WOMEN ARE LEADING THE WAY
Speech by Ken Neumann
National Director for Canada, United Steelworkers
USW International Women's Conference
Pittsburgh - October 2010
Thank you sisters for the warm reception.
And thank you Ann, Leeann, Leo, Carol and Kate for opening the conference. It's very exciting to look around this room. There's no doubt that our sisters are stronger and more committed than ever!
It's wonderful to see Women of Steel from Tuskaloosa, Alabama to Winnipeg Manitoba... and from Santa Marie California to Montreal Quebec. Such a great mix of committed activists. And one thing I've learned about our Steelworker Women, you are all STRONG... PROUD... COMMITTED... and AREN'T ABOUT TO BE PUSHED AROUND!
Before I give you a sense of the activities we have been involved with in Canada, I first would like to THANK all the Women of Steel and the Human Rights Activists in our union for the great work you've done in moving the Equality agenda forward in our union.
EQUALITY IS HARD WORK
Advancing equality is hard work, but it's very important work. And for the last decade, you have done an amazing job. Our union is a different union, our union is a better union because of your work. It is an honour to be standing before you as National Director of Canada.
I not only admire the ambitious Equity agenda you have taken on, I profoundly admire the grass-roots, inclusive and participatory way you have done it. Women of Steel programs -- education courses, Local committees, support groups and lobbying campaigns -- all start with individual women and build on the her strengths and qualities. These programs build confident, skilled and engaged union activists.
I know how important grassroots training and activism is. This Union trained me through the "Back to the Locals" education program. This Union defended me when I was unfairly terminated for being a Local activist. And this Union has provided me with the opportunity to fight for my co-workers. It is grassroots training, like Women of Steel programs, that today is providing that opportunity and developing our leaders.
I am proud that our union takes Steelworker members -- where ever she may be -- and builds her into a confident, and at times "pushy" activist.
Our further job is to take the activist of today and turn her into the leader of tomorrow. Making sure women are fully trained, respected, equal members of our union is not simply "the right thing to do" (which it is). It is also "the strategic thing to do".
The talents, skills and drive of our union's women activists are second to none. Women prove to us on a daily basis that equality brings the best and the brightest forward and give us all new role models to admire.
The equality agenda is also strategic because the largest area of growth in our union is women. Our union must be attractive to women. Our new members, like all members, must know and feel they are equal, valued members of this organization.
Equality is also strategic because women are more open to becoming union members. In Canada, women are significantly more favourable towards unions than men. I wouldn't be surprised if it were the same here in the U.S.
Equality is smart... Equality is strategic... And Equality is the future.
WOMEN ARE LEADING THE WAY
An important achievement to also note is women's involvement in every aspect of this union. While Women of Steel have been the backbone of our struggle for women and human rights issues, the fact is you can find women making contributions to every aspect of our union.
Women are leading the way in Local leadership, as stewards, on bargaining committees and on picket lines. There are two things all these sisters have in common: one, they are all committed to helping out their fellow workers; And, two, the union needs every last one of them.
Sisters and Brothers, in Canada, there is nothing we take more pride in than the achievements of women activists. The International Women's Conference we held in Toronto in 2007 was a wonderful success. At the time, it was the largest and most successful conference of unionized women in North America.
I'm happy to say that this conference has now taken that title. This is the largest conference of unionized women in North America!
You will also remember that it was the 2007 Women's conference that launched the very successful toxic toys campaign. That initiative highlighted the dangers of unregulated trade by demonstrating the toxic lead in toys coming from China. That campaign resulted in the recall of millions of poisonous imported toys. It also resulted in banning BPH from baby bottles.
And just last week, Canada became the first country in the world to declare BPH a toxic substance.
WOMEN'S ARE HAVING AN IMPACT
The expansion we have seen in Canada of women's involvement in our union has been very gratifying. Over 275 Steelworkers have recently participated in Women of Steel and Women's Committee Training. The International Conference also inspired our Canadian Women's Conference in Vancouver in late 2008. That conference showed women in Canada are on the move.
Women in Canada have had a real impact. We've improved our anti-harassment procedures and educational materials, and we used our scholarship programs to promote diversity. We produced a guide for Human Rights Committees, an Affirmative Action Guide to Local Union Elections, and produced materials dealing with the rights of the disabled, and the rights of the lesbian and gay community. And we held an important National Human Rights Conference in December.
A PERSONAL COMMITMENT
The diversity issue also means a lot to me personally. In particular I know why it is important to support efforts to integrate disabled workers into the workplace. Despite being seriously disabled by a childhood illness, my sister Darlene is able to go to work today because public services in Saskatchewan provided her with supportive housing and supportive employment. Without this, her life would have turned out very differently.
Like many of you, I have made a personal commitment to this cause. I joined the board of the National Canadian Institute for Disability Management. The great work they are doing on behalf of injured and disabled workers is another example of what committed activists can accomplish.
And as I am telling you about Canada, I must tell you about the Canadian trade unionist that we are most proud of... my close and personal friend: Carol Landry. Carol epitomizes the strength of women in our union, and the strength of leadership in Canada. All Steelworkers in Canada are proud that Carol was the first Woman Officer of the United Steelworkers. What a great job she is doing!
