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June 21, 2002
The Official Word
 
Read more from...
Linda Chavez-Thompson
Executive Vice President, AFL-CIO

When I was 29 years old, I was helping sanitation workers form a union. On this campaign, workers would not talk to me. Being a woman—especially a Latina—made organizing difficult because some workers did not respect me as much as they respected men.

When I handed one worker a union card, he asked, “Why should I take it?” I told him about the benefits of forming a union: pay, respect on the job, and healthcare. “What do you know about hard work?” he replied. “What do you know about driving a truck and lifting heavy bags that could cut you or hurt your back?”

I explained that while I didn’t drive a truck and pick up heavy bags all day, I knew the meaning of hard work. When I was ten years old I started working 10 hours a day, five days a week picking cotton in the hot sun for 30 cents an hour.

His attitude changed after I told him this. His family had been migrant workers, and he knew how hard that work is. He began to let go of his prejudices and we understood each other worker-to-worker. It was a defining moment for me as an organizer. I saw how powerful the connection is between workers and how it can overcome barriers.

After we talked a little more, he took 20 union cards. By the next day, he had gotten 20 of his co-workers to sign the cards and to support forming a union.

I’ve faced challenges as a woman and as a Latina. Some people don’t think that you’re as smart as they are. They think you should only fill certain roles like serving as the recording secretary, but never the president or secretary treasurer, of organizations. Sometimes I faced this discrimination from my own union brothers, but some of them, like my late husband, encouraged and supported me.

There were a few people who asked for my opinion. This was encouraging because people rarely cared what I thought. Giving my opinion built my confidence, and having self-confidence is tremendously important for leadership.

There have been so many rewards that it’s hard to know where to begin. I cannot explain how rewarding it is to see the joyful tears of a woman—struggling to make ends meet for her family—win a $2,000 per year raise because of my help. Seeing the happiness on an old man’s face after you’ve helped him win dignity on the job is indescribable.

We need pay equity for women and people of color. One of the best ways to guarantee equity is through a union contract. The debate on health care—especially women’s health care—would be radically different if there were more women in public office. What’s important is that we all do what we can to make our world a better place to live.

Become active and do for others, not just for self. If you are in a union, attend union meetings, participate and plan actions, get involved with your central labor council, and volunteer your time for political campaigns. If you’re not in a union, talk to your co-workers and form one.

Women are not just wives, mothers, and sisters. We are leaders. Women have to fight for our dreams and encourage other women in their struggles. It is the responsibility of women leaders to bring more women into leadership positions. We have to stay in the front if we want our opinions and viewpoints to be heard.





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