation of women possible in a Westminster parliament? The story of RU486 in Australia

International Political Science Review/ Revue internationale de science pol 2012 33:321-335.

Johanna Kaantola and Judith Squires

From state feminism to market feminism?

International Political Science Review/ Revue internationale de science pol 2012 33:382-400.

Farida Jalalzai and Mona Lena Krook

Beyond Hillary and Benazir: Women’s Political Leadership Worldwide

International Political Science Review/ Revue internationale de science pol 2010 31:5-21.

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Organizing for workers’ rights and the living wage: a view from the US

alt labor

Living Wage campaigns by low-waged workers in the US have hit the headlines in recent months.  How do traditional trade unions and the fast rising “Alt -labor” grassroots movements work together to overcome the tough political and institutional obstacles they face? How have they organized creatively to promote workers’ rights ?

Karen Beckwith and   Scottish Parliament host Deputy Speaker Elaine Smith MSP

Karen Beckwith and Scottish Parliament host Deputy Speaker Elaine Smith MSP

At a Scottish Parliament Women’s Dinner held as part of  the parliament’s Trade Union  Week activities, Professor Karen Beckwith (Case Western Reserve University) –  US-UK Fulbright Scotland Visiting Professor at University of Edinburgh  – shared her insights of current developments and issues. Below we reproduce her talk.

The Distinctive Context of the US Labor Movement

The US labor movement – including labor unions and Alt-Labor, works in a distinctive context.

  • First, the labor movement operates in a federal political system, where labor law is constructed, enforced, and effective at the national level, through national legislation, but also through the individual state governments; hence, labor law is fragmented and varies across the fifty states (with consequent impacts on union organizing);
  • Second, labor unions (but not Alt-Labor) are constrained by law; only labor unions recognized in law as official bargaining agents for a unionized workforce can represent union workers. Furthermore, labor law also prohibits some bargaining tactics by union members (common situs picketing, secondary boycotts, workplace occupations, wildcat strikes).
  • Third, in the US, labor unions have no formal historical connections with a political party, the way the Trades Union Congress has historically had with the Labour Party in the UK.
  • Finally, organized labor has had to bargain with employers for benefits that, in other countries, have been provided by the state (e.g. healthcare, maternity and parental leave, childcare and eldercare, paid sick leave). Whatever benefits are secured obtain only to workers represented by the union; the benefits are tied to employment; and workers who lose their jobs lose those benefits.

Note, however, that non-unionized workers, including management, may also have such benefits, as private employers choose to extend them to other workers. In short, social welfare benefits in the US are tied to the individual’s position in the market and do not obtain as a right of citizenship.

Nonetheless, labor unions have been mobilizing within the broader labor movement outside of the official union structure, particularly in the low-wage and service industries in the US. For example, the AFL-CIO, the SEIU, and the Alt-Labor movement have targeted low-wage-sector service employees for organizing and mobilizing. The majority of these workers are women and persons of color. Among low-wage workers, 77% are women, and 36% are women of color. Women are overrepresented in the 10 lowest-paid occupations:

  1. Hand packers & packagers 53%
  2. Food preparation workers 58%
  3. Bartenders 60%
  4. Combined food preparers and servers 65%
  5. Waiters & waitresses 71%
  6. Cashiers 72%
  7. Personal care aides 85%
  8. Home health aides 88%
  9. Maids & housekeepers 88%
  10. Childcare workers 94%

These groups have been targeting employers for increased wages, improved working conditions, and non-wage benefits, through union organizing efforts and outside the formal union structure — and hence outside the legal restrictions that apply only to labor unions.

Examples of the US Labor Movement’s Strategic Innovations

Organized labor union and Alt-Labor work both independently and in cooperation to coordinate their efforts These groups have been active and successful on three fronts: using existing lawchanging the law; and using social movement tactics.

First, they have used existing law, such as the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the Labor Relations Act of 1935 (the “Wagner Act, to bring lawsuits against companies and firms. These include charges of “wage theft,” violations of existing labor law (including organizing and union membership rights), and employment discrimination violations based on age, race and sex.

Second, these groups have been active in changing the law, using legislative and state governmental tactics in regard to increasing the minimum wage.

Finally, these groups have successfully employed social movement tactics of disruption and public shaming, directed at employers (and also consumers), to improve working conditions and raise wages.

Using Existing Law

For example, the labor movement has used national employment and labor law to bring a National Labor Relations Board complaint against Walmart. Walmart is the largest employer in the US, with 1.3 million employees; its employees are not represented by organized labor.

OUR Walmart (Organization United for Respect) is an employee, grassroots group of Walmart workers, closely tied to the United Food & Commercial Workers union. They have succeeded in convincing the National Labor Relations Board to issue the largest-ever complaint against Walmart (January 15, 2014), forbreaking federal labor law by violating workers’ rights. The complaint alleges Walmart illegally fired and disciplined more than 117 workers, including those who went on strike last June to speak out for better jobs.

