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labor How Unions Can Help Shrink the Gender Wage Gap

Women in unions are paid higher wages and experience smaller wage gaps than non-unionized women. Unionized women who work full time are typically paid 19% more than women who are not in a union, resulting in them making roughly $10,000 more a year.


Like for many people, the pandemic drastically changed Jenise Brown’s relationship to work. The 37-year-old educator at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh joined the organization in 2018 because she was passionate about the hands-on teaching she would be able to do with children of all ages. Brown, who has a master’s degree, was one of the higher-paid workers at the museum making $15 an hour, but says her salary alone wasn’t enough to live on.

“It didn’t matter if I wasn’t earning a lot of money because my spouse had a fairly high-earning job as a firefighter, so we were doing okay,” says Brown. “But I knew that some of my co-workers were struggling financially, so I felt a tremendous amount of guilt about being able to do what I loved without the pressure of having to worry about making a living wage.”

Brown says most of the people working at the museum were there because they loved their jobs, but many were part-time workers who wanted to be full-time so they could get benefits. Yet some full-time workers were only making the museum’s minimum wage of $9 an hour.

“For most people it’s not enough to love the work you do; you’ve got to be able to eat and pay your bills,” says Brown.

The Making Of An Organizer

When a representative of the United Steel Workers (USW), a labor union with a deep history in Pittsburgh, asked Brown if she would be interested in starting a union at the museum, she was intrigued. She had never been part of a union before and did not have experience organizing, but in February 2020 she began talking to her colleagues to find out if unionizing was something they were interested in doing.

Then the pandemic hit. Management at the museum laid off half its staff via emails over the course of a single evening in March 2020, and those who remained got a 10% pay cut. Brown says this galvanized people to want to have a say in their working conditions.

"Honestly, I think there was already a catalyst with people wanting to form a union specifically for economic reasons, but the pandemic skyrocketed stronger feelings," says Brown. “It went from workers saying simply, ‘I would love to get paid more,’ to them saying, ‘I no longer trust that we are all a family and that the management has our back.’ There wasn't a protective system in place, and many thought a union contract could give them that.”

The Carnegie Museum of Natural History where Brown worked was under the umbrella of a nonprofit organization operating four museums in the city called the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh. While the world went remote, Brown, along with several of her coworkers, held Zoom meetings and made one-on-one phone calls to find out how colleagues were feeling about their jobs, and what changes they would like to see happen.

“This wasn’t about us wanting to hurt the four museums that we loved. We all understood that the pandemic was putting management under financial pressure,” says Brown. “But we wanted to make our case and get our priorities on the record for higher wages, better benefits, and improved working conditions.”

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The Power Of Collective Bargaining

Once she got confirmation that a majority of her colleagues wanted to form a union, they went public with their campaign. By December 2020, after many conversations with the staff, the official union election was won by a 79% margin. Brown says this victory created a greater sense of community among the more than 500 workers, and led management to better understand workers’ needs.

Over the course of nearly two years, the elected worker representatives and management did the hard work of bargaining. Finally, in May 2023, a first contract was signed. Their primary request to raise the minimum wage was met, going from $9 to $16 an hour—alongside a 5% raise for all employees. The negotiations also secured additional sick time for part-time employees and floating holidays.

“The day our first contract was signed, I cried,” says Brown. “This contract was going to tangibly improve the lives of hundreds of my co-workers, and that still moves me. The experience of collaborating and negotiating with my co-workers and management is likely the most important thing I’ll do in my entire life.”

Unions May Help Drive Gender Equity

Brown notes that the majority of low-paid workers are women and people of color in non-supervisory roles, and the pay raise and better benefits they fought for will enable more workers to stay in their positions, pay their bills, and do the work they love.

Women in particular may experience benefits from joining unions: According to data from the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC), unionized women who work full time are typically paid 19% more than women who are not in a union, resulting in them making roughly $10,000 more a year. (Unionized men who work full time are typically paid 14% more than men workers who are not in a union, or the equivalent of roughly an extra $8,000 a year.) Women currently make up nearly half of union members.

“Women in unions are paid higher wages and experience smaller wage gaps than non-unionized women,” says Adrienne DerVartanian, senior counsel for education and workplace justice at the NWLC. “In addition, unions may also help workers secure better benefits. When you look at paid leave, such as paid sick days, union members have greater rates of access to those kinds of leave."

Creating A Ripple Effect

The United Museum Workers’ success inspired a ripple effect in the Pittsburgh community as other nonprofits saw the unionization efforts and started to follow suit. For example, management at the Phipps Conservatory down the street took notice of the museum’s union contract and proactively raised their minimum wage to $16 an hour. And the workers at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh announced this spring that they won their election to unionize. Brown is offering them support and guidance moving forward.

“We were precedent-setting,” says Brown. “What we achieved has inspired others to follow our lead.”

A Resurgence of The Labor Movement

The energy of union organizing that’s happening in Pittsburgh may be a reflection of a larger labor movement resurgence that’s taking place across the country due to factors such as the increasing cost of living while corporate profits rise. Though we’ve moved from The Great Resignation to the Big Stay, post-pandemic trends have sparked greater motivation for workers wanting to take back their power.

While union membership has been declining overall since the 1950s, public support for unions has been growing in recent years with approval from about two-thirds of Americans, according to Gallup. The Hollywood strikes of last summer and American Auto Workers strikes of last fall both resulted in wins for the unions. Corporations and nonprofits alike are experiencing a surge in union organizing, from Starbucks to Amazon to the Audubon Society.

"We are in a tremendous moment of excitement and opportunity for unions,” says DerVartanian. “If you’re reading the news, you’re spotting headlines about union organizing and successes all across the country and in multiple industries. But sometimes, of course, workers face challenges from their employers when they try to organize unions."

recent SCOTUS case delivered a blow to workers’ rights when it ruled in favor of Starbucks after seven workers in Memphis alleging that Starbucks fired them in retaliation for trying to unionize filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board. The ruling could make it more difficult to order employers to bring back workers who have been fired.

While some employers voluntarily recognize the union, those employers who don’t recognize the union may create obstacles for workers forming a union. In fact, a few of many reasons for the decline in union memberships since the 1950s may be employer opposition and legal challenges.

The Benefits Of Unionizing

However, protecting workers’ right to organize can benefit both employees and employers.

“Workers are the engine of the workplace,” says DerVartanian. “Treating workers well by providing better and equal wages, in addition to access to benefits such as healthcare and paid time off, can lead to greater workplace stability, which also benefits employers.”

Recent research unsurprisingly finds a link between positive employee experience and a higher financial return. High performing companies—defined by factors such as having a high level of trust in leadership and recognizing employees through transparent and equitable pay and benefits—scored 11 times the increase in profit margins and a nearly three times increase in revenue growth as compared to global averages. Employees at those high-performing companies were also twice as likely to stay with their employer and be fully engaged.

If the success of companies lies in the engagement, productivity, and happiness of the people who work there, more companies may begin to see that unions could serve them as well. After all, unions’ goals are to help employees’ voices be heard, to push for living wages and better benefits, and to create safe working conditions. All of these goals help improve employee satisfaction and, potentially, company performance.

Ultimately the mission of unions is about bringing power back to the people at work, because there is strength in numbers.

Brown’s own organizing experience showed her that the more low-paid workers are able to band together, the majority of whom are women, the greater influence they’ll have to impact change. "Our union succeeded because people believed that our collective power would make the workplace more equitable, and better serve our community,” says Brown.

Forbes contributor Holly Corbett covers bias, workplace equity and social justice.