Breaking Barriers: How Unions are Driving Inclusivity in the Labor Force

As featured in the Labor Tribune

By Michelle Zettergren

Labor unions represent workers of all levels of education, of diverse backgrounds and across most industries in America. Women now make up almost half of union workers, and nearly four in ten workers covered by a union contract are African American, Hispanic, AAPI or non-white.
Unions are also important advocates for gender and racial pay equity. Hourly wages for women represented by a union are on average 4.7% higher than for comparable nonunionized women. Black union workers are paid on average 13.1% more than their nonunionized counterparts, and Hispanic union workers earn 18.8% more on average than their nonunionized Hispanic peers.

Labor unions have always embraced diversity initiatives. The following are a few current, successful programs that are creating new economic opportunities for underrepresented workers.

Helmets to Hardhats
Helmets to Hardhats (H2H) began in 2003 to help military veterans transition to careers in the building trades. H2H partners with international trade unions and local building trades – such as the International Union of Bricklayers & Allied Craftsworkers, the Joint Apprentice Committee of Iron Workers Locals 40 & 361 and the Plumbers Local Union No. 200, among others – that facilitate veterans’ transition to civilian careers in construction.

The program begins with earn-while-you-learn apprenticeship training, which includes educating participants on how to use their G.I. Bill benefits to supplement their income during this time. After service members complete their apprenticeships, H2H connects them with interested employers.

Helmets to Hardhats has empowered over 41,000 veterans to join the construction trade – 3,000 of whom are in New York alone.

Nontraditional Employment for Women (NEW)
For over 40 years, Nontraditional Employment for Women (NEW) has worked to prepare, train and place women in careers in the skilled construction, utility and maintenance trades. This program aims to help low-income women achieve economic independence and secure a future for themselves and their families.

NEW’s goal is to increase the number of women in skilled labor, particularly in trades that offer strong wages, benefits, training and potential for advancement. NEW provides training, including both daytime and nighttime courses. Graduates of the program go on to have successful careers as union carpenters, electricians, ironworkers, laborers, plumbers and operating engineers.

Several New York area unions sponsor registered apprenticeship programs that use NEW as a direct entry provider. Today, the number of women represented in trade careers in New York City has increased to 7% (compared to 2% 40 years ago), with many apprenticeships approaching or exceeding 15% women.

Pathways to Apprenticeship (P2A)
Pathways to Apprenticeship (P2A) aims to combat intergenerational poverty by empowering low-income New Yorkers to pursue careers in the building trades. Many of the individuals that P2A works with were formerly incarcerated (66%) and a trades career is an opportunity for them to earn a steady middle-class income.

After participants graduate, P2A schedules interviews with building trades unions for available apprenticeships. P2A also provides graduates with résumé assistance, interview coaching and aptitude test preparation.

This program has transformed the lives of many of its participants, with more than 85% of graduates still working in the building trades. Many have also become P2A Peer Mentors, teaching classes and conducting information sessions for others interested in joining.

The Future of Diversity in Labor
Unions that incorporate Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives are seeing the benefits of embracing a diverse workforce. Workers from different backgrounds bring a variety of perspectives to an organization, which facilitates more innovative problem-solving. In fact, research shows that diverse and inclusive workforces are 1.7 times more innovative.

In 2020, about 10.6 million of the 15.9 million workers covered by a union contract in the U.S. were women and/or people of color. And, with initiatives like H2H, NEW and P2A working with unions to make additional strides in inclusivity, it’s only a matter of time before skilled labor sees an even greater increase in representation.

Michelle Zettergren is President of MagnaCare, a national third-party administrator of Labor and Taft-Hartley Fund health plans.


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