A DARE Analysis of the Coalition of Labor Union Women (CLUW)

(1974) A report from the founding convention of CLUW. from the DARE archives (1974)

(Editors Note: This analysis of CLUW from the archives of Direct Action for Rights in Employment (DARE) is a thoughtful and optimistic view of CLUW written shortly after its founding convention.)

The possible shape of the American labor movement of the future was underscored when more than 3,000 women from at least 58 international unions met to gain a voice in union and nationwide affairs. The Coalition of Labor Union Women (CLUW) — brought into existence by an extremely diversified group of women — may prove to be an extremely viable force in this country. The striking fact about the founding convention was that the large majority of participants (at least 2,000 out of the 3,000) were not left women, nor were they union staff women. They were rank & file women whose presence indicated that there are enormous numbers of women who are angry and that those numbers can be brought together.

Without the rank & file participation this convention could have been just another arena for movement and union staff women to fight in. Because the national response was so good and the enthusiasm people left with was so high we are left with a mass based organization beyond anyone’s wildest dreams.

The following is an analysis of what happened March 22-24 and some thoughts on what will happen now. Copies of the Statement of Purpose and Structure and Guidelines which came out of the convention will be available in the CWLU office soon.

A discussion of the Coalition of Labor Union Women (CLUW) must be divided into four general, but overlapping, categories:

  1. The forces involved
  2. The struggles within the conference,
  3. Assessment of the conference, DARE’s role, and overall reaction,
  4. Potential of CLUW

The women who planned the conference were from union staffs, without exception. Though they had varying political perspectives, they had a common interest in the implementation of their original ideas for CLUW. The importance of CLUW — getting so many women together to fulfill real needs within a collective (and hopefully activist) framework — is obvious. However, the amount of control which this small influential group exerted,at times, served their own interests and not the interests of the larger, less powerful, delegation on the floor. As the issues discussed at CLUW do affect all working women — staff and rank and file alike. It cannot be said that all control exerted was out of self—interest.

Many times it was hard to decide what was an overbearing exertion of power and what were legitimate decisions in an attempt to represent all groups.

The original planners indicated that they were concerned that CLUW’s birth was “legitimate” so that they would be taken seriously by the labor powers that be. Thus, in discussions of issues which dealt with liberal attitudes (e.g. racial issues), no control was exerted. However, in discussions of issues which, if brought to a vote, would have made CLUW too radical in the planners’ eyes (e.g. passing a pro—UFW resolution despite AFL—CIO neutrality), their control was definitely felt.

A large number of women at the conference were on the left, some staff and some rank and file. This was a fairly influential force in that they were at the microphones many times to encourage everyone to make CLUW a strong radical organization. Some of these women were able to sway the conference because of their ability to clearly state their arguments pro or con on issues. Hence, language changes in the Statement of Purpose created a more militant stance, including international solidarity with all working people and, especially, with minority women, who are the most oppressed.

Others within the left forces were much more militant their presentations and DARE feels strongly that their influence was detrimental to the future of CLUW. (The most vocal were the Militant Action Caucus of the Communication Workers of America [CWA] and the Sparticist League) By insisting that all language, issues, ideas, resolutions, etc. be stated in left rhetoric and that CLUW be put forward as a body to fight capitalism, these women succeeded in alienating almost everyone, used up valuable time on essentially unimportant points, and, in effect, played into the hands of those in control. Their actions created widespread support for the chair to close discussions and to adjourn sessions before important votes were taken.

This problem must be dealt with at future conferences or control will continue to be handed to the labor bureaucrats on a silver platter.

A large majority of women at the convention were rank and file. Out of the 3,300 women who attended, at least 2,000 were women from the factories, shops, and offices who had never been to anything like this before. Few had experience in the movement outside of activities within their own unions. Many were overwhelmed, yet still excited, by the weekend. By the end there were strong feelings of unity among everyone and a positive atmosphere in terms of the future of CLUW. Despite the length and intensity of the weekend (perhaps because of it) and despite the antagonisms perpetuated by the “militant” left, everyone appeared to leave with an identity as a CLUW member.

