I Am With You, Sisters!
Ken Neumann, USW National Director for Canada addressed delegates on the last day of the International/National Women’s Conference in Toronto, Ontario.
“I have had the privilege to be here over the last several days and hear the women of our great union – on both sides of the border – set out your plans and your ideas for how you will continue the struggle for women’s equality,” said Neumann.
“I want to say that I hear you. I support you and I am with you, sisters!”
Neumann credited the women of the United Steelworkers for the gains and progress USW has made on behalf of women workers.
“I am proud of all we have done and will do. I also recognize that men have a role – as supporters and as allies,” said Neumann.
Neumann highlighted the need to do more to end violence and harassment against women. Delegates applauded Neumann when he said that one of the ways the USW is answering the call to action is by joining the call for a National Inquiry into Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG).
Neumann recognized the success of Women of Steel negotiating domestic violence leave into USW collective agreements.
Today, governments in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and Ontario have passed laws providing all workers with domestic violence leave.
“But it began at the bargaining table,” Neumann noted. “This is a victory of women in the labour movement.”
Neumann cited the USW’s Be More Than a Bystander program that is training male Steelworkers to speak out against harassment.
“Ending violence and harassment is key, but it is not the full solution. Women’s equality is about the presence of respect and opportunity, not just the absence of violence and harassment,” he said. “That is part of what unions deliver and why the work of our union is so important.”
Neumann recounted his personal experiences visiting Bangladesh on the one-year anniversary of the Rana Plaza collapse that killed more than 1,138 garment workers, mainly women, injuring 2,500 others.
Visibly moved, with his voice breaking, Neumann told of how he was with the families who had lost loved ones at their first opportunity to visit the rubble of Rana Plaza.
“The families were standing in front, clutching photos of their loved ones. And what they were looking for was closure. Because after the collapse, the building was imploded. They were looking for DNA so they could have some kind of closure, but they didn’t get that,” said Neumann.
“Sisters, you are part of our union’s solidarity,” Neumann told the delegates. “We are stronger together.”
“For three days, this stage and this room has been full of smart, capable Women of Steel who are making our union and the world a better place. We need to see more women in union leadership. Our union will not be a success if we don’t,” said Neumann.
Neumann thanked the sisters for bringing dedication and energy to the conference and thanked delegates for all they will do in answering the call to action.
“Sisters, you have proven again that there is nothing stronger than a Woman of Steel!”
The Women Speak
Women took their seats on the final day of the International/National Women’s Conference in Toronto, Ontario, exhausted, yet grateful and ready for action following from three full days of plenaries, workshops and networking.
Women lined up at microphones to speak – many of them first-time delegates and first-time speakers – sharing their inspiration, their action plans and their challenges to our union.
International Vice-President Carol Landry chaired the session Hearing From the Women.
Delee from District 3 began with a moving and emotional plea to take action on Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) in Canada.
“I’m hopeful we will find a way to mitigate and eventually eradicate the violence against Indigenous women.”
Julie, from Local 1944 shared her Call to Action, motivated by losing a union sister to the disease of addiction. “The call to action for me will be for Local 1944 bargaining in 2021. I’ll be putting forward a proposal to have domestic violence leave in our next agreement.”
Many sisters thanked the United Steelworkers union for hosting women’s conferences and providing the opportunity for women to connect, inspire one another and build a network of ideas and support beyond their Women’s Committees and local unions.
A sister from District 8 spoke of encouraging the women in her local: “I’m going to set a plan. Start the actions. Invite the women and encourage those within my local to get moving.”
A number of delegates spoke of their struggles during strikes or lockouts.
Chantelle from District 7, Geary Works, said, “We stood together for a fair contract and it looks like we got something going. When you stand together and pull together, it helps unite us.”
Multiple women challenged the USW to move forward on increasing the representation of women and people of colour on the International Executive Board. A sister called for USW to pick up on Unite the Union’s “Step Aside, Brother.” Another suggestion was to adopt quotas on the executive board to reflect our own union’s diversity and proportion of women.
Diane from District 6, along with two other sisters, reported that their local, after 60 years, now has a women’s committee.
There was widespread support for Women of Steel and political action. From going out and supporting local candidates, sisters are also stepping up to put their names on the ballot.