The NLRB asserts illegal activities in 14 states at 34 stores and shows that company executives conceived—and oversaw implementation—of an unlawful retaliation policy for store managers to execute. The complaint—the largest ever against Walmart in both size and scale—names 63 individual store managers and company spokesperson and vice president of communication David Tovar’s illegal threats made to employees.

Changing the Law

The labor movement has also been successful in changing the law. A major example is the state-level campaign to raise the minimum wage. In the past decade, citizens have initiated minimum wage campaigns, with considerable success, in multiple states. These campaigns involve direct pressure on state legislatures, statewide ballot proposals initiated by citizen groups, and citizen-initiated amendments to state constitutions. Minimum wage campaigns emphasize raising the minimum wage (the current federal minimum wage is $7.25) and providing annual, automatic inflation-indexed cost of living adjustments (COLA).[i]

Action on the national level is evident in the proposed Miller-Harkin Fair Minimum Wage Act. This proposed congressional legislation would raise the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10/hour in stages across three years; it would increase the “tipped” minimum wage from $2.13/hour to 70 percent of the regular minimum wage.[ii] The current federal minimum wage has not been raised since 2009, and includes no COLA.

Individual states have legislated minimum wage hikes in response to campaigns led by local citizen alliances, labor organizations, and religious groups. In 2006, state legislatures in Arkansas, Maine, Maryland, Michigan and Rhode Island increased the minimum wage in response to such campaigns.

Activists in other states chose not to work through their state legislatures, but to tackle the minimum wage issue through statewide ballot measures. In 2006, six states succeeded in raising their state’s minimum wage by statewide citizen vote; all of these measures included a COLA. Arizona, Missouri and Montana initiated state statutes  (direct citizen legislation) to raise the minimum wage, with COLA; Colorado, Nevada and Ohio established a higher minimum wage, with COLA, through state constitutional amendments. Raising the minimum wage by state constitutional amendment makes it more difficult to revoke the provision (i.e. it cannot be overturned by a state legislature and requires a second, statewide constitutional amendment campaign).[iii]

Social Movement Tactics

Alt-Labor groups have been working with labor unions to raise wages and improve working conditions, using social movement tactics of disruption and public shaming to bring pressure directly on employers and companies, independent of union-organizing drives. This is not to say that these campaigns are sidestepping organized labor in the US. Rather, organized labor (through the AFL-CIO and individual unions) is working with these groups, providing funding and guidance.


For example, the campaign for a higher minimum wage/just wages has employed a social movement strategy to bring direct pressure on employers and on legislators, with the support of organized labor. Living Wage campaigns have targeted employers, cities and states with demonstrations, protests and public shaming, to raise the minimum wage. Living Wage campaigns are undergirded by two moral propositions:

“first, that work should be rewarded, and second, that no one who works full time should have to live in poverty.”

This is an important issue. US federal poverty guidelines (2012) identify 4-person families as living in poverty if their annual income falls below $23,050 (or currently c. £13,800).

OUR Walmart [Organization United for Respect], which is closely tied to the United Food & Commercial Workers union, has been organizing around the issue of just wages, to establish a minimum annual wage for Walmart workers of $25,000/year. OUR Walmart estimates the average hourly wage for non-management Walmart workers is $8.81/hour (c. £5.30). Because many of these workers are part-time workers, their annual wages place them below the US federal poverty line. To bring economic pressure on Walmart and to draw public attention to low wages at Walmart, OUR WalMart organized a national strike of WalMart workers on “Black Friday” 2013, the day after the Thanksgiving holiday. OUR Walmart has employed demonstrations, protests and other activities honed by social movements activists to move directly to influence companies and employers.

Other labor movement groups have used similar tactics; these include the Restaurant Opportunity Center (ROC), which has engaged in protests and demonstrations outside restaurants in NYC. ROC-NY has won

“13 workplace justice campaigns against exploitative high-profile restaurant companies, obtaining more than $7,000,000 and improvements in workplace policies for restaurant workers…, [and] played an instrumental role in winning a statewide minimum wage increase for tipped workers, [growing] to include more than 10,000 restaurant workers in our membership from at least 26 states”[iv].

Domestic Workers United (DWU), also in New York, developed a Domestic Workers Bill of Rights” that became law in 2010:

“establish[ing] overtime pay, sexual-harassment protection, and paid time off for workers hired by families to care for children or the elderly in their home.”

Similarly, the New York Taxi Workers Alliance succeeded in bringing pressure upon New York City’s government and the NYC Taxi and Limousine Commission, through strikes and demonstrations. They succeeded in persuading the Commission to approve rules (by a vote of 6-2) that increased fares 17 percent to hike drivers’ pay, created a health-care and disability fund, and strengthened a cap on leasing fees.[v]

Prospects for the Future?

