More than 1,200 Women of Steel Answer the Call

The 2018 USW Women of Steel (WOS) Conference in Toronto, Ontario, was called to order on Monday, Oct. 15, with a short ceremony conducted by Valarie King honoring the traditional territories of Canada’s local Indigenous tribes. After a Sister carried sage throughout the ballroom to cleanse the space of mental and spiritual impurities, King performed a traditional song and dedication for the approximately 1,200 attendees.

The WOS coordinators for each of the 13 USW Districts, represented by a massive showing, introduced their delegations with a brief history of their leadership, sector statistics, and passionate chants that nearly shook the chandeliers. By the time USW International Vice President-at-Large Carol Landry took to the stage, the room was fired up and ready to act.

“We are all being called to action here,” Landry said. “This is not a sit-down conference.” 

Landry spoke on how the International had to do some soul searching throughout its history, rework its image and its foundation, and find ways to welcome women into the union as they stepped into the workplace. She reminded the conference that this work is far from over.

“We have to re-energize, and we have to recommit,” Landry said. “Today, we are being called to action, and WOS have once again found their voice.”

Landry noted how many women, in both the United States and Canada, are still trapped in low-paying jobs, and most women are still the primary caregivers in the home.  When you add in domestic violence and harassment in the workplace, as well as the lack of voice women have in positions of power, that call to action, she said, is needed just as much today as it was thirty years ago, especially in the realm of domestic and workplace violence.

On any given day in Canada, more than 3,000 women seek refuge in a women’s shelter along with some 2,500 children. That number does not include the women who can’t get into a shelter because there isn’t enough room. 

“Unions have fought for respect, for civil rights, and freedom from violence,” Landry said, “so there should be no need to ask why we as a union are committed to ending violence against women.” 

Landry reminded the delegation that although the political and social climate seems anything but positive, one phenomenon that sparks hope is that as women are being called to action, they’re answering in record-breaking numbers.

As of September, 256 women in the U.S. had won their primary in either a House or a Senate race. There are also 13 women running for governorship, with Stacey Abrams of Georgia on tap to possibly become America’s first Black woman governor. Landry noted the importance of women participating in these races as voters. 

“Your first call to action is to urge every woman in your family, in your workplace, and every woman you see in your community to get out and vote,” Landry said. “You can change the direction your country is heading with your vote.”

Following Landry’s rousing speech, the delegates saw a video highlighting the many ways Women of Steel have stepped up throughout their careers and throughout crises to take action, from a Sister who worked on the ground during the devastating Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico to another who refused to allow a male-dominated workplace to hold her down.

Ann Flener Gittlen, director of the USW Women of Steel program, then took to the podium to introduce delegates who highlighted moments when their own locals answered calls to action for their communities. The attendees heard about mentorship programs, Habitat for Humanity projects, Black labour education workshops, start-up kit collections for domestic violence survivors, and more.

A panel of diverse participants ended the morning plenary with an intense discussion on gender-based violence, which disproportionately affects women. Panelists spoke on the importance of including anti-violence contract language in collective bargaining agreements as well as the implementation of programs like Be More than a Bystander in Western Canada, which aims to give male allies the tools they need to be allies with women.

As the session closed, delegates took the conference’s theme to the streets in a massive call to action by departing the hotel for a Fight for 15 rally.

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