working women get together

Working Women Get Together

from Womankind (1971) A report from an AFL-CIO women's conference held in Wisconsin. by Dagmar and Laura from Womankind (1971)

(Editors Note: This report on an AFL-CIO women's conference showed the impact that women's liberation was having on the labor movement.

"We've got to stop being jealous of each other. We've got to stop putting each other down because we see things in others that we hate in ourselves. We have to start feeling positive about ourselves and our sisters. Only together and in unity can we win our rights."

These words of a union woman reflect the strong feelings of solidarity and enthusiasm at the second annual AFL-CIO women's conference sponsored by the Wisconsin State AFL-CIO Women's Committee. The conference was held in Milwaukee on October 2 and 3. Over three hundred rank and file women representing a wide range of unions throughout the state met to discuss the problems working women face in the shop, in their union and at home. The meetings did not stop at the talking stage -- twenty-one resolutions dealing with the struggle for women's rights and with specific legislation addressing discrimination against working women were passed unanimously.

The first speaker, John Schmitt, President of the Wisconsin AFL-CIO, threw the program off schedule by taking a half hour longer than his scheduled ten minutes. He was criticized for spilling over into time that was not meant for him, but congratulated for having learned in the past year that his audience consisted of union women, not 'girls".

Elizabeth Duncan Koontz, Director of the Women's Bureau of the U.S. Department of Labor, stressed that children need more than a mother's love and affection and mothers need more than their children. To terminate job discrimination, she stated, women must collectively struggle to free themselves of destructive myths and to end unequal treatment in their work and unions. Women must no longer be penalized for their reproductive function nor should their needs and desires for fulfilling work continue to be ignored. Her plea for a women's conference in every state tied to a resolution prepared by the Women's Committee calling for an AFL-CIO sponsored regional conference, and ultimately a national one.

Other speakers addressed issues such as "Equal Rights for Working Women," "Legal Routes to Women's Liberation," "Birth Control -- A Woman's Right," "Equal Opportunity for the Advancement of Women," and "The Role and the Need for Daycare." Talking on "Women -- the Articulate Majority," Kathryn F. Clarenbach, Chairwoman of the Governor's Commission on the Status of Women, said: "Simple justice does not direct the body politic -- it must be won and taken. The special needs of women can only be met by women themselves." At the workshops, participants related the issues to their personal experiences and to their daily worklives. The emphasis was on ways and means to develop tactics for the fight against discrimination and sexism.

There was a strong consciousness that women had to take up their struggle not only outside of but also within their unions. Some of the resolutions urging the AFL-CIO to action demanded:

  1. an increase in the number of women in leadership positions "at least in proportion to its membership" and to "wholeheartedly encourage its affiliated unions to form Women’s Committees."
  2. that the Wisconsin AFL-CIO bargain for day care as fringe benefits, provide day care through union sponsorship and aggressively involve themselves in community day care efforts.
  3. that the Wisconsin AFL-CIO "actively and vigorously support the adoption of the maternity leave policy as proposed by the Department of Industry, Labor and Human Relations and negotiate for insurance programs which eliminate discriminatory provisions pertaining to pregnancy and maternity leaves."
  4. that women be considered for appointments to local and state commissions and that two rank and file members, one being a woman, be appointed to the State Legislative Committee which presently has no rank and file member on it
  5. increased efforts in organizing unorganized women. Unfortunately, the original motion which requested the development of specific programs toward this end was presented in a somewhat diluted version. The sentiment, however, remained unchanged.

The conference went beyond the exchange of ideas and the analysis of oppression. From the beginning, the women agreed that "crying and moaning" was not what they had gotten together for, but that their sharing of experiences should lead to developing action and tactics. Solidarity, courage and confidence in yourself and your sisters -- this was the outcome of union women getting together, freely discussing their problems and frustrations and committing themselves to immediate and far-reaching change.