Building a New Generation of Women Labor Leaders
Anyone who glimpsed the diverse group of young women intently conferencing at Georgetown University might have mistaken them for diligent students. In fact, they were the inaugural apprenticeship class of the WILL Empower initiative that is designed to identify, nurture, and train a new generation of women labor leaders. The Apprenticeship Program is one of four interwoven programs spearheaded by WILL Empower (Women Innovating Labor Leadership), jointly founded in 2017 by Georgetown University's Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor and Rutgers University's Center for Innovation in Worker Organization. By focusing on building women's leadership for a broad range of worker-based economic justice organizations, WILL Empower is breaking fresh ground even as the nation's political economy remains stubbornly stacked against working people.
Three big ideas undergird WILL Empower's unique approach to building a successful twenty-first-century labor movement: (1) women must lead at a whole new level, especially women of color; (2) traditional labor unions and new forms of worker organizations constitute a single movement; (3) a multilayered partnership can model the sort of innovative approach that the movement needs.
First, women's labor leadership is key because the nation's unions and working class are increasingly female. Women are on track to be the majority of union members in 2025, yet women still hold only about a quarter of top leadership positions in the nation's unions, and women of color remain particularly underrepresented. This dearth in women's leadership is made more urgent now that women hold the kinds of jobs that are at the epicenter of the nation's economy. In the mid-twentieth century, one in three jobs was in male-dominated manufacturing and agriculture; today these sectors account for only one in eight, whereas women are the majority in service, health, and education. Women are also prominent in the growing "gig economy." One recent study found that women are now the majority of workers in "alternative work arrangements," which includes temps, freelancers, and independent contractors. Despite women's rise as a working-class force, too few women are steering the [End Page 7] labor movement's future. Progress won't happen without a sustained and concentrated push.1
Second, today's workers' movement is a hybrid of traditional labor unions and new experiments in building worker power. Core to WILL Empower's values is the idea that these groups constitute one interdependent movement, rather than separate silos. By treating all sorts of worker organizations as one movement, WILL Empower endeavors to push boundaries that have long constrained labor, and re-envision what workers' organizations can be and do. WILL Empower's Advisory Council, for instance, includes women from both traditional unions—like the Communications Workers of America (CWA) and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW)—as well as next-generation worker justice organizations like the National Black Workers Center Project. WILL Empower brings together women from across the movement to work on equal ground for a common purpose.
Finally, a successful twenty-first-century labor movement must forefront multipronged and innovative solutions to tackle the complex issues that workers face in today's economy. WILL Empower itself is an unconventional partnership between two university labor programs. It features four overlapping programs that seek to build women's leadership from multiple angles. The Apprenticeship Program is an on-ramp for new activists to try out a paid job in a union or workers' group. Each apprentice has a female mentor both from within and outside her host site, a structure that encourages organizational cross-pollination and movement-oriented thinking. The Innovative Women's Fellowship allows a woman the space and time to develop a new idea for the future of labor. The first WILL Empower fellow, Erica Smiley, is cowriting a book and designing a culture change project around new models of collective bargaining. WILL Empower's Cohorts of Collective Learning and Mentoring bring together both emerging and executive level women leaders to build skills, learn from mentors, and benefit from a peer network. Finally, WILL Empower seeks to insert women workers and their issues into the national discussion about the future of labor and work. WILL Empower sponsored a Georgetown University forum with activist Jane Fonda and Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, for instance, who championed tipped workers' increased wages with the Restaurant Opportunities Centers (ROC).
WILL Empower welcomes Labor's readers to join in its efforts. Consider directing recent graduates to the Apprenticeship Program, applying to be a fellow, participating in the cohorts of learning, and joining our other efforts to center women's labor leadership at the forefront of today's dynamic economic justice movement. Find out more at www.willempower.org. [End Page 8]
LANE WINDHAM is codirector of WILL Empower and associate director of the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor at Georgetown University. She is author of Knocking on Labor's Door: Union Organizing in the 1970s and the Roots of a New Economic Divide.