Dick Meister: Here come the women!

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Women now hold half the country's jobs and will hold more than half by year's end

By Dick Meister

(Dick Meister, former San Francisco Chronicle labor editor and labor reporter for KQED-TV's "Newsroom," has covered labor and politics for a half-century as an author, reporter, editor and commentator.)

Good news for women: Despite the recession - or because of it women workers will very soon outnumber male workers for the first time in U.S. history.

After many, many years of minority status, many years of generally being paid less than men and otherwise treated as second-class workers by male bosses, women now have the numbers to more effectively combat workplace discrimination.

New data from the Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics show that at mid-year, women held half the country’s jobs and undoubtedly will hold more than half by year’s end.

The number of women workers has been growing steadily for decades, but the number has boomed during the recession. That’s partly because the greatest job losses have been in male-dominated fields such as construction and manufacturing. Men have lost more than three million jobs in those areas alone since the recession began in late 2007. Three-quarters of all jobs lost a total of 4.75 million - were held by men. Women lost three million fewer jobs.

Women have been gaining jobs because the sectors of the economy that have been growing despite the recession are those in which women have traditionally held a majority of the jobs health care, education, and state and local government. The growth of jobs in those areas has been in part because much of the federal stimulus money has gone to them.

The figures are downright spectacular. Local governments, for instance, have laid off 86,000 men during the recession, but they have hired 167,000 women. That’s largely because women generally are paid less than men and are hired mainly for office jobs, which typically are better funded than other government positions.

More than 90 percent of all government jobs and nearly 80 percent of the health care jobs filled during the recession have gone to women. Also, there’s been an expansion in teaching and other fields dominated by college-educated women.

But though women are gaining jobs in many fields, men still dominate the higher-paying executive positions. And women generally work fewer hours than men and thus earn less. They also hold more part-time jobs than men, though many, if not most, want and need full-time work.

What’s more, women earn only 77 percent of what men earn. One of the most important reasons for that is simple. Despite their growing numbers and dominant position in some areas, women workers are still concentrated in areas where unionization is low the health care, hospitality and retail fields.

Unionized women get a third more in pay than non-union women. Last year, the median pay for women in unions was about $800 a week, about $600 for non-union women. That amounted to about $2 an hour more for women union members.

Pay is only part of it. Three-fourths of unionized women have employer-funded health care and pension benefits, while only half of non-union women have them. Women in unions are guaranteed paid holidays and vacations, premium pay for overtime work and usually work under union contracts that promise them the same pay and benefits as men doing the same work. The working conditions of union members are invariably better than those of non-members and unionization gives them a strong voice on the job and in their communities.

The conclusion should be obvious: More women need the leverage of unionization to fully realize the advantage of their growing numbers in the workplace.

There’s one sure way for them to gain unionization congressional approval of the long- pending Employee Free Choice Act that would deny employers the underhanded tactics they’ve used to block millions of workers from unionizing.

It’s way past time for Congress to act, way past time that Congress enabled all workers, men as well as women, to fully exercise their rights as workers.

Dick Meister, former San Francisco Chronicle labor editor and labor reporter for KQED-TV's "Newsroom," has covered labor and politics for a half-century as an author, reporter, editor and commentator. You can read nearly 270 of his more recent columns on his website, labor and a whole lot more. Contact him through www.dickmeister.com.