In Brief

Unions need women, and women need unions. Steelworkers have been negotiating and working toward equality for the 70 years of our proud history, because women's issues are union issues.

Speech by USW National Director Ken Neumann to the USW National Women's Conference on Wednesday, November 14, 2012, in Toronto.

Thank you Chantal, for that kind introduction.

Welcome to the Steelworkers' National Women's Conference.

It is great to see so many Women of Steel from across the country.

I want to acknowledge the presence of our district directors. Daniel Roy from District 5. Wayne Fraser and Marty Warren from District 6. And Steve Hunt from District 3.

I also want to welcome our guests from our strategic alliances.

And welcome to our international guests from our global partners.

Our women's conferences are always a source of inspiration to our union. I'm looking forward to the next few days. I hope you are too.

Women of Steel are an important part of our Steelworkers union.

Women make up over 20% of Steelworkers membership. And luckily that number is growing.

And speaking about women joining the Steelworkers, I want to give a very special welcome to the 1,200 new Steelworkers from Queen's University!

The Queen's University Local is 75% women.

Unions need women, and women need unions.

But why the Steelworkers?

Think about that for a minute. Maybe your story is similar to mine.

When I joined the Steelworkers in 1968 at IPSCO in Regina, Saskatchewan, I knew right away that I only wanted to work at a Steelworkers plant. And now, as a Steelworker for over 40 years, I am grateful each and every day that I joined this union at 18.

Perhaps you joined the Steelworkers when you started to work at a workplace that was already organized.

Perhaps you joined because someone you trusted, asked you to.

Or perhaps you joined because you wanted respect and a voice at work, and heard that Steelworkers were one of the first unions to negotiate anti-harassment policies, procedures, and workplace training.

Perhaps you joined because you wanted to achieve fairness in pay, and knew that Steelworkers were among the first unions to develop a pay equity program to ensure equal pay for work of equal value.

Or perhaps you joined because you knew the Steelworkers was one of the most progressive unions, who reach out to workers of colour, women, to immigrant workers.

Or perhaps you joined because of our international work through the Steelworkers Humanity Fund, and in solidarity with our strong international partners.

Think about why you joined and why you are here today.

Hopefully some day soon you will have a chance to share your story to another woman who needs the protection and solidarity of a union.

Steelworkers have been negotiating and working toward equality for the 70 years of our proud history, because women's issues are union issues.

Our union is strong and grows stronger when we can help prevent harassment and violence.

Our union grows stronger when we achieve improvements in pay and benefits, and help women balance work, family and union responsibilities.

Our union grows stronger when we elect women in our local unions, and in our legislatures.

But, there is still much to do.

We are in a tough economy, and workers are falling behind. And that means women are falling even further behind.

The wage gap between women and men is still very real.

In fact, the wage gap is larger now than when we started to negotiate pay equity, years ago.

You will hear more on this during our first panel as they share the statistics on equality.

But what is even more challenging, is that our federal government is making things worse.

Our government is raising the age of retirement from age 65 to age 67.

That change is going to penalize women.

The Stephen Harper government has also made a point of cutting funding to women's organizations and women's initiatives.

One of the first things Stephen Harper did when he became Prime Minister was to cancel a national child care program!

Then he shut down 12 of the 16 Status of Women offices across the country!

And, then he cut funding for Status of Women by 38%!

These attacks on women's organizations are not moving us in the right direction. These attacks are setbacks we will beat back!

Harper's attack on women's organizations is trying to silence women's voices. Shame on him.

The minister for Status of Women, Rona Ambrose, recently voted in favour of a motion that would have re-opened the abortion debate.

That is shameful! She is not fit to be minister for the Status of Women!

Fortunately, our friends in the NDP blocked that motion.

So we have much work to do. But we are also making progress.

In the 2011 federal election, Canada elected the most women MPs in its history... 76 women MPs.

40 of those MPs are in the NDP Caucus. The NDP has the most women MPs of all the parties in Parliament.

But Canada is only number 52 in the world for women in political office. We used to be number 45. So we're falling behind.

