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The Importance of Diversity in the Workplace for Union Members

By Julia M. Passwater, J.D. | Mar 21, 2019

For many people, the phrase "union member" conjures up an image of a toughened white man working in a heavy industrial setting. But today, union members embody a much broader range of identities.

Over two-thirds of the union membership in the United States is made up of women and people of color, and over a third of all union workers are black, Hispanic, Asian or otherwise nonwhite. Trustees should continue to consider the importance of diversity in the workplace for union members.

 Recognize That Some Members Still Face Discrimination

Some populations in the United States face ongoing discrimination, both inside and outside of the workplace. For example, LGBTQ workers have traditionally faced widespread systemic discrimination throughout society, including in health care settings. This has led many LGBTQ union members to defer seeking treatment for serious health conditions even though they're covered by health insurance.

Trustees can support LGBTQ members by verifying that they have access to doctors and hospitals that provide inclusive care. At the same time, ensure that female members have access to the health resources they need, including maternity and caregiver benefits, breast cancer screenings and access to mental health professionals.

In addition, equip members with tools for recourse if they feel they're being discriminated against by an employer, and work with employers to resolve any disputes that come up between members around issues of minority identity.

Adapt Union Board Strategies to Prioritize Diversity

The role trustees play has continually shifted over time as the labor landscape changes. Yet some responsibilities remain constant, and keeping an open line of communication with members is just as important as it's always been — more important, arguably, as diversity brings in new perspectives. A diverse membership will require equally diverse solutions, and trustees will increasingly find that one-size-fits-all initiatives and strategies fail to meet the mark. Instead of passing along announcements and educational tools in just one way, consider multiple ways that various members might want to receive information.

When in doubt, bring major considerations — such as choosing health plan offerings — directly to the union membership and ask members what they need rather than trying to guess what they're looking for. For instance, an anonymous survey might reveal that while some members are fine with learning about their health care options in a brochure, many would prefer to attend a health fair instead.

Also take time occasionally to reassess how the board ensures that information is as accessible to members as possible. This extends beyond personal preference; if all of your educational, administrative and development materials are in English, members with limited proficiency in the language could be missing out. These kinds of miscommunications can lead to members misunderstanding their benefits and not getting the care they need. For trustees and members to have a productive partnership, they need to be on the same page — otherwise, prepare for a potential breakdown in trust between members and their union.

By acknowledging the importance of diversity in the workplace for union members, you show them that you care about their unique needs and aim to cultivate a culture of progress and loyalty.

Julia Passwater is a freelance writer based in Indianapolis, Indiana. Passwater earned a bachelor's degree in Political Science from Indiana University Bloomington, and she earned a Juris Doctor degree from Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law. After earning her law degree, Passwater spent over a decade enforcing federal employment laws for the U.S. Department of Labor and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Today, Passwater writes about topics such as politics, government, employment law and work in the 21st century.