Big news. Feminist media are covering unions. Thanks to a report from GWP friend John Schmitt over at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, the feminist blogosphere is on the case–at Ms, at Feministing, at Feminist Majority. There’s also an excellent editorial in the San Diego Union Tribune.

The CEPR report, “Unions and Upward Mobility for Women Workers,” identifies what’s in the union movement for women. Schmitt reports that women in unions make 11.2 percent more than their non union peers. What’s the value of that? “All else equal, joining a union raises a woman’s wage as much as a full-year of college, and a union raises the chances a woman has health insurance by more than earning a four-year college degree,” reports Schmitt in a press release.

GWP talked with Schmitt about the report, to explore whether it is relevant to think of unions as a feminist institution, and here are a few thoughts he had for GWP:

GWP: What has changed for women in unions?
Schmitt: Women are now 45 percent of all unionized workers, up from 35 percent in 1983. If the trend holds,  women will be the majority of unionized workers by 2020.

GWP: What’s the significance–besides the increased wages you report?
Schmitt: There is a perception that unions are about white guys in their fifties who work in manufacturing and live in Michigan and Ohio. But, our study, which is one in a series focusing on different kinds of workers, shows that increasingly unions are about men and women. Union men and women are Latino, African American, white, Asian, and from other racial and ethnic groups, and more than ever union workers are in the service sector. I think the facts help to counteract some of our old-fashioned preconceptions of unions as not being representative of the workforce as a whole. For women today, unions have the potential to be a freestanding institution of the larger feminist agenda.

GWP: How are unions doing on health insurance?
Schmitt: Health insurance and pensions were two of the areas we examined. Part of the current health insurance “system” in the United States has been that marriage and jobs are gateways to health insurance, and this so-called system has the disadvantages of often making women dependent on their partner status for health insurance. In our study, we found that while 51 percent of non union women had health insurance, 75 percent of union women did. For low wage workers, the benefits were even more striking–union membership doubled a woman’s odds of having health insurance. Without a union, 26 percent of low-wage working women have health insurance. With a union, 59 percent of low-wage working women have health insurance. These large union advantages remained large even after we controlled for a host of demographic factors such as age and education levels.

GWP: What about women’s pensions?
Schmitt: Our retirement system has historically counted on women’s relying on their husband’s pensions–another case of dependence. Unions change that, nearly tripling the likelihood that low-wage women in unions have some kind of pension. While 21 percent of non union, low-wage women workers have a pension, 58 percent of these women do if they are in a union. For women workers overall, the pattern is similar: 43% of women workers without a union have a pension, while 76 percent of women workers with a union do. Again, the union effect holds even after we control for demographic differences between the union and non union groups.

GWP: What’s up ahead?
Schmitt: One of the key drivers of second-wave feminism was the incorporation of women into the workforce. But getting to work is a necessary but not sufficient condition for advancing the cause of women–and everybody, for that matter. What is happening today is that unions are increasingly acting to defend the interests of working women of all social classes and backgrounds, over issues such as flexible work schedules, extending the Family Medical Leave Act, and improving access to paid sick days and paid vacation.

Virginia Rutter