We must do more to elect more women to office. And believe me, Women of Steel is part of that.

In every election, we have Women of Steel running for office - locally, provincially and federally.

In the Steelworkers, we are active in politics because we understand the connection between strong unions and progressive politics.

Many of you have worked for the NDP in election campaigns. I thank you for your work!

We helped out in last year's historic federal election that elected the NDP to Official Opposition.

We helped out in the Ontario election that saw huge gains for Andrea Horwath and the Ontario NDP.

And we'll be there in British Columbia next year where we elect an NDP government!

And I hope some of you will think about running as candidates for the NDP.

Two Women of Steel ran as NDP candidates in recent elections - Kathy Cornish-Cedar and Ana Maria Rivero. [Kathy sends her best and wishes she were with us today. She's moved to a new role with SEIU - congrats Kathy.]

Women of Steel motivate women leaders.

Thinking back to a women's conference from a few years ago, we invited our friends at ACTRA to join us.

It was a great success for us to have ACTRA women at that conference.

I know that ACTRA members were inspired by the conference, and by the Steelworker women that they met.

Not long after that women's conference, Heather and Ferne decided to run for leadership positions at ACTRA.

Ferne Downey is the National President of ACTRA. Congratulations Ferne!

And Heather Allin is the President of ACTRA Toronto. Congratulations Heather!

And very recently, Ferne was elected International President of the International Federation of Actors. What a wonderful thing!

I can say without a doubt that Women of Steel are proud of Ferne's work and her strong leadership at ACTRA and now at International Federation of Actors.

We have strong women leaders in the Steelworkers. And we need more.

Carol Landry, from my home district, District 3, continues to inspire women in our union, and plays such a valued role on our International Executive Board.

Women are making a difference in our union and in politics.

As I'm sure you know, the USW was very active in the U.S. Presidential election.

And all of that hard work paid off last week when President Obama was re-elected in the U.S.!

Obama's re-election is good news for labour. And it's good news for women.

In fact, women and the issues that matter to women were a big factor in the U.S. election.

We saw the disgraceful parade of tea party candidates speaking out on issues like rape, abortion and contraception.

Who would have imagined that in 2012 we would see political candidates - male political candidates - seeking to send the equality agenda back to the stone-age by limiting women's right to basic health needs like birth control.

Is it any wonder that women turned out in great numbers to beat back the Tea Party and voted to re-elect President Obama.

The fact is - issues that women care about are on the agenda.

It's about time!  

All of us need to be talking about the issues that count for women.

We need to remind ourselves that we can't take our achievements for granted.

Our achievements can't be taken for granted, especially when women's gains are being taken away.

We losing ground when Harper makes it a race to the bottom. And that is the challenge workers and women are facing today.

The attack on public sector wages and pensions is an attack on workers. And it's an attack on women.

We must resist these attacks. And we do that by standing together.

Across the country and around the world.

Within our union, our strength of numbers, the diversity of our members, and our sectors, our vast resources and the determination of our activists are the reasons we are able to stand strong at the bargaining table.

Our global solidarity is stronger than ever before.

In 2008, we joined with Unite, a strong union in the U.K. and Ireland, to form Workers Uniting with 3 million members. This is strength we can count on.

And this year, three of our leading global union federations merged into a new, stronger global federation: IndustriALL.

IndustrALL represents 50 million workers in 140 countries around the world.

These global worker organizations are helping us take on multinational corporations.

We must use our strength and solidarity to work for equality and to improve women's lives around the world.

When we stand together, when we share information, when we stay united, we are more powerful then we ever thought possible.

Women of Steel make us strong as a union and in our communities.

Women of Steel are helping us make a difference in politics and in government.

Women of Steel make us strong in our work for solidarity around the world.

Women of Steel make us stronger every day!

I look forward to the work we achieve over the next few days.

We will be making connections: with each other, with our alliance partners and our international guests.

Women of Steel:

 You make our union relevant.

 You empower our movement.

 You motivate all of us.

 Yes, YOU make a difference.

Women of Steel:

 You are strong!

 And you make us strong!

Have a great conference.

Thank you.