Women of Labor Unite in Sacramento

The face of the labor movement is changing. Gone are the mostly male unions that were so prevalent just a generation ago. Nowadays, fully 45% of all union members are women, and by 2020 women will make up the majority of the unionized workforce. Union women are powerful activists, and have begun stepping into leadership positions like never before.

This year’s “Women of Labor” conference , sponsored by the California Labor Federation and UFCW Women’s Network, brought union women from around the state together to foster solidarity and leadership for a new kind of workforce – and a new kind of labor movement. The second annual conference, which took place this week in Sacramento, drew more than 200 union women (and some men too) from right here in California and as far away as Egypt, Tunisia and Hungary.

The driving force behind the conference is Connie Leyva, who serves as the California Labor Federation’s president and as president of UFCW Local 1428. Leyva has been engrossed in contract negotiations on behalf of thousands of grocery workers in southern California. A true Woman of Labor, Leyva urged the union sisters at the conference to go into their local Vons, Ralphs and Alberstons and give the management a piece of their mind. Check out President Leyva’s latest update on the grocery workers' contract negotiations.

Leyva wasn’t the only trailblazing female labor leader featured at the conference. National AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler (also the first woman to hold the position of Secretary-Treasurer at the AFL-CIO) came out from Washington DC for the event, where she spoke about the changing face of labor:

We’re redefining labor unions for some Americans who think they know what we are. But we’re also defining labor for a new generation who don’t even know we exist. And we’re showing women that unions are opening doors wider than ever. The workforce is changing, and so should our unions! It’s up to us to change our labor movement. Just by being here, you all are moving in the right direction — by bringing new voices and new faces together, by growing and inspiring new activists!

California’s new Labor Commissioner, Julie Su, is another remarkable Woman of Labor. Before she became labor commissioner, Su led the charge to put an end to horrific sweatshop working conditions going on right here in California. At the conference, Su shared the story of the Thai garment workers who had been forced into slave labor and trapped by barbed wire and armed guards, and how she helped to free them and secure visas so they could stay in the country.

In 2008 I was able to celebrate with the Thai workers when many of them became citizens. It was a long, hard struggle but a lesson in what workers and allies can do when we dare to dream big and refuse to accept that things are impossible. When women speak out, the things that seem impossible become possible.

The morning plenary featured a roundtable discussion with some of the most experienced and effective union organizers from around the state. Chloe Osmer of the CLEAN car wash campaign, Tho Do of UNITE HERE local 2 and Lilly Flores of the UFCW Wal-Mart organizing campaign joined California Labor Federation Campaign Director (and powerhouse organizer) Susan Sachen for a candid discussion about strategies and tactics for effective organizing even during these though times.

Following a series of unique workshops on everything from healthy eating to social media (led by yours truly), the Women of Labor awards luncheon honored some of California’s finest union women.  UFCW 5’s Tamara Perine was awarded Activist of the Year, and the Labor Leader of the Year award went to Shelley Kessler of the San Mateo Labor Council. The Women of Labor also recognized our outstanding community partner, Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice.

The keynote speech came from Kirstin Downey, author of “The Woman Behind the New Deal: The Life of Frances Perkins, FDR’s Secretary of Labor and His Moral Conscience.” One of the most effective and influential progressives in history, Frances Perkins was the architect behind many of the labor standards and programs we often take for granted. At the conference, Downey recounted some of the amazing things Perkins achieved as the first female Secretary of Labor, including establishing the minimum wage, overtime laws, Social Security and unemployment programs – and it was Perkins who ultimately gave workers the right to bargain collectively. Learn more about “The Woman Behind the New Deal.

Assemblywoman Norma Torres stopped by the conference at the end of day one to gear up the group for the following day, when attendees would be heading over to the Capitol en masse to lobby key legislators on important issues. On day two, right before the women embarked on Lobby Day, Assembly Speaker John Perez and Speaker Pro-Tem Fiona Ma came by to offer some invaluable tips and motivating words.

Speaker Perez:

Historically, we’ve always invested in creating opportunities for people, helping them grow and build and create better lives for themselves and each successive generation… But in last several years, we’ve begun to walk away. There are people who want to use this economic crisis to advance a right-wing agenda that’s in no one’s best interest except their own. We need to take this opportunity to rededicate ourselves to the notion that California should be a place filled with opportunities for everyone!