- Working Women versus Employers: An Insider’s View
In her book, Knocking on Labor’s Door: Union Organizing in the 1970s and the Roots of a New Economic Divide, Lane Windham compellingly illuminates the context of organizing in that decade and dispels long-held myths. She makes clear that it was not a lack of organizing that resulted in the decline in unionization in the following decade but the aggressive refusal of companies to tolerate union organizing activity—or any campaigns that they perceived could lead to unionization—aided by government failures. The experiences of those of us in what has been called the working women’s movement bear out her arguments.
I am not a historian—my comments are aimed at connecting what I was experiencing as an organizer with Windham’s narrative. I was organizing in the 1970s around women’s employment issues as a member of the Chicago Chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW) and then as a member of Women Employed (WE). I joined the staff of Women Employed in 1977, became its executive director in 1985, and served in that position for thirty-two years. WE, whose founding is noted in the book’s second chapter, is now a forty-five-year-old organization whose mission is to break down barriers to women’s economic advancement and promote workplace fairness. It has a staff of twenty; it is locally based with national policy reach. The organization has opened hundreds of occupations to women, helped outlaw and reduce sexual harassment, did some of the very first work on family-friendly workplace policies, made affirmative action a dramatically effective tool for women’s advancement, and much more. Today, its priorities are to change workplace policies and practices that affect low-paid working women, expand work-family policies, and enable more low-income women to enter and succeed in higher education. While the organization’s priorities have changed to address evolving barriers facing low-paid female workers, the organization’s mission is unchanged since its founding in 1973.
Our founder, an organizer named Day Piercy, was working at a YWCA in a white working-class part of Chicago and decided that an organization focused on [End Page 81] employment issues could have appeal to women across racial and class lines and win systemic changes. Her idea was inspired by the National Farmworkers Association, founded by Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez in 1962, to provide support and assist farmworkers in organizing for fair treatment, respect, and better wages. They organized under the banner of “Rights and Respect”—a slogan WE adopted. Their association became a union, the United Farm Workers, which created a movement and organized locals that won contracts with growers using a combination of work-place organizing, public education, and consumer boycotts, building the power the farmworkers needed to succeed. Piercy’s vision in 1973 was to build an organization of working women who would work together to improve their wages, benefits, and working conditions, as the farmworkers were doing—and ultimately form a union. She moved to the downtown branch of the YWCA and started WE. I got connected both through Chicago NOW and my involvement in several organizing efforts in the publishing industry that Day knew about.
Essentially, in its early days, Women Employed was what today we call a worker center, with an aggressive direct action program through which women confronted employers about discriminatory practices and stereotypical attitudes. We reached women with constant leafletting at transportation stops and met with them one-on-one to help them connect their issues to those other women were experiencing. We formed sectoral committees in banking, insurance, and retail and brought women together to figure out how discrimination worked in each sector. Our demonstrations and meetings with employers helped women overcome fear and build a sense of their own power. We combined on-the-job organizing with advocacy and legal action for equal pay and equal opportunity. Our goals were codified in the Fair Employment Program created by our members and ratified at one of our first annual conventions. Early on, we launched pressure campaigns aimed at employer associations and companies, including one...