Throughout history, women have found that though solidarity and unions they have been able to win greater fairness and equity in their jobs, Annelise Orleck, author, historian and professor of history at Dartmouth College, told some 140 participants at the 37th Annual Conference of the Wisconsin Labor History Society.
Orleck traced the struggle of women workers from the 1909 “Uprising of the 20,000,” a strike of mostly female shirtwaist makers in New York City to the 2018 strike of West Virginia teachers. Women have shown that when they show solidarity they can bring about change, she told an enthusiastic audience at Laborers Local 113 Hall in Milwaukee on April 7.
The conference also featured women workers telling of their experiences – both positive and negative – at their workplaces and within their unions. In an afternoon session, six women labor activists and leaders offered suggestions for strategies to better include women into the labor movement leadership and to strengthen unions.
In opening the conference, Orleck, author of the recently released book, “We Are All Fast Food Workers Now,” related instances where workers in mainly female occupations banded together to end often barbaric employment practices. She cited the 1971 strike by the workers at Las Vegas hotels, led by the Culinary Workers Union, where the union won wide community support and found ways to assure that their members could take advantage of the social services of the community.
“This model is important to follow,” she counseled.
The plight of hotel housekeepers is particularly dire, but they have been “making the invisible visible” through such public activities as marches and demonstrations. While union leaders insist that a housekeeper should service no more than 10 rooms a day (it’s been described as a physically taxing job), many currently are required to do as many as 25. In addition, Orleck continued, the women face sexual assault and three-quarters of them feel “unsafe.”
It’s important, too, she said workers need to realize they are part of the global workforce in today’s world. For example, she noted that much of the clothing sold in the United States is made in Bangladesh where companies terribly abuse and neglect their workers. “In Bangladesh, it’s not 2018, it’s 1911,” she said, referring to the conditions that prevailed and caused the Triangle Shirtwaist fire.
Orleck called for “new model of organizing” that would look to three strategies: targeting the ‘top of the food chain,’ that is highlighting the actions of large companies and their executives; seeking agreement with those companies that would pledge to keep workers safe and healthy, and employing tactics that would “entertain” rather than merely frustrate the public in order to bring positive views about the workers.
Jillian Jacklin, a UW-Madison doctoral candidate and a WLHS board member, introduced Orleck, noting that the professor’s works have spotlighted the personal lives of working women, immigrant and African-Americans.
In the morning panel entitled “Testimonies: Overcoming Workplace Inequities,” two women told of their experiences of breaking into the male-dominated construction trades. Sue Silverstein, now a welding instructor at Milwaukee Area Technical College, said she was one the first female members
in the sheetmetal trade, first in a non-union shop, and later in a shop represented by Sheetmetal Workers Local 18. She said she noted an immediate difference between the two.
Taking the job as grievance representative, she succeeded in getting the company to rehire nine others who had been fired through a “loophole.” As an apprentice, however, she found some men not welcoming, including her first tutor who repeatedly giving her bad directions. She said she finally told him, “I want my job because of my skills, not because I f—-d the boss.”
Jennifer Froh, a member of Ironworkers Local 8, said most men have been supportive, even though women make up less than one percent of her union’s membership. She recognized that the absence of women was likely due to need for ironworkers to have great physical strength. She is a leader of the “Sisters of Iron,” a group of women ironworkers.
Breahn Quigley-Knackert, a Steelworkers Union representative, first went to work at Harley-Davidson where she became a member of USW Local 2-209. She said she was “fortunate to have had men who prompted her to run” for union office. She acknowledges that discrimination and harassment exist in the workplace and that the United Steelworkers have established a union-wide “Women of Steel” program that she directs in USW Sub-District Four.
Barbara Follmann, a retired representative of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Workers, said there is a constant under-valuing of women’s work. After being hired by the Ohio Civil Services Employees (AFSCME), her skills were not recognized because she was a woman, she said. She said she had to fight an issue in that organization that “only men could bargain contracts.” Follmann urged being persistent in order to turn back such attitudes.
In an afternoon panel discussion, entitled, “The Road to Gender Equity,” key leaders of the Wisconsin Labor Movement – all women – urged constant effort to call for equity in their unions and within the workplaces.
Pam Fendt, president of the Milwaukee Area Labor Council, noted that “unions provide a boost for women workers, regardless of the jobs” they hold, noting that nonunion women earn 78% of union-represented women. She noted, too, that union workers are better able to balance work time with family obligations to assist those who are part of the “sandwich generation,” that is those faced with caring for children or ailing.
She urged that unions take the lead in seeking to resolve the problems of workers having to balance work and family issues.
Jacklyn Kelly, president of AFSCME Local 526 (Milwaukee Public Museum), is also a co-chair of the Young Workers Committee of the Milwaukee Area Labor Council. She also works part-time as a bartender for Milwaukee Brewers and Green Bay Packer games, noting that her issues often come from customers and co-workers with comments that are “annoying.” Her male co-workers sometimes complained because as a women she made more in tips, she related.
She said it was wrong to put the burden on women to set others “straight” on how they should relate to each gender. Leadership should recognize that all persons deserve “a place at the table,” regardless of gender.
Women must realize they shoulld “share their stories” so that others understand their issues, counseled Kim Kohlhaas, president of AFT-Wisconsin and a third-grade teacher in Superior. She said teachers in West Virginia recently shared their experiences in building public support, gaining power and winning better pay and educational funding. Too often, women believe “they can’t make a difference,” causing many to fail to assume leadership. She noted that on the average women had to be asked seven times before they would take on a leadership task.
It is vital to build trusting relationships with other workers, Kohlhass said, citing her own school district union where disputes arose over a situation in which pay scales were lower for elementary teachers (largely female) compared with high school teachers (mostly male). Efforts succeeded in equalizing the pay, but not without internal strife within the union. She said the high school teachers felt “they’d lose status in the community,” even though they recognized the elementary school teachers were underpaid.
Anna Dvorak, lead organizer for Citizen Action Wisconsin, said that being “young” and a “woman” proved to be challenging in organizing work. She said she was often demeaned by being called such names as “little organizer,” making it tough. It is important to stand up for one another in such situations, she added.
The leadership of both unions and nonprofits need to recognize the burdens that are often placed upon their staff by the workaholic nature of the work. Dvorak said that it “doesn’t work well if you have a family and it [the pace of work] also doesn’t build power.”
Angela Lang, former SEIU representative and executive director of Black Leaders Organizing for Community, called her work in organizing nursing home workers as “tough,’ since it meant many home-visits to homes of mainly black mothers. While the women recognized that the a union would get them higher pay and better conditions, they would find their family responsibilities made them shy away from getting involved, often for the possible risk.
She urged unions to become “inter-sectional” that she described as “meeting people where they are at.”
As final presenter of the panel, Stephanie Bloomingdale, took on the task of summarizing the remarks of the earlier speakers and commented that their comments showed “we need common sense and little fire,” borrowing a quote from Eleanor Roosevelt.
Reflecting on the theme of the panel, she said statistics showed that “to have equity is to have a union.” She added, “The only way to gain power is to work collectively. When we organize more workers into unions, we’ll have power,” Bloomingdale said.
She called upon everyone to ask each other to become more involved within their unions. She noted the Uprising of 2011 in response to Gov. Walker’s Act 10 proposal “planted the seeds of activism” that bodes well for the future.