I Am an Organizer: Women Hone Leadership Skills at Annual Labor Conference

Kari Lydersen

Elizabeth Jesdale (left) and Milly Rodriguez, fired up at the Regina V. Polk Women's Labor Leadership Conference in Chicago.

On the terrace of a Greek restaurant in Chicago Thursday night, Milly Rodriguez told attendees at the Regina V. Polk Women’s Labor Leadership Conference about growing up in the city’s Humboldt Park neighborhood: She organized her four sisters to prevent their brother from demanding a cut of their chores money as kids.

Rodriguez, a United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union steward at a nearby packaged foods company, said she hoped the conference running through Saturday would help her learn how to better communicate with members about her union local’s struggles, including a seemingly illegal move by management to force employees with more than 30 years experience into non-union middle management positions.

Listening to Rodriguez, Judy Ancel noted that she is a natural communicator and organizer in her personal life. You’ve been a steward since age one,” someone else chimed in. So you already know how to organize, you just need to apply that to your work life,” said Ancel, director of the Institute for Labor Studies at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

Elizabeth Jesdale, a UE member at a food co-op in Montpellier, Vt., was drawn into the conversation when she overheard Rodriguez saying management seemed to overestimate her power as a steward.

So they believe you have that power, the missing link is you believing you have that power,” Jesdale said.

Such informal labor education and motivation along with hands-on classes, workshops and field trips related to labor rights, strategy and history have made the Polk conference a powerful experience for nearly 1,000 women since its inception in 1988. Hosted by the University of Illinois’s School of Labor and Employment Relations, the conference aims to build women workers’ knowledge, activism and leadership skills.

It is supported by the Polk Foundation, in honor of Regina V. Polk, who organized Chicago clerical workers with the Teamsters before her 1983 death in a plane crash at age 33. (Terry Spencer Hesser chronicles Polk’s life in her book I Am a Teamster: A Short, Fiery Story of Regina V. Polk, Her Hats, Her Pets, Sweet Love, and the Modern-Day Labor Movement.)

This year’s conference features tours of Pullman, the famous south side Chicago railcar company town; Goose Island, site of the Republic Windows factory occupation; murals on the UE Hall and Teamster City; the Haymarket Memorial; the Union Stockyards which inspired The Jungle; the Congress Hotel where workers have been on strike since 2003; and other sites of contemporary and historical significance.

Stacey Seals and Pat Gillett, members of Teamsters Local 705 at suburban Chicago UPS facilities, said after Thursday’s tour that they were amazed and inspired to learn about iconic labor history which had happened practically in their own backyard.

I’ve lived in Chicago almost all my life, and I’ve always passed by Pullman but never knew what happened there, what it stood for,” said Seals.

All unions should come together for one day a year and just visit these sites,” added Gillett, noting many Chicagoans don’t even know the history of Haymarket (“I wouldn’t consider it the Haymarket Riot, I would consider it the Haymarket Sacrifice,” she said).

This year’s conference drew attendees from states including Washington, North Carolina, Vermont, Iowa, West Virginia, Virginia and Illinois, who shared stories and offered advice about their various unions’ struggles. Aida Avila, a steward with the National Association of Letter Carriers branch 11 in Chicago, noted that the union is in a bitter fight to preserve six-day-a-week mail delivery.

If we let them cut one day, then they will try to cut more and make us part time,” she said. That’s what they’re shooting for.”

C.J. Higgins, an AFL-CIO United Way community services liaison in Peoria, Ill., said she was inspired and tickled” to hear 99-year-old union activist Lester Orear reminisce about the founding the of CIO and other labor landmarks during his long life.

This shows the struggles we are facing are nothing new, we are fighting to survive like people have all along,” said Connie Schabowski, an IBEW member employed at the Ameren utility in Decatur, Ill. We shouldn’t let this history be lost, our children and grandchildren need to know this.”

And we’re all part of making labor history,” added Sarah Sylvester Drake, the AFL-CIO United Way community services liaison in Decatur. It’s not just seeing history but realizing that we are part of it, we are making history now.”

Kari Lydersen is a Chicago-based reporter, author and journalism instructor, leading the Social Justice & Investigative specialization in the graduate program at Northwestern University. She is the author of Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.
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