Highlights from Day Two of the 2018 International Women's Conference

USW President Gerard Calls for Movement, Not Musing at WOS Conference

USW International President Leo Gerard took the mic for the keynote speech on the second morning of the International Women of Steel Conference and said the shameful confirmation to the U.S. Supreme Court of Brett Kavanaugh illustrates how vital it is for women to be heard – in the workplace and particularly this November at the polls.

“This election is not only going to set the direction for the country but for human rights and women’s rights,” Gerard said. “If Republicans win in November, they’re going to feel like they have a blank check to do whatever they want.” Republicans rammed Kavanaugh onto the highest court in the United States despite the fact that the judge stands accused of molesting several women.

Republicans in the United States continue to wage wars against voting rights, against workers right to organize, and against immigrant children, many of whom remain in cages along the southern border. Women also are one of the right-wing party’s primary targets, and the solution, Gerard said, lies in organizing.

“Women still make 80 cents for every dollar a man makes in the United States,” Gerard said. And it’s less than that in Canada. “Want to change that? Get a union.”

For Gerard, though, organizing isn’t merely a necessity for pay equity—it’s the fight of a lifetime.

“We need to organize politically, organize for our rights, organize to build the union, organize so we have a better life for those who come after us.”

At the convention in Toronto, attended by both American and Canadian USW members, Gerard acknowledged the tension President Trump created by failing to exempt Canada from the tariffs he imposed for national security reasons on steel and aluminum.

“The USW executive board voted unanimously that Canada should be excluded from the tariffs,” Gerard pointed out. Imposing them on Canada, an ally, he said, was offensive. “It was offensive for America to put a tariff on Canada and say it was because of national security. Workers on both sides of the border know whose side they should be on.”

Touching on the conference’s theme ­– A Call to Action – Gerard reminded the more than 1,200 attendees that musing means nothing without movement.

“There’s so much to talk about, but there’s so much more than talk that has to take place,” he said. “If we’re going to make the difference that we need to make, we’re only going to make it through activism.

“There is huge talent here and in this audience. If you go home and do nothing, you have been here under false pretenses. The future is in our hands this time.”

Finally, Gerard urged the delegates, “Take the solidarity and relationships you have gained here and go back to your region, you district, your country and fight like hell for the future.”

Answering the Call to Action Through Global Solidarity, Tapping the Power of Authenticity

Tuesday morning, delegates to the International Women of Steel Conference were inspired by the experiences of women activists and union leaders from around the world. USW’s international partners play an important role in the union’s work.

Women are answering the call to action in different ways, responding to unique challenges.

The delegates heard from international guests from Brazil, Mexico, Bangladesh and the U.K.

In Brazil, women are 51% of the population; Black people are 54%. Christiane Aparecida dos Santos of the CUT (National Confederation of Metal Workers), noted that women make up 18.7% of metalworkers. Black women in Brazil face a staggering gender wage gap of 50% compared to white men. Women end up working two to three jobs.

“That influences their ability to dedicate themselves to the struggle on the job,” said dos Santos.

“In our collective bargaining, we try to include clauses that allow women to participate in the labour market: child care, maternity leave,” said dos Santos.

As a result, the CUT has been able to achieve some negotiated agreements with 180 paid days of maternity leave.

Raising Consciousness

“Our fight is to raise the women’s level of consciousness – to draw them into union struggles. We offer training. And we also try to raise the consciousness of the men; we are together in the struggle.”

For Unite the Union in the U.K., women are rising. “We’ve got good structures and we’re proud of those, but we have more to do,” said Louisa Bull a Unite representative from the paper and packaging sector, an area where women make up 17% of the workforce.

In addition to the formal structures that help make gains for women, Unite women are saying to the men in leadership, “Stand aside, brother.”

Unite the Union Vice President Jayne Taylor got started by attending a women’s leadership school. After completing the school, she didn’t just stand for a position as equalities officer; she went back to her local union and ran for branch secretary.

One struggle in paper and packaging is outsourcing to countries with lower wages. So now Unite finances organizing where the workers are, leading organizing in Poland and Hungary to bring up the wages and working conditions of those workers – to improve their lives and to level the playing field.

In Bangladesh, Kalpona Akter fights on behalf of garment workers, 85% of whom are women.

Minimum wage is $68 per month – not enough for one person to live; and many of these women have families and children to support.

“The garment industry is the backbone of our economy, but they’ve been left out,” said Akter.

We Are Fighting Every Day

“Are we sitting down? No! We are fighting every day!”

Answering the call to action means speaking up.

In Mexico, women face exploitation and assault at work. Changing this culture happens through unions like Los Mineros, but also by electing pro-worker representatives.

Los Mineros’ Josefina Martinez shared how women in Mexico wanted a new government and organized “house by house” in her district.

“We needed 42,000 votes,” said Martinez. “We didn’t get 42,000, we got 90,000!”

Now Los Mineros’ General Secretary Napoleon Gomez Urrutia is a senator in the Mexican congress.

“Thanks to the work that was done by women, we brought down barriers,” said Martinez.

Keynote speaker Ritu Bhasin, an author, motivational speaker, and expert in diversity, inclusion and women’s leadership, inspired delegates with her personal story. She told of growing up bullied from the age of five because of her brown skin and Sikh religion.

As a young adult, Bhasin sought to fit in and carried a spirit of sameness, seeking social acceptance. Then she realized how unhappy she was trying to be someone she wasn’t.

Embrace Authenticity

Bhasin’s answer to the call to action is authenticity: to embrace differences as strengths.

“Authenticity is the consistent practise of choosing to know who I am; to embrace who I am; to be who I am.”

Through authenticity and by embracing differences, people can come together and support each other.

Bhasin encouraged delegates to do the work to embrace authenticity.

“When we do this for ourselves, we thrive. But then, it’s incumbent on us to lift others while we climb.”

“Globally, we are in a desperate need to course-correct on how we are living so that everyone can experience belonging,” said Bhasin.

“My hope for today is that you will join me!”

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2018 USW Women of Steel Conference

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