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Last updated: April 12, 2010

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Women cheering at a meeting
Womens Way of Organizing report

Is There a Women’s Way of Organizing?

Cornell report on Gender, Unions, and Effective Organizing gives provocative answers

Berger-Marks funded study just released

As traditional industries decline, people are hiring into “informal and low-wage sectors” where turnover is high, legal protections are scarce, unions are rare, and workers tend to be immigrant women of color. Organizing such jobs is especially hard, because many people work in their homes or their employer’s home, with no central workplace, and worry about their status in the U.S. Researchers used ideas from other Berger-Marks reports as the jumping-off point for a series of focus groups and roundtable discussions in 2008 and 2009, where workers and organizers, most of them women, talked about how they mobilized diverse and fragmented workforces, and the experiences of women in unions. The Berger-Marks Foundation funded the project.

This is not your father’s union organizing

Women cheering with sign We Won! & union banner

At the core of the report are four non-traditional campaigns, run largely by and for women:

  • The United Federation of Teachers /ACORN campaign where a local union partnered with an established community organization on a common agenda.
  • The Domestic Workers United campaign where a worker-based group without formal collective bargaining rights led a campaign for decent working condition, wages, and treatment.
  • The Yellow Rat Bastard campaign of RWDSU in which union created an auxiliary community organization to attract a young workforce unfamiliar with unions.
  • An 1199SEIU campaign which used community mobilizing and the union’s political clout to win concessions from several agency employers simultaneously.

The project set out to answer these questions:

  1. Is there a successful way of organizing that is unique to women-focused campaigns?
  2. Among the seven strategies to “Promote Women Activism and Leadership in Unions” identified in the report, “I Knew I Could Do This Work,” which are most often used, and how successful are they?
  3. Are there other strategies or ideas here that should be assessed, propagated, and perhaps generalized to organizing in other contexts …?
  4. Are these new strategies? Or are they rooted in older models that are reemerging to challenge not only the traditional organizing practices of unions, but also the way unions view organizing and organizers’ roles?

Traditional organizing focused on speed

Traditional organizing focused on speed – getting to an NLRB election quickly, says the Report, rather than relationship building with workers and “the development of organic local leadership to guide the union after the organizing staff had packed up and left town. The result was too often a long, drawn out ‘war of attrition’ after the election” as the employer staged a pitched battle against the union s it tried to win a contract – as is well documented by Professor Kate Bronfenbrenner’s study, “No Holds Barred.”

How did the campaigns address these seven strategies?

Women rallying outside with sign: Quality Care
Women's Way of Organizing report

1.  Address Women’s True Priorities . Across all the campaigns, organizers encouraged a high level of activism among women workers by responding to their concerns.  They found women wanted to upgrade their skills, stop sexual harassment, and gain respect for their work. Many also wanted to address immigrant rights and other issues outside the workplace.

2. Create and Support Formal and Informal Mentoring Programs The campaigns used personal contacts to encourage participation and develop new leaders.  1199SEIU established an “Under Thirty Committee” to mentor and train young members.

3. Provide Opportunities for Women to Strategize Together. Campaigns differed in how much they provided formal “women’s spaces.” 1199SEIU’s Women’s Committee opened its events up to both women and men, and. RWDSU found that members identified as young retail workers more so than as women workers.

4. Put Women in Leadership. Organizers trained members to become leaders and included them  in all aspects of the campaign.  UFT identified workers with leadership potential while visiting their homes, DWU rotated leadership tasks at meetings, and RWDSU let members run meetings and set their own agenda. They also trained a media team of workers to talk to the press.

5. Highlight the Importance of Women’s Contributions. Each campaign did so in various ways.  DWU members created a special dance , and read poetry and perform skits about their cultures.

6. Provide Flexible Options for Involvement. Every campaign offered evening and weekend meetings, and some conducted meetings at workers’ homes and in “sidewalk chats,” and reached out to workers in parks, buses, and subways.  Organizers also brought workers together at cultural events, parades, picnics, and political events. RWDSU hosted an art exhibit for workers to express workplace injustice through art.

