Women's History Month is a time to shake things up, union style.
That means taking a hard look at the facts about women's salaries and rights, their place in society and their political activism. It means taking action to make change and to right wrongs.
To that end, NYSUT President Karen E. Magee, the first female president in the union's 45-year history, re-established a women's committee to fully address the challenges women face and the strategies needed to resolve them.
"This is a union composed of nearly 73 percent female members, so women's issues are, by definition, NYSUT issues," Magee said. "Women's issues are about family. They're about the economy. They're about justice and equality. They're about the future.
"Much work remains to advance equal rights in our state and our nation. And who better to lead that advancement?"
NYSUT President Karen E. Magee with NYS Commissioner of Labor Roberta Reardon at a women’s steering committee meeting.
Soon after her election in 2014, Magee reached out to a diverse group of NYSUT members, including some members of the former women's committee, along with NYSUT staff. Their charge was to identify key issues central to women in general, and to NYSUT members in particular.
They formed a workgroup to discuss domestic violence; the effects of poverty on children and families; women's health; the role of women in governance, be it union or public service; effectuating political, social and economic change for women through support of the Fight for $15, among other initiatives; and racial diversity.
The discussions will culminate in a women's conference in May in Albany. The committee hopes to introduce information for locals to share about topics such as financial security for women, the role of social media in various campaigns, and NYSUT's "pipeline project" to identify and produce "home-grown" candidates for public office, both locally and statewide. Watch for details on www.nysut.org.
The Coalition of Labor Union Women — the only national union for women — last fall launched a new campaign to take on the "War on Women," what CLUW President Connie Leak called a "growing and virulent attack on women" over the past four years.
The attacks are evidenced in wages — women earn about three-quarters of what men make and decline further for African- American women; in the assaults on reproductive rights; in the unbalanced availability of jobs for women; in voting restrictions; and inequities in the workplace, Leak said.
JoAnn Sweat and Stacy Moran, both members of NYSUT's new women's steering committee, attended their first CLUW convention in November.
Moran, a teacher who leads the Newburgh TA, grew up in a family of teachers and unionists. Still, she said, after Thanksgiving dinner the men always left the table to go watch TV and the women went into the kitchen to clean up. "I was always asking why," she said.
In the workplace, that question arose again, such as the time an administrator asked her where his coffee was.
At CLUW, she found renewed purpose: to provide women with encouragement and support.
"That's what women have to do for each other. Lend a hand backward. I want to mentor people behind me," she said. "I want to move people to leadership positions."
JoAnn Sweat, a School-Related Professional and president of the 1,000-member Buffalo Educational Support Team, noted that NYSUT was the only educational unit among women coal miners, steel workers, postal workers and auto workers at the CLUW convention. "We need to get our voice out," she said. The number one concern among the SRPs she represents, she said, is "the disparity in pay."
NYSUT Board member Shelvy Young-Abrams is a national vice president for CLUW and a member of the AFT Women's Rights Committee.
"As CLUW said in its founding convention: We are not here to swap recipes. We are here to make real sustainable change in all working women's lives," she said. Women taking control of the economics of their work is "one of the greatest equalizers."
CLUW strives to make women aware of workplace inequities — in pay, promotions, access to family leave for care of their parents, spouses or children; or protections from sexual harassment and assault — and then get these resolved.
As a NYSUT Board member, Young-Abrams sees how the union "prepares our women to be proactive, recognizing the need to nip worksite and school bullying in the bud, checking facilities for health and safety issues, and handling disasters if they should arise."
The lack of movement on "improving women's economic earning power is truly troubling," CLUW's Leak said. "We have worked tirelessly with our partners in the Fair Pay Coalition for passage of the Paycheck Fairness Act, but real change will not happen until more Congressional representatives feel comfortable in embracing equality."
And, she said, it's clear that "the same groups that go after women's rights are going after unions."
With much at stake for working women and for union members, union leaders said, the time is now to pump muscles and minds, and to mobilize, here and nationwide.
DID YOU KNOW
- Union-represented women earn about 30 percent more per week than non-union workers.
- Women union members earn about 88 cents on the dollar vs. men. Non-represented women earn about 77 cents on the dollar.
- Equal Pay Day is April 12. The date symbolizes how far into the year women must work to earn what men earned in the previous year. National Committee on Pay Equity encourages women to wear red on this day, symbolizing how working women are "in the red" with their salaries. Visit www.pay-equity.org/day.html.
- Access an Equal Pay Day kit at www.pay-equity.org/day-kit.html. Form a Wage Club; or learn about federal and state laws that address unequal pay.
AFL-CIO and CLUW are working together to present the Common Sense Economics workshop series on pay equity, family leave, immigration, criminal justice reform, globalization and young workers. To request a training, visit www.aflcio.org/index.php/About/Common-Sense-Economics.
CLUW's National Executive Board Meeting/Retreat, April 7–10 in Silver Spring, Md., includes a full-day conference to educate, prepare and mobilize women unionists and their supporters for the 2016 Election.
The theme is Election 2016 — What's at stake!
For more information about CLUW, or to join and find a local chapter, visit www.cluw.org.