Recently, The New York Times published a report about women who, while working in physically demanding jobs, lost their pregnancies after requests for less-strenuous assignments were denied. The profile is a tragic example of the steep toll levied on women, and particularly women of color, who face economic and social rules that are rigged against them—rules that ultimately prioritize profit over life.
The Times investigated the stories of workers at XPO Logistics, a Verizon-contracted warehouse near Tennessee’s border with Mississippi, piecing together the picture of a cruel and punishing work environment. In one case, a 23-year-old woman, whose proactive requests for a lighter workload upon learning that she was pregnant were denied, miscarried after eight hours of heavy lifting. She was in the second trimester of her first pregnancy.
For many American workers and families, the experiences of the women in this story are not uncommon. In fact, the Times investigation is a stark demonstration of the collision of three dangerous trends in our economy that threaten women.
First, we’ve seen a decades-long decline in workers’ voice and agency resulting from the rapid erosion of unionization and labor rights. The workers at the Tennessee XPO warehouse are—despite efforts to unionize—part of the growing majority of employees in the United States who lack union representation. Over the past 40 years, union membership has plummeted from 20.1 percent of workers in 1983 to just 10.7 percent in 2017. This decline wasn’t inevitable. It was driven by a broken labor law system that ignores entire sectors of the economy and by harmful corporate ideology, behavior, and practices that put the interests of shareholders above all others.
Unions remain a key foothold for worker power in our economy and society, securing higher and more equitable pay, more generous benefits, safer conditions and more predictable schedules. Historically, union jobs helped pave the way to the middle class for millions of people, especially for women and people of color. However, union power today is vastly overshadowed by the outsized influence that corporations and wealthy individuals wield in politics and policymaking.
The decreasing power and protection of workers is even more harmful when combined with the second trend of the 21st century economy: unchecked employer influence in the labor market. Known as monopsony among academics, this trend occurs when fewer and fewer companies within and across labor markets mean that employers unilaterally set the terms of employment, including working conditions.
What did this mean for women at XPO? It meant they were not only stripped of their voice at the workplace, but, that even when faced with threats to their pregnancies and overall health, they stayed in their jobs because they needed a paycheck and had a hard time imagining where another one might come from.
The economic trends of de-unionization and outsized employer power are set against the backdrop of a cultural disdain for women. Conservatives are relentlessly threatening the health and economic security of women and their families: attacks on reproductive health and rights, on the Affordable Care Act, and on the safety net, just to name a few. They quickly extinguished their feigned deficit hatred to pass a $1.5 trillion tax package designed to line the pockets of those at the top. But they continue to scoff at paid sick and family leave, affordable childcare and education, universal health care and pregnancy protections for all workers—policies that would raise the floor of wellbeing for all families. This economic system—one built by and for white men—contributes to the toxic stress that generates a US maternal mortality rate that is the highest in the developed world, with black women dying from pregnancy-related causes at a rate 3 to 4 times that of white women.
The Times pulls back the curtain on an economy that has been structured to empower and enrich the few at the expense of the majority and that disregards the value and dignity of women in particular. As we continue full speed ahead to 2020, progressives must recognize that gender inequality and economic inequality are two sides of the same coin. It’s high time for lawmakers to rewrite the rules so that carrying a pregnancy to term—and raising a healthy, economically secure family–does not depend on the humanity or generosity of an employer. Those features are apparently in short supply. We must do better—for the lives of women, their families, and the benefit of all of us.