First, we have seen substantial resistance and repudiation of attempts to constrain public employees’ collective bargaining rights. Following the 2010 elections, newly elected Republican governors and Republican-majority state legislatures in several states initiated legislation to limit or to revoke public employees’ collective bargaining rights. This legislation provoked an uproar in Ohio and in Wisconsin. In Wisconsin, there were mass demonstrations in the state capitol building, and eventually a recall drive was launched to remove Governor Scott Walker and several Republican legislators from office.

Because of the referendum provision in the Ohio state constitution, citizens were able to mobilize quickly to secure a statewide vote on the Ohio legislation, the Ohio Collective Bargaining Limit Repeal, in November 8, 2011, to repeal so-called Senate Bill 5. Firefighters, police officers and teachers mobilized, with help from the political action committee We Are Ohio.

“Senate Bill 5 would have impacted the state’s 400,000 public workers, restricting their ability to strike and collectively bargain. The bill would have limited public employees to collectively bargain for wages, preventing them from collectively bargaining for health insurance and pensions. It would also have prohibited all public employees from striking and could have increased employee contributions for pensions and healthcare.”[vi]

Organized interests spent more than $30 million in the repeal campaign. The resulting vote was an overwhelming rejection of Senate Bill 5, with 61.59% of Ohio voters opposing the legislation. Of the 88 counties in the state, 82 counties recorded majority votes against Senate Bill 5.[vii]

Second, as economic inequalities increase in the US, as citizens become more aware, and as political parties clarify their positions on issues of the minimum wage and the tax code, Alt-labor organizing will have positive impacts of influencing public policy. Recent congressional attention to the minimum wage is an example of this.

Finally, despite the recent failed unionization drive by the United Auto Workers (UAW) at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee,  it is likely that unionization efforts in the southern states will continue, and will be successful.

As Kate Bronfenbrenner recently wrote in the New York Times:

“The South has more manufacturing units with a majority black workers, immigrant workers, low-wage workers and women of color – those most likely to choose unions — and fewer majority white male manufacturing units — those least likely to choose unions.” (February 17, 2014)

Background to labor organizing in the US

The US labor movement consists of two components.

  • First, labor unions, organized under and constrained by labor law, constitute a major and the most public face of the US labor movement. Most labor union are members of the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO[viii]), a national federation of labor unions.
  • Second, the Alt-Labor movement, which consists of non-labor union community groups and organized activists, works outside of the formal labor union structure. Alt-Labor includes the Living Wage Campaign, Janitors for Justice, and other groups that rely on community and workplace organizing, and that employ social movement tactics to achieve their ends.

These two – organized labor union and Alt-Labor, work both independently and in cooperation to coordinate their efforts.

Formal labor union membership has been declining in the US. In 2013:

  • 11.3% of the US workforce was unionized, compared to 20.1% in 1983, thirty years ago.[ix] This decline has been particularly evidence in the private-sector workforce, where only 6.7% of private-sector workers are represented by labor unions.
  • Public sector employees – such as police officers, firefighters, school teachers, and government employees — continue to constitute the bulk of unionized workers; 35.3% of public employees are union members.
  • The unionized workforce is unevenly distributed across the US, given the impact of individual state laws on representation and bargaining rights.[x]
  •  Men have a slightly higher union membership rate (11.9 percent, 7,955,000) than women (10.5 percent, 6,573,000).

Much of the decrease in unionization in the private sector has been the result of three factors:

1) the decline of manufacturing and heavy industry in the US, particularly in auto and steel;

2) the difficulties of union organizing in new employment areas, such as service and retail establishments, including the limitations and weaknesses that result from US labor law; and

3) legislative and judicial attacks upon unionizing rights.

Karen Beckwith is Flora Stone Mather Professor of Political Science at the Case Western Reserve University, Ohio. She is Visiting Professor at University of Edinburgh School of Social and Political Science from Jan-June 2014.

[i] For a detailed discussion of the politics around the minimum wage at the congressional level, see Larry Bartels, Unequal Democracy (Princeton, 2008), Chapter 8.

[iii] For more recent examples, see http://ballotpedia.org/Minimum_wage_on_the_ballot#tab=By_year

[vii] See the Ohio Secretary of State’s webpage at http://www.sos.state.oh.us/SOS/elections/Research/electResultsMain/2011results/20111108Issue2.aspx

[viii] The AFL-CIO has more than 50 member unions representing 12.5 million workers (http://www.aflcio.org/About/AFL-CIO-Unions). The Change to Win [labor] Federation was formed in 2005 when several unions left the AFL-CIO; these included the United Farm Workers, SEIU, Teamsters, and United Food and Commercial Workers (http://www.changetowin.org/), some of whom have since reaffiliated with the AFL-CIO.

[ix] Bureau of Labor Statistics, January 24, 2014


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