Let Leaders Lead
Utilizing black women’s acumen and expertise to advance the labor movement and the African American community
African American women are the most underutilized leadership resource in the U.S. labor movement despite the fact that they belong to unions at higher rates than all other women.
The U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that in 2014 black women accounted for 12.2 percent of union membership compared to 10.1 percent for white women, 8.9 percent for Latinas, and 11.8 percent for Asian women. However, in no union are the leadership demographics for black women representative of the union’s membership demographics.
Results of the Institute for Policy Studies’ National Survey of Black Women in Labor, confirm this trend. Of the 467 women who responded to the survey, 89 percent reported being or having once been a union member, staff or leader. And of those women, less than three percent reported holding elected positions, less than five percent reported serving as president of a union or labor organization and less than 20 percent reported holding senior staff positions at a director level or higher.
This leadership gap for black women is a detriment to the growth and survival of unions. According to extensive research of National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) elections by Cornell University’s Kate Bronfenbrenner and Columbia University’s Dorian Warren, the highest win rate, 89 percent, occurs for union elections when women of color comprise a majority of the workforce and when organizers are women of color. Coupled with the aforementioned data on union membership rates, black women are labor’s lowest hanging fruit—the workforce most receptive to organizing. However, the limited opportunity for black women to assume influential positions in unions will likely continue to mean that organizing black women—or fully integrating them strategically into political, legislative, corporate and other campaigns—will not be a high priority for the labor movement.
Unfortunately, the underrepresentation of black women in the top ranks of leadership is not an isolated phenomenon in American society. Even when skills, education and other indicators are held constant, black women are often overlooked for opportunities to make or influence the decisions of businesses, government, nonprofits and movements in nearly all sectors of society. According to both the Center for American Progress and Catalyst, African American women occupy 5.3 percent of managerial and professional positions in corporations. Similarly, less than five percent of all nonprofit board directors are women of color. And in the current Congress, women of color make up only 6.2 percent of members. Even worse, without acknowledgement or apology, these same institutions rely heavily on the labor of black women to get things done.
It is time for things to change. And in some ways, things are changing. The rise of leaders profiled in this report—such as United Steelworkers Assistant Legislative Director Roxanne Brown and Wisconsin Jobs Now Executive Director Jennifer Epps-Addison—is a testament to the new, emerging face of labor that is increasingly young, female, immigrant, and of color. Their achievements and leadership call us to consider how we make room for more Roxannes and Jennifers to rise through the ranks.
We explored with the women profiled in this report several different facets of this question, including whether they saw themselves as leaders; what they need to further develop their leadership; and the barriers that must be removed so that they can innovate, organize and win union elections and better wages, working conditions and benefits for workers and the broader community. From our interviews and the national survey, the following three distinct themes emerged.
First, black women want to lead. Regardless of the stage they are at in their careers or their current positions in the workplace and within labor, these women are not shrinking violets. About 65 percent of those who took the national survey stated that they aspire to become a union leader. And their desire to lead does not come from an ego-centered place. Instead, it comes from a deep desire to make sure that the voices, concerns and ideas of those they serve as shop stewards, organizers and labor leaders are heard. For those who have risen up the ranks and now sit at decision-making tables where they are often the first black woman, or one of few—they see the value in their place not for themselves but for members who look like them. “More black women in leadership positions allows more of a balance when approaching concerns and issues faced by black women, providing a seat at the table that has equal voice as others at the table,” explains a national survey respondent.
And perhaps, this national survey respondent says it best, “The current leadership needs to understand that we are not trying to replace anyone already at the table. We want those already at the table to move over so we have a seat at the table. We recognize the value of working together, creating partnerships and collaborating.”
Second, the labor movement does not have a leadership development problem when it comes to black women, it has a leadership opportunity problem. In 2002 the International Labor Organization (ILO) published a report titled, Promoting Gender Equality: A Resource Kit for Trade Unions, that found union rules and procedures do not encourage women to take on leadership positions in the United States and throughout the world. For example, nearly 70 percent of the women who responded to the national survey said that unions had invested in their leadership development, but almost 50 percent of them agreed that they felt impeded in utilizing their leadership potential because of a glass ceiling. This suggests a structural issue that leadership training programs alone—regardless of how effective—cannot address. As the ILO report attests, for unions to be credible, women need to be adequately represented and involved at all levels of the union. And as one survey respondent said, “[Labor should make] sure we have the same opportunities as others, who are not black, to job promotion.”
In interview after interview, black women labor leaders acknowledged that white and black men and white women in leadership positions played important roles in their ascent within unions. Replicating this experience is essential. According to findings published by the Harvard Business Review, women have mentors at work but they do not have the type of mentors who use their influence to advocate on their behalf for greater opportunity. And those are exactly the types of mentors women need to advance in their careers.
Other women interviewed mentioned the role that training and apprenticeship programs, such as the Nontraditional Employment for Women (NEW) program in the building and construction trades industry, have played in opening doors. Expanding leadership development opportunities like these must be matched with expanding opportunities to lead. “Increase leadership roles for black women,” said one national survey respondent. “Create a pipeline to leadership for black women where they can be the decision makers.”
Third, black women at all levels want greater opportunities for connection and mentorship—especially to one another. The women we interviewed often spoke of the informal circles of support that they have formed for themselves. They recognize, however, that these unofficial support systems should be complemented by more formal mentorship channels. There is no mystery why mentorship was one of the most commonly mentioned themes in both the interviews and the national survey. Research shows that mentoring is one of the most important and highly valued aspects of workplace leadership development programs for women in unions. Mentoring in the workplace also tends to lead to more promotions over the course of an employee’s career. Said one national survey respondent, “We need more mentors for women coming up through the ranks. Collectively, we have representation. However, when you break it down, black women are sprinkled here and there. It is important to find a way for women to connect and build each other up in this movement.”
In conclusion, the stories of the women profiled in the leadership section of this report reveal everything that the labor movement has to gain by opening the doors of opportunity wider to black women. From Jennifer Epps-Addison, we learn the value of investing in the leadership development of the membership. From Pierrette Talley we learn that amazing victories can be won when leaders with new perspectives are in place. From Valerie Ervin and Karen Lewis, we learn the importance of leveraging all that is learned in unions for greater opportunities to serve inside and outside of them. And from Dr. Toni Lewis we learn that black women understand the strategic value of union membership and the labor movement as a critical force for the economic and social advancement of their families and communities.
Their stories beg the question: Can labor now see the strategic value of black women?