In April at our National Policy Conference in Toronto she "brought the house down" in relaying the passion behind the fight in the U.S. for decent health care. Carol, we all thank you!
Let me tell you a little fact about Canadian history. Today, October 18th, is "Person's Day" in Canada.
"Person's Day" honours the victory in 1929 by Canadian women activists in changing the British North American Act (the predecessor of Canada's constitution) to begin recognizing women as "persons". The final victory resulted in full legal status for women throughout Canada.
But like our battles today, this victory was not won by simply asking for a change. Much like the suffragists in America, it took the first wave of Canadian feminism, led by Nellie McClung, to challenge the law, mobilize people and push the envelope to make social change happen. In her words, "We had to be uppity."
It is also instructive that the leaders of political progress are also often the leaders in labour progress. Nellie McClung also formed the Winnipeg Political Equality League, a group fighting for female wage earners.
This also holds true for the Women of Steel. Many Women of Steel also are leaders and activists fighting for political and social change on a broader scale, at the community, provincial and federal levels.
CANADIAN WOMEN LEADERS
Canada currently has some great women leaders fighting for political change and the rights of working people. Our close ally, the New Democratic Party, is led in Ontario by Andrea Horvath and in British Columbia by Carol James. Both are expanding their parties significantly. And I believe next year Carol James is going to be elected Premier of British Columbia!
THE ECONOMIC CRISIS
But, Sisters and Brothers, I must report that both the political and economic battles are very tough in Canada, just as they are here in the U.S. The current economic crisis is the worst in a generation. Plants have been closed and jobs have been lost. In some cases, entire industries have declined or even disappeared. On both sides of the border, communities have been devastated.
Our battles are tough. You've all heard about our vicious fight with the obscenely profitable Brazilian mining giant Vale. Our locked-out members in Ontario are also in a bitter battle with Sears Canada. No matter which side of the border you are on, we are facing some of the toughest and meanest multinationals we have ever faced.
The big recessions in the early 80s and early 90s challenged us. The loss of manufacturing jobs and corporate bankruptcies challenged us. And years of neo-liberal polices and so-called "free trade" have challenged us.
WE FIGHT BACK
But Brothers and Sisters - despite these challenges - we have more members in Canada today than we did 25 years ago. And we now have more women in our ranks. And I can assure you, that means we have more fighting spirit, more creative approaches and ever more resolve.
And like the political scene currently in the U.S., Canada has our fair share of wackos.
While you have your "tea-partiers", we have our conservative Prime Minister. They not only try to take away the gains we have made over the last 25 years, they also are often the cheerleaders of corporate greed, corporate tax cutting and unfair labour laws.
While we have some hard-won social programs in Canada: like universal free health care, and like universal public 52-week parental leave! We none-the-less have major battles.
We are fighting the devastating effects of foreign takeovers of our natural resources and industries. We are fighting to reverse the erosion of Unemployment Insurance. We are standing up to the Ontario government's demand for significant public-sector concessions. And the labour movement is mounting a very strong campaign from coast-to-coast for secure pensions. We believe we are close to expanding the national public Pension Plan (CPP).
While corporate greed and right-wingers are on the move, the labour movement and the New Democratic Party are also on the move.
In Canada, we are also proud of the International alliances and solidarity we are building. The Vale campaign would not have been possible without our allies across the globe -- from the IMF and ICEM to CUT in Brazil and the Mining and Energy Workers in Australia. And central in all our international work is the first Global Union, "Workers Uniting," that we created with our British partners "Unite the Union."
I want to end today with a story that demonstrates how our international work and our political work often come down to the individual activism and leadership of one brave women, in concert with her political allies.
A few years ago, the Conservative Prime Minister of Canada signed a "free trade" deal with the President of the brutal regime ruling Colombia. It was a trade deal to legitimize the anti-labour, anti-human rights and environmentally destructive record of Colombia. It was designed to give free reign for Corporations to exploit workers and resources. Steelworkers brought an amazing trade union activist from Colombia to Ottawa to meet with members of our Parliament and to tell her story.
Her name is Yessica Hoyos. Hers is a brave yet tragic story. Her father was a very active trade union leader, who, as a child, Yessica watched day-and-night as he laboured for his fellow workers. Then one day she came home to find her father was brutally murdered for his trade union activities. As we know, he was one of over 27 hundred trade union activists who have been murdered in Colombia in the past twenty years.
When Yessica recalled her story to the Members of Parliament, even the most cold-hearted politician had to think twice about supporting a trade deal with such a murderous regime. Her actions, and two years of political manoeuvring, organizing and stalling allowed us to delay the deal three times.
And while we were not completely successful, we did have an impact, and we have build a movement to challenge other reprehensible trade deals coming forward in the future. Yessica has also become an international labour and human rights advocate. She is carrying on her father's work, and leading the way for all of us in building a better world. She and women across the union movement are leading the way to a better future.
Thank you for inviting me to this conference. I look forward to participating along with you in the exciting session ahead.