7. Provide Training on Mobilizing Women. Each union provided formal training ... and even more training was done through informal, on-the-job training. RWDSU used MySpace, Facebook, and text messaging to teach communications skills.

Other tactics. Many women involved in the campaigns used networks and tactics from their previous activism  around community issues like school quality, crime, or housing.  RWDSU encouraged workers to form coalitions based on  groups like race, age, and sexual orientation, UFT created the Hispanic Leadership Committee in the Bronx, and 1199SEIU united its younger members in an “Under Thirty Committee.”

Conclusions:'Change is not optional'

3 little girls with sign - Respect Our Mamas
BCTGM union

“The seven strategies… that were identified as effective in this study could theoretically occur in any traditional union organizing campaign. Why don’t they, if they work?” asks the report.

It concludes that women’s concerns and demands are challenging the traditional assumptions of many unions and leaders. “Unions have to learn to organize women more effectively” and become “community partners” collaborating with other social justice groups. That has legitimized the union among workers, and “the community in turn felt invested in the union and saw an interest in helping it succeed.”

The successful tactics amount to “a social justice organizing model” aimed at improving workers’ whole lives as workers, parents, caregivers and community members, and embedding unions into the identity of the community.

Woman-centered campaigns “recognize that workers are not just an undifferentiated mass of potential members: they are approached as individuals with a multiplicity of identities that intersect. Organizers build links among women based on these identity-based subgroups.” They also share power and meet workers on their terms, at different times and locations. They offer creative opportunities for women to socialize as well as strategize together.

And finally, “each campaign created a new image of what a union is: non-hierarchical, open to input, diverse, and willing to partner with other groups. The challenge now will be whether the union will adapt to fit the image?

“The centralized structures and gender biases of the old industrial economy, workplaces, and unions helped normalize a way of organizing that has failed to produce the results the labor movement needs... Younger women activists were outspoken in their criticism of unions as not being responsive to the lives and concern of women on staff, particularly women with families.

“In our view, it is too narrow to label this new approach as a “women’s way of organizing… The focus on community and workers’ whole lives is important to organizing all workers, male or female... If U.S. unions find it impossible to change, workers will build (and already are building) new structures and organizations to fight for their interests.”

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"Attracting and retaining a talented activist core of organizers who understand what it takes to organize women is not optional for the labor movement; it’s essential.

––"Is There a Women's Way of Organizing?" report

"We’re not interested in reproducing the same top-down structures
internally that out there in the world have kept working people at the bottom.”

Young organizer,
"Is There a Women's Way of Organizing?" report

"Our customer service training is
... a great recruitment tool for us and it upgrades their skills. It’s led by union members for nonunion members and it’s open to anybody.”

"Is There a Women's Way of Organizing?" report

"We have seminars and workshops on domestic violence
, housing, and women in leadership roles. Whether it be informal meetings or formal meetings, it’s all an education process.” 

"Is There a Women's Way of Organizing?" report


"We try to keep people knowing that their culture is important to the country. At every general membership meeting, members do poetry or skits and we even had a calypso.”

– DWU,
"Is There a Women's Way of Organizing?" report

"Our RAP Street Team is about connecting people.
You’re a part of the Street Team if you talk to your friend about RAP or if when you go shopping, you give the person that helps you a flier about RAP.” 

"Is There a Women's Way of Organizing?" report


"When you’re organizing a fragmented workforce, how do you bring people together? We go to people’s houses to have an organizing meeting... we travel with them on the train when they are going home... We’ll do meetings as late as 9 p.m.. The internet is also a way for people to feel connected.”

"Is There a Women's Way of Organizing?" report


"We participate in cultural events, dances, family picnics, the Caribbean and Puerto Rican Day parades, and political campaigns.”

– 1199SEIU,
"Is There a Women's Way of Organizing?" report


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