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"Facing the Future Together": CWA Women Get Fired Up at National Conference

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More than 50 years ago, women working for the Bell System were instrumental in creating what became the Communications Workers of America.

Today, women working for the country’s myriad phone companies, for airlines, in hospitals, at newspapers and factories, at universities and police departments and state and local government offices are being empowered by the union — and they’re empowering it, too.

“Women were the backbone in the formation of CWA, and you still are,” CWA President Morton Bahr told an exuberant crowd at the National Women’s Conference in May. “Without the support and commitment of women, CWA would not exist today.”

The conference brought more than 400 women and a couple of dozen men to Las Vegas to hear from union leaders, to share stories of hard-fought organizing campaigns and attend workshops on everything from CWA history to coping with stress — a topic that drew overflow crowds.

“I just loved it,” said Sheila Moore, who built cars at General Motors before going to work full time for IUE-CWA 798 in Dayton, Ohio. “I went to every class — stress, parliamentary procedure, all of them. There’s so much information out there that we can bring back to our locals.”

Her enthusiasm was widely shared by participants, who said they’d made lifelong friends and union allies while learning what a vital role they can play in their locals and communities, and for workers everywhere fighting for justice.

“It was eye-opening for them,” said CWA Local 6222 President Claude Cummings, who accompanied more than 20 of his members to the conference. “They learned a lot about legislative activities and how important it is to support legislators who support our causes. Four of the people who attended were just elected delegates to attend the Texas AFL-CIO conference in Dallas, and that’s something they probably wouldn’t have thought of doing before. They really got fired up.”

"Mission for Justice"
The conference, themed “CWA Women: Facing the Future Together,” focused on a renewed push to organize and mobilize for workplace rights, from equal pay to family leave and all other issues that affect workers’ and their families’ quality of life.

“Every generation of women has its own mission for justice,” AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Linda Chavez-Thompson said in a keynote address. “In the past, it was demanding the right to vote, marching against the sweatshops where young women were kept in terrible poverty while fighting in the courts and in Congress for our civil rights.

“Many of those issues continue,” she said. “But for us and our sisters, for our generation, there is still another mission. It is offering more women the chance to join our movement, and putting together clear, strong strategies to make that happen.”

Those strategies can include funding from CWA headquarters to further organizing efforts, CWA Executive Vice President Larry Cohen said. “We can help. We’ll work with your locals,” he pledged.” Right now, about 50 locals have full-time organizers, and many, if not most of them, are women.”

Cohen said many people hired for jobs with long-standing unions don’t realize how hard previous generations fought for the rights and benefits of union membership — and how hard workers are still fighting at thousands of worksites around the country and throughout the world.
“The union is about the future,” he said. “It’s an active thing. We have to constantly build it. It’s not like a ship where you’re elected a union officer and you’re proud of that and now you get to steer the ship around. It’s not like that. It’s much more like a community. You’ve got to keep building it, or it dies.”

Sticking Together
Rosa Maria Ramirez, a worker at Quadrtech Corp. near Los Angeles, was scheduled to talk about IUE-CWA’s campaign at the jewelry-making plant, which employs about 120 women, mostly Hispanic. The workers not only won representation last year, they won a landmark court victory that stopped the company from moving to Mexico after the union’s victory.

But Quadrtech managers wouldn’t let Ramirez out of work to attend the conference. “We each have to think that we could be in those shoes, otherwise we don’t win this,"” Cohen said. “It’s an old saying, they come for us one at a time, we all go down. We stick together, none of us goes down.”

With that in mind, TNG-CWA President Linda Foley called for donations to help the Quadrtech women in their continuing struggle. Conference participants filled buckets with bills and coins, raising nearly $1,000.

Though Ramirez couldn’t share her story, other CWA women did. Ruth Schubert, president of TNG-CWA Local 37082 in Seattle, talked about the Guild’s recent newspaper strike there. Patty DeVinney, president of CWA Local 1168, talked about the challenges of organizing health care workers. Chris Fox, president of CWA Local 13302, described the US Airways campaign; and Maureen Ehlert, president of CWA Local 4202 talked about organizing Cingular workers.

Another speaker, Alex Rooker, vice president of CWA Local 9400, talked about the skills — and courage — she’d gained by being active in CWA. She is first vice chair of the Democratic Party in California and is running for the state assembly.

“I’m doing things I never dreamed I’d be doing,” she said. “If anyone had told me 10 years ago that I’d be doing this, I’d say, ‘No way.’ Thank you CWA for helping me.”

Family Leave
Women make up 42 percent of CWA’s membership, and nearly half of them have children at home.

It’s a statistic that makes family and medical leave an important part of CWA’s agenda. Bahr noted a bill introduced by Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) that would restrict the definition of a “serious health condition” — the standard used to grant FMLA leave.

Although the Democratic takeover of the U.S. Senate means the bill is unlikely to get a hearing, the Bush administration and anti-worker Republicans in Congress are still trying to weaken FMLA and other worker-friendly initiatives. They could do so by tacking amendments onto other bills pending on the Senate floor.

“Union members need to be focused on what is happening to them — namely a corporate-driven campaign that is hurting working families,” Bahr said. “CWA will take a big role in this campaign, and CWA women have a personal stake in the outcome.”

Not only do unions need to fight efforts to undermine FMLA, they need to fight to strengthen the law, speakers said. Carla Katz, president of CWA Local 1034, cited a study showing that 130 countries provide family leave, including Russia, Mexico and Iraq. More surprising, all but three of the 130 countries provide paid leave. Only Ethiopia, Australia and the United States offer only unpaid time.

“When we need time to care for ourselves or our loved ones, we should not have to choose between our paychecks and our families,” Katz said.

Women Still Earn Less
Another key issue speakers raised was equal pay for equal work. Nearly 40 years after equal pay became law, “we still confront a situation where, on a national average, women earn roughly 75 cents for every dollar men earn,” CWA Secretary-Treasurer Barbara Easterling said.

“Over a lifetime of work, this 25 cents on the dollar that women are losing adds up in a big way,” she said. “The average 25-year-old working woman will lose more than $500,000 during her working life as long as this kind of disparity exists.”

But the wage gap narrows considerably for women represented by unions. “If there was ever a question as to the enormous value of union membership, the benefits enjoyed by union women as compared to nonunion women make short shrift of that question once and for all,” Easterling said.

The men attending the conference included many of CWA’s district vice presidents and local officers, who pledged a continued commitment to hire women on their staffs and push for changes in laws and contracts to better help working women.

“I want them to know I’m there as a local president to support them in their effort for equality,” Cummings said. “I know that there are still some prejudices for women moving into traditional male jobs.”

District 9 Vice President Tony Bixler spoke of the dynamic spirit of women and, bringing a wild round of applause, said “You give me one woman on a picket line, it’s worth 10 men.”