A record 37 percent of union members are women, thanks in large part to recent organizing drives among nurses, teachers and government workers.
But millions of women continue to toil in part-time, low-paying jobs at restaurants, department stores and other service-sector businesses.
It is these people that the labor movement must seek to represent if unions are to grow in the future, according to Geraldine Ochocinska, assistant director of the United Auto Workers, Region 9 in Buffalo.
"Today, the highest percentage of women ever are union members . . . but it's not due to expanding union membership in this country," she said Wednesday.
"We have unionized women who are well paid, highly educated and work in professions. However, 86 percent of working women are not organized," she added.
Ms. Ochocinska was one of five female labor leaders who participated in a panel discussion on "Women and Unions in Western New York." The event, held on the Amherst campus of the University at Buffalo, was part of celebrations marking Women's History Month.
Ms. Ochocinska and several other speakers called on the Republican-controlled 104th Congress to reform U.S. labor law.
They want a shortened time frame for union representation elections, or elimination of the vote altogether if more than 50 percent of a bargaining unit agrees to sign union cards. Employers also must be severely punished for threatening people who want to join a labor organization, they said.
"By the year 2000, only 5 percent of workers will be represented by unions if we don't get labor law reform," said Ms. Ochocinska, who last July became the first woman to be appointed to the No. 2 post in a UAW region.
Union membership has fallen from 36 percent of the U.S. work force in the 1950s to about 15 percent today.
Ms. Ochocinska compared the importance of women joining unions to women's suffrage. Both have and will revolutionize society, she said.
"But hopefully it won't take more than 70 years for women's unionization," she said, referring to the seven decades it took women to win the vote.
Women from all walks of life also must fight Congressional attempts to eliminate affirmative action, according to Dianne Flakes of the Coalition for Black Trade Unionists.
She said that white women, not blacks, have been the major beneficiaries of affirmative action, which began under President John F. Kennedy. She said people are "misguided" when they say that blacks have made tremendous gains due to various federal laws; women have made these strides, she maintained.
Despite this advancement, union organizer Mary Ellen Heimbueger reported that workers -- both women and men -- remain intimidated by employers who threaten them if "they utter the 'U' word," she said.
Ms. Heimbueger, a registered nurse at Mercy Hospital in South Buffalo, recalled the first union representation election at the hospital in 1990. Mercy United/Communications Workers of America, Local 1133 lost by just six votes.
But the initial nine activists didn't despair, she said. Instead they chanted: "We will be back," and immediately began to educate the rank and file about the need for a union at the hospital.
The results of the 1990 representation election eventually were voided due to illegal actions by Mercy management. Mercy United overwhelmingly won a second vote in 1991. Today, it represents 2,000 nurses, technicians and clerical staff at the hospital.
Both Ms. Heimbueger and Jena Osman, an organizer for the Graduate Student Employees Union/CWA Local 1188, described their feelings of empowerment due to involvement in the labor movement.
Ms. Osman, a doctoral student in UB's English Department, also said that her union has raised minimum salaries for graduate teaching assistants from $3,000 per year to $5,000, and secured health insurance that is 90 percent paided by New York State.
Belonging to a union "has made a difference in my life," she said.