Glass ceiling visible and strong in labor unions Women, minorities not in key positions


NEW YORK -- When the Titans of labor gather to make polic for the 15 million members of the AFL-CIO, 28 white men, two women, two black men and one Latino sit at the table.

Even though women comprise nearly one-third of union members and minorities one-fifth, women head only two of the 88 international unions, and black men head just two others.

The glass ceiling is visible and strong in the labor movement. Although gains have clearly been made in middle management ranks of unions in the 20 years since the emergence of coalitions of black, Latino and female union members, they have a long way to go before they break the invisible barrier to power and influence.

"If there is going to be a labor movement in the future, then its leadership has to reflect its membership," says Jan Pierce, New York-based international vice president of the Communication Workers of America. "And increasingly, the membership and the vast pool of potential members are women and minorities. Therefore, it is essential that more women and minorities move to top leadership posts, not second-in-command, not to fill a quota, but to function in the top leadership positions."

Most trade union leaders acknowledge that women and minorities have not achieved their rightful place in the movement's hierarchy.

They realize that the white male power structure at the top of labor leadership has been hard for outsiders to break into. But they are also quick to articulate a familiar trade union theme -- that people who want such positions need to "pay their dues" and work their way up the leadership ladder, and that as in the corporate world, those people with power are not quick to relinquish it.

Today's union presidents and other top leaders have almost all come up through the ranks. They have left factory floors and offices and sometimes routine jobs to rise up to a position they may never have attained at their company, said Victor Kamber, a public relations consultant for a number of unions.

"All of a sudden you've been elected to a position of power and authority, where the salary is probably more than what you were earning and the responsibilities are much more varied and exciting," Mr. Kamber said. "If you can hold on for life, you're going to want to do that."

Defenders of labor's efforts to promote women and minorities also point to a fundamental difference between labor and the corporate world, where only one woman heads a Fortune 500 company: Executives are appointed while union leaders are elected.

"A union is a political organization. And I don't think you're going to see men give up power just because it's the right thing to do," said Joyce Miller, a founder of the Coalition of Labor Union Women and a vice president of the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union, headquartered in New York. In 1981, Mrs. Miller became the first woman seated on the AFL-CIO's executive council.

"You have to keep encouraging women to run for office," Mrs. Miller said. Promoting women for leadership is a fundamental goal of CLUW, founded in 1974.

There is no formal system for attacking labor's glass ceiling. All 88 international unions are autonomous and have their own rules for getting to the top.

When those women and minorities who have made it to the top are asked how they did it, they describe a variety of routes. Most came up through the ranks. And most also had mentors in their union who helped them. Others challenged the power structure, taking their cases directly to the union membership.

Chicago-based labor lawyer Thomas Geoghegan and others point to Diana Kilmury's election as first vice president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters as evidence that women can get ahead through the regular channels.

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