Union women call for unity

Over 500 union women activists and many brother unionists adopted an action plan for the fight for women’s rights. They met at the national convention of the Coalition of Labor Union Women (CLUW) in Detroit on Sept. 14-17.

Barbara Barnes, a pipe fitter from Pittsburgh, was one of many attending a CLUW convention for the first time. She was all fired up. “I was always active in my union,” she said, “but when I joined CLUW my whole life expanded.”

CLUW’s success in advancing women to union leadership was echoed by many of the speakers. They credited CLUW for opening doors that used to bar women from high union office. Before CLUW was organized, there were no women on the AFL-CIO Executive Council. Now at least 33 percent of the council must be women or people of color.

The war in Iraq, needless deaths and destruction from Hurricane Katrina, and worry about the split in labor were on the delegates’ minds. They cheered Joyce Miller, past CLUW president, when she called for unity of all women unionists. She said that CLUW was one place where women from all unions could come together. Miller reminded delegates that CLUW almost split before it started in March 1974. There was a fight between the leaderships of two unions. But Delores Huerta of the Farm Workers and Clara Day of the Teamsters hugged each other and ended the divisive debate.

Huerta and Day were united on CLUW’s four goals: organizing the unorganized, promoting affirmative action, increasing women’s participation in their unions, and increasing women’s participation in political and legislative activities.

Ron Gettelfinger, president of the United Auto Workers, advanced “health care for all” as a key issue. He called on working women to speak up on health care and the high cost of prescription drugs. “Health care costs are rising,” he said, “but shifting the cost to workers is not the answer.

“A universal health care plan is the answer,” Gettelfinger said to loud applause.

Before the convention opened, CLUW endorsed the Sept. 24 “End the War on Iraq” march in Washington, D.C. That represented a big change in sentiment since the last CLUW Convention in 2003.

The strongly progressive tone of the convention was highlighted by Linda Chavez-Thompson. Chavez-Thompson is the executive vice president of the AFL-CIO. She presented labor’s position on the rebuilding of New Orleans and other devastated Gulf communities. She outlined the need to invest in the infrastructure, strengthen pensions and Social Security, require employers like Wal-Mart to cover health care, establish a system to provide health care plan for all, and get fair trade agreements. On the minimum wage, she exclaimed, “Congress gave themselves raises seven time and kept the minimum wage frozen!”

Finally, Chavez-Thompson spoke “woman-to-woman.” She said, “Don’t let them see you cry. It’s OK to go home and cry. There are many heartbreaks when you try to push up to give leadership and you get pushed down.” Then she fired up the delegates by saying, “Elect more women to public office. Imagine a women’s majority in the House, in the Senate, and as president of the USA!”

bealumpkin @ aol.com