Celebrating Women’s History Month: Q&amp;A with Shelley Kessler

In honor of Women’s History Month, we are celebrating women leaders in the California Labor Movement. Today I sat down with Shelley Kessler, a pillar of the labor movement in California. Shelley got started in the union movement in a male-dominated industry and has led the charge advocating for safety in the workplace. As head of the San Mateo Country Central Labor Council, Kessler represents 110 affiliated local unions and over 70,000 working member families. She has been at the Labor Council for 29 years, first as the political director. She also currently serves as a Vice President of the California State Labor Federation and an International Association of Machinists (IAM) Delegate to the AFL-CIO. See below for our Q&A:

  1. How did you get involved in the labor movement?

Social and economic justice struggles have been the basis and run throughout my adult life.  Maybe that can be the cornerstone of what motivates me; but it is the implementation that is the hardest to accomplish!

My family was politically engaged and I had a very socially conscious upbringing. Most of my family from my parent’s generation were immigrants from Europe.   My Great Aunt Ethel was influential when I was growing up. She was in the International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union in New Jersey. She was the kind of woman who would help out of work longshoremen and let them stay in her home when they were down on their luck. The first picket line I ever joined was for a teacher’s strike in Los Angeles when I was in high school. That was the first time I was able to join a collective action after witnessing people being treated poorly.

I got started in the union movement in 1977 when I began working for General Motors in Fremont, CA. Working in such a male-dominated industry I was able to see first-hand how important it was for me to get engaged in my union. It was the only way I could stand up for myself. I eventually was elected to be an alternate Committee Person and I was the first woman to ever be elected to the  position of full time Committee Person in that UAW plant. I would later go on to work as a mechanic at Westinghouse Electric in Sunnyvale and join the IAM Local 565.

What do/did you enjoy most about being a mechanic?

What I liked about being a mechanic is the puzzle solving of reading a blueprint, putting things together to make them work, and them working! 

I did well on details so advanced fairly quickly, although it was a mixed bag in the shop. Some guys were very supportive, even taking down the pictures of nude women, and others were not so much.

One guy did try to get me injured, twice, but other guys stepped up and took him on. What I didn’t like was the constant exposure to carcinogenic materials without proper protective gear. It is one of the reasons that health and safety on the job is so close to my heart.

How has IAM improved the industry over the years? Particularly for women?

The IAM has really stepped up to recognize more women in the trade. We are one of the few internationals with both a women’s department and an educational training center specifically for our union members.

While there are still challenges every day, the first step towards solving a problem or changing a culture is to recognize the issues and to actually do something about them. We now have women on our national executive board and women who are carving new paths towards improving work environments, which benefits everyone! I am proud of my over 30 year history in the IAM and to be a rep from my international to the AFL-CIO.

What advice do you have for women hoping to rise through the ranks in male-dominated industries?  What or who helped you along the way?

There are several good opportunities through Apprenticeship programs for the trades industries, including forums for women to go to talk about situations they experience in their workplace and discuss solutions with peers who understand where they are coming from. Finding some kind of community is so important to help make it through those tough days. I would advise women in male dominated fields to work to build solidarity with people who are at the table when you are not and will be your champion when you’re not in the room. To create these relationships, it’s crucial to focus on shared goals and challenges. What unites you? Shared values have the potential to transcend gender, race, age, political differences, etc. For example: both men and women care about safe working conditions. In my workplace, I joined forces with colleagues to ban lead soldering. It had already been banned for women in our contract but we fought to ensure that men would also have access to leadless solder, a very important issue for them at the time.

Who have been your mentors throughout your career?

Linda Gregory, former senior Business Agent from AFSCME Council 57, has been one of the most inspiring women in my life and has helped me navigate the world of union organizing. She’s a labor educator by avocation and teaches Labor Studies at community colleges around the Bay Area. She is one of the funniest, smartest, and kindest people I have ever met. She’ll never make you feel stupid, a very rare but important quality. I frequently think that if this woman has been able to take the high road for decades, I can too.

Amanda Hawes, the founder and director of Cal-OSH, has also been a very important mentor for me.  When I was working at Westinghouse, I discovered the presence of carcinogens at my worksite. At the time she was working at the Santa Clara County Occupational Safety and Health. After searching for where I could go for advice and assistance I found the organizations and she helped me create new standards at Westinghouse. She’s an attorney specializing in worker and safety health and has always been an incredible advocate.

I just read recently that international women's day originated to honor two women-led strikes in our history. There are many examples of the women's liberation and feminist movement intersecting with the labor movement throughout history.  How do we continue to honor that history and promote it?

To start, our own unions have to embrace it themselves and educate their members. The AFL-CIO used to have a Women’s Department as well as an Education Department but not anymore. We need to prioritize honoring our history and shining a light on female leaders from our past as part of our continual effort to create paths for women to get into positions of leadership in the union movement.

Women represent more than half of the workforce; yet continue to hold a disproportionately low share of senior/executive union leadership positions across the country. What can be done to drive progress and balance the scales?

Current leaders need to learn how to mentor and create plans for change and stick to them. It’s important for women to also build each other up and encourage each other to speak up. There are so many meetings I’ve attended where the conversation can be a bit male-dominated but I can see women in the room who I know have important insights to share. We need to make space for them to do so.    

What advice could you give to women who have their eye on leadership positions in their union?

Don’t expect everything to happen at once and feel defeated when it doesn’t. You may have a brilliant idea that’s not accepted by everyone in the room and that’s ok. Don’t let that silence you at the next meeting. It’s important to have your eye on the prize but don’t become so impatient that you become bitter. Stand up for yourself but learn how to pick your battles and be strategic and as hard as it may seem, try not to take things personally. Having the right attitude can help you avoid burn out and for women in the union movement, that’s vital.

What are you are most proud of as a labor leader in CA?

I’m fortunate to have had many rich and fulfilling experiences in the labor movement. I’ve organized multi-union campaigns and built an incredible team at the San Mateo Central Labor Council. I’ve advocated for safer working conditions in California and been able to impact countless workers in California.

But it’s also staying true to my roots and what brings me happiness that gives me immense pride. I’m proud that I am known for being able to sell any raffle ticket on the face of the earth.  Helping other women get into various positions in labor and social justice advocacy bring me joy. 

I also have had the great privilege to work with a diverse and phenomenal team of labor activists to promote our culture and history, the heart and soul of the labor movement through the Labor Heritage Foundation. We’ve been able to promote music, artists, and culture in the social justice movement for nearly 30 years.

I’m proud I’ve been able to keep my sense of humor throughout the years. And not getting fired. That’s an important one.

Who is a labor leader that inspired you to get involved in the movement?

Linda Gregory, my mentor. And Jon Fromer. Jon was an incredible musician and my best friend. He helped me so much throughout the years; anytime I was feeling down, I would call Jon and he would talk me through it. He taught me the value of leading by example instead of pounding your chest to get what you want.

You can read more about Jon and listen to some of his beautiful music here. My personal favorite is ‘We Do The Work’.