“If you don’t like the lack of diversity on your executive board, RUN! If you don’t like the makeup of your government, RUN!” said Tanya, from District 2.
Christa and Sharmin from District 6 committed to take action on mental health.
Bonnie from UBCP ACTRA called for programs of education and awareness for men.
“I know the difference between flirting and harassment. The people that don’t are mostly our brothers. Education has to be towards the men and they need to change their culture,” she said.
Lisanne and Jennie from Local 9700 in District 5 have been locked out by Alcoa and Rio Tinto for 36 weeks. Their passionate call for solidarity brought delegates to their feet.
“Our call to action is solidarity. We need you to help us continue. Go back to your union and tell those men you need to support our local. It’s been so hard on our families,” said Lisanne.
A sister from Local 6787 in District 7 thanked the conference organizers for providing child care during the conference, so she could attend with her child.
Kayla, from Local 7913 in District 3 called for better personal protective equipment for women.
“One size does not fit all. Many of the women talked about ill-fitting gear and having to modify procedures to make up for work gear that doesn’t fit,” she said.
She went on to call for better education through our locals and districts for our brothers on women’s issues.
Josefina Martinez-Hernandez from Los Mineros in Mexico told a story of success.
“Our company has more than 6,000 employees, many of them suspended from their work. This led us to protest, day after day, asking to be reinstated. At the same time, many sisters telling us about sexual harassment they have suffered from some of the leaders or supervisors,” she said.
“We have been standing outside the main entrance of the company and denounced this with megaphones and flyers, saying the name of the perpetrator. This has had results, because the perpetrator is being shamed, and has stopped harassing,” said Martinez-Hernandez.
A sister asked the delegates to change the channel on hatred.
“Check your privilege at the door. We have to realize that racism is here, in our union.”
Joelle from District 3 reported that she and her sisters were going to work for language on getting a safe place to pump for breast-feeding mothers.
“I personally had to go back to work early and had to stop breastfeeding my daughter so this is personal to me,” she said.
Cheryl, from District 8 called for an end to female-to-female bullying.
“My call to action is if you see this going on, put an end to it – in your women’s committees, in your workplaces. We need to work together, not fight amongst ourselves.”
A sister from District 9 said, “I’m retired but I’m not finished. It is time for us to be the change that we wish to see.”
Women were on their feet with a standing ovation for Sister Christiane Aparecida dos Santos of the CNM/CUT (National Confederation of Metal Workers) in Brazil when she called for women to occupy space in their unions.
In closing, Landry emphasised, “Have your voice. Use your voice. Make your presence known. In your locals, in politics. We need to fill those seats with more women. The things we’re seeing in the U.S. and in Canada – I always remember the words of First Lady Michelle Obama, ‘We put them in there – and they should be speaking on our behalf.’ Thank you sisters!”
Taking Action at IKEA and Canadian Tire
Sister Kalpona Akter of the Bangladesh Centre for Worker Solidarity began her keynote address with action by asking delegates to sign letters to IKEA and Canadian Tire calling for these companies to sign the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety.
IKEA sources their curtains, bedsheets, pillow covers and towels from Bangladesh. But those workers are still in unsafe working conditions.
“We are asking IKEA to sign the accord – a legally binding agreement. We are asking brands and retailers to sign the accord, to save these workers’ lives,” she said, noting that if the accord had been in place before the Tazreen factory fire and the Rana Plaza collapse, we could have saved these workers.
“In Canada, Canadian Tire is one of the companies that is sourcing from Bangladesh but hasn’t signed the accord. Workers are working in unsafe conditions and that factory could be another Rana Plaza,” said Akter.
Delegates signed letters to Canadian Tire calling on the company to sign the accord and ensure the workers get a living wage in Bangladesh.
“Everyone knows we live in a global village. It is our responsibility to level up the workers who are making our clothes. We are fighting for a package of jobs with dignity. That doesn’t come without a living wage, a voice at work, a safe workplace and a workplace that is gender-based violence free,” said Akter.
Akter called to the crowd, “Do you have our backs?” “YES!” the sisters answered in unison.
To conclude the conference, sisters sang “Solidarity Forever” including a new verse for women.
We’re the women of the union in the forefront of the fight,
We fight for women’s issues; we fight for women’s rights.
We’re prepared to fight for freedom; we’re prepared to stand our ground,
Women make the union strong!