There was a great deal of struggle within unions (between the more active rank and file and the more dictatorial leadership), between unions (most the UFW and the IBT), and between the left and the planners. Because of the strong sentiments on both sides, the UFW issue was the biggest struggle and took precedence over all else most of the time. Because of a threatened walkout by the Teamsters if a pro—UFW stand was taken, and because the convention seemed to be much in favor of taking a pro—UFW stand, an enormous amount of time was spent lobbying, making speeches, and generally trying to start or stop a movement toward a vote. The UFW issue might not have taken on such importance if the conference planners had not tried to prevent it from coming up at all, and if the vocal left hadn’t been as antagonistic over the issue from the beginning. The planners orchestrated a solution which did not jeopardize their position — a show of sympathy without official support. A representative of the UFW was invited to the platform to speak and then ~ Clara Day of the Teamsters made a general statement of sisterhood without endorsing the UFW cause. Amidst the high emotion created by a UFW—Teamster embrace, one of the planners announced that the UFW and the Teamsters had agreed not to take a vote, which the UFW later flatly denied was true. When UFW and militant left forces tried to force a vote, the sentiment could not be swayed away from the chair. (Previous left attempts to demand recognition from the floor and to demand that the rules be suspended created hostility to these attempts at this time.)

Because the resolution supporting the UFW was referred to the National Coordinating Committee (NCC), there is still a chance that a position will be taken, but that remains to be seen.

Other struggles were not as clear, but were possibly more important in that they dealt with decisions on CLUW’s structure and guidelines and resolutions. No final votes were taken on these and they were referred to the NCC. This suited the planners for the Statement of Purpose, which had been fully discussed, modified, and voted upon section by section, was changed to include some very militant perspectives.

During the UFW discussions a significant vote was taken which shouldn’t be ignored. A guideline which gave CLUW authority to refuse its support in any jurisdictional disputes was deleted from the Structure and Guidelines. This deletion was significant in that it clearly proved that the consensus was with the UFW.

Jurisdictional disputes are very much a matter for concern for not only labor staffs but for the rank & file as well. It was only because of the feeling that this guideline was there to block any action for the UFW that the convention voted to .delete. This is a clear example of how attempted manipulation on the part of the planners was overruled.

It is important to say that no one faction won or lost any of the battles during the convention (except perhaps the planners). The organization ended up with a progressive character, and though future practice by chapters may not reflect that character, the basis is there.

Assessing the conference, several conclusions can be drawn. One is that the left forces (excluding the more militant factions) must be better organized and have a clearer understanding of how to influence such situations. DARE members were prepared to speak to certain points in smaller workshops, but was not able to join forces with other left women in a common strategy at the microphones on the convention floor or some other means to influence the convention. A mass base must be developed before this can be achieved.

The second conclusion is that there is a need for CLUW — as proved by the fact that 3,300 women came, despite poor publicity and little monetary help from the unions. With work, these women’s needs can be met.

Third, CLUW is important to the whole labor movement. With good strong use of its potential power, it can become much more than a source of concern for the labor powers that be, and for the employers at the workplace.

Fourth, CLUW does have the resources to realize that power if the NCC, the state conveners, and everyone who attended organize immediately.

Translating CLUW’s stated purpose into practice is the job of local chapters. The first step has to mobilize and organize the women who attended the convention and women who are interested in CLUW.

The goals of CLUW are large and must be narrowed down to give women the feeling that they can be part of the movement in concrete ways. CLUW activities must speak to definitive problems which all the women can relate. That means that CLUW cannot take on the task of organizing the unorganized without first speaking to the needs of members of CLUW.

A possible first step to initiate Illinois chapters could be a statewide meeting to discuss structure of chapters and, more importantly, to provide some basic information the women can take back to their union locals to start work. One possibility is a panel—workshop day on collective bargaining victories in the areas of equal pay, maternity leave, etc. and a discussion of how and why these victories were won.

Another high priority must be in mobilizing women who were not at the convention into CLUW, possibly by using speaking tours of women who were at the convention.

There are several categories of concern — education, legislative reform, affirmative action, organizing the unorganized, encouraging women to become leaders on all levels in their unions, decisions etc., but where to go with these are decisions which cannot be made yet. Establishment of a steering committee of sorts to work out a program for individual chapters should be a priority.

CLUW’s founding convention is a beginning of a potentially strong and influential organization. With struggle by those who want to achieve progressive reforms beyond their own sectarian interests, the women’s movement and the labor movement will move.