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IBEW Women’s Caucus Challenges Members to Break Boundaries

September 16, 2011

IBEW Women’s Caucus Challenges Members to Break Boundaries

A border is more than just a line between states or countries, says Carolyn Williams, director of the IBEW Human Services Department. A border can be a personal boundary – something that holds you back, separates you from someone else or lets you know where the end of your comfort zone lies.

So it was fitting that the theme of the IBEW’s 6th Women’s Caucus was “Sisters in Solidarity: Leadership Beyond Borders” Friday morning at the Hyatt Regency hotel in Vancouver, as part of pre-convention activities before Monday’s convention opening. Hundreds of attendees – including veteran activists and members of the young workers delegation – were encouraged to transcend their own boundaries and work collectively to be effective change-makers in their locals and communities. Said Williams:

Individual talent is great, but by sharing our common interests, strengths and abilities, we achieve a greater sense of unity. That way, we genuinely prosper.

International President Edwin D. Hill highlighted some of the gains that women have made in the labor force and in the movement. “Right now women comprise about 45 percent of union membership in the United States,” Hill said, to vigorous applause:

We all know that organizing is one of the best ways to raise the living standard of working families. It’s also one of the best ways to right some of the wrongs in both our nations, where women have historically been paid less than men for their work. That gap is closing – however slowly – but it isn’t going to be narrowed by accident or by the good graces of employers. It will be closed by our activism.

Hill also engaged attendees in a thoughtful question-and-answer session, where members discussed ways to boost women and minority leadership, as well as the possibility of expanding newer programs like the union’s diversity and inclusion training to the wider membership.

The centerpiece of the caucus was a presentation by Amber Hockin, director of the Canadian Labor Congress for the Pacific region. Hockin began her labor career as an activist in the Canadian Union of Public Employees as a flight attendant. She joined the CLC in the 1990s and has been an officer for the B.C. Federation of Labor and the Yukon Federation of Labor. An advocate in areas of health and safety, accessible child care for women workers and labor activism training, she is the first woman director at the 3.2-million-member CLC, the Canadian equivalent of the U.S.’ AFL-CIO.

When Hockin was in her mid-20s, her union’s airline division president asked her to be a political lobbyist in Ottawa. Hesitant about the job but also curious, Hockin said:

I could do it, but there was a barrier. I had small children. I would be moving away from the child care provider I knew and trusted. And I needed to know that while I was at work, my children were in a safe, nurturing learning environment. The union removed the barrier for me, and paid for full-time unionized child care in an early learning center.

There are many barriers to participation that women in the labor movement face. Structural barriers. Family responsibilities. Traditional stereotypes. But there are also leaders within our movement who know how to use their position to create space for women, because it’s good for the movement.

Hockin said the IBEW has many of examples of ways that unions can take positive steps toward inclusion for all members:

The IBEW has taken great steps already in terms of promoting women and equity-seeking groups within the organization. I think that continuing to make space for these groups as they take on stronger roles is important.

Other presentations included a lecture and slide show by scholar Brigid O’Farrell, author of the book “She Was One of Us: Eleanor Roosevelt and the American Worker.” The caucus was capped with a panel discussion moderated by IBEW Education Department Director Jan Schwingshakl. Panelists included Jennifer Gray, shop steward with Vacaville, Calif., Local 1245; Bridget Hall, executive board member of Dublin, Calif., Local 595; Betty Rolleston, business manager of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Local 319; and Juanita Luiz, International Representative for the Political Department.

Many of the panelists spoke about their own experiences of stepping into new leadership positions. Said Luiz:

When we have opportunities, we need to make sure we don’t shortchange ourselves. All of us have more inside of us than we may think we do.

In her closing remarks, Sherilyn Wright, executive assistant to the International President Hill, urged attendees to raise the bar for their own achievement:

The person asking you to move into a new role already knows you can do it … Everyone in this room is a leader, many elected by the members in your local to represent them this week at the convention. And to the young worker delegates, don’t forget that someone in a leadership position sees something in you and made the investment for you to be here.

The diverse crowd – including many men, as well as veteran activists and younger workers – signaled agreement with the elected and appointed leaders’ refrain: that working from within any organization is the path to real progress. Said Schwingshakl:

You’ve got to get involved in the process. It’s the only way positive change is going to happen.

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