·  by Anita Bryan, USW District 6 Staff Representative

Building Women’s Power: Unite The Union’s Women’s Week

I attended the Unite Women's Week in Eastbourne, U.K., from Nov. 19-24, 2017. The theme of the conference was Building Workers’ Power – Building Women's Power. Participants attended from England, Scotland and Ireland. They came from numerous industries including warehousing, transit, hospitality, public services and construction. The conference was comprised of workshops, speakers and conference role-plays. The workshops were focused on leadership and public speaking, getting to know your union, internal and external organizing and running campaigns. Women are encouraged to attend multiple years in order to take the different courses.

I found attending this conference extremely beneficial in that it provided an opportunity to build alliances and solidarity internationally. It was helpful to hear about the struggles faced by sisters from different countries and reinforced the need for unions. Learning about the impact of declining unionization rates and how this has led to an erosion of rights served as a reminder of the importance of the work we do. It became even more clear that we need to maintain strong locals, lobby the government for legislated improvements and participate in municipal, provincial and federal politics to ensure we elect labour-friendly governments. It was evident that in Canada, we have protections that no longer exist in the U.K. and that we should never take them for granted or assume they will always be there. My take away from this conference is that we must fight harder to ensure we never lose these rights that we have worked so hard to achieve.

Participation

Keli Vereb from USW in Pittsburgh was the other international solidarity guest. Together, we did a presentation on the Women of Steel. Keli spoke about the program in the U.S. and the campaigns they have worked on. I spoke about the history of Women of Steel and how it began in District 6. I focused on our 30th anniversary conference, the successful lobbying efforts for paid domestic violence leave and the gender wage gap. I also touched on some of our Women of Steel activities such as the Habitat for Humanity build.

Observations/Recommendations

This conference was similar to our four-year leadership program. Like ours, one of the many benefits is that people build relationships as they get to know each other by repeatedly attending together. What was different is that this was gender-specific. There is significant opportunity for growth and engagement when this type of space is created. Women share more and become more confident when spending time with each other. The notion of having the same shared experiences as a woman provides for a different learning experience.

My recommendation is that we consider offering a women's leadership program. District 6 is now 44% women and growing. Most of the new members coming in are women. If we want our union to thrive and not just survive, then we need to look at how we appeal to the changing demographic. Offering a multi-year program with a gender-specific mandate can help us keep our union vibrant and relevant.

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