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two women
UE counsel Margot Nikitas introduces Robin Alexander
Al Hart

October 9, 2014

Mother Jones Award

Robin Alexander

I was one of three women (along with Steffi Domike and Millie Beik) to receive the Mother Jones Award from the Pennsylvania Labor History Society and Battle of Homestead Foundation. The event commemorated the Westinghouse Strike of 1914 and women’s contribution to labor’s struggle; the strike was waged by young women. This was a tremendous honor and a really moving event. I am sharing my remarks below.

group of people posing
UE Celebrates with Robin
Al Hart

Remarks by Robin Alexander

Good afternoon!

I have very little time, so I want to share a bit of UE history, talk about where we are today and finish with some of the challenges that we face.

The strike that we are commemorating speaks of the courage and commitment of young women in 1914. Although their union didn’t survive, the workers at Westinghouse and Union Switch and Signal contributed to the militancy and principles of those who followed in their footsteps. Workers in the Westinghouse plant later organized a democratic, industrial union that was a founding member of UE, Local 601, and workers at Union Switch and Signal and Westinghouse Airbrake subsequently organized what became UE Local 610.

The energy and active participation of women has helped shape our union over the years. I want to share with you a little of that history. The UE was the first union to proclaim in our 1936 founding constitution an egalitarian commitment to women in terms of membership, setting forth a basis of unity irrespective of “craft, age, sex, nationality, race, creed or political belief.” In 1939 we approved a policy opposing the discriminatory hiring and layoffs of married women, stressing the need to organize women and to employ women as staff representatives. Later policies elaborated by delegates to UE conventions also spoke to the need to protect women’s seniority, to fight discrimination and the need for pregnancy leave and to fully cover expenses related to pregnancy through health insurance.

We also focused on the practice of classifying jobs as male or female and began demanding that women be guaranteed the opportunity for training on skilled jobs and for equal pay for the same work. UE filed what was the first comparable worth case before the War Labor Board challenging the practice by both GE and Westinghouse of setting different pay scales and classifying jobs as men and women’s work.

UE won precedent-setting decisions before the War Labor Board and continued to negotiate adjustments that provided higher general wage increases for women in order to narrow the differential. When Westinghouse proposed a contract that would have widened the gap, workers struck, and in 1946 won an extra six cents per hour for women workers. UE was also the first industrial union to elect a woman as one of its top national officers.

In preparing this talk I spoke with one of the current women leaders I admire in UE, Regional President Deb Gornall. Unfortunately she couldn’t be here today and sends her greetings to all of you. She told me she started work for GE in Erie in 1972 and that a year later she applied for a dispatch job. She was denied the job because, she was told that it was a man’s job, that women would quit after a year or two to have babies and that it was men who needed the good paying jobs to support their families. She said that this happened to hundreds of women and finally the 450 time keepers went out on a nine day strike. She said that although they didn’t win that strike, they were proud that they had stood up to GE and that eventually GE was forced to give women jobs and back pay and to stop its discriminatory practices against women.

The struggle of women workers around the world is celebrated in the mural that graces the hall of UE Local 506 in Erie. It was a joint project of the UE and our sister federation in Mexico, the Authentic Workers Front (FAT) and I have brought posters as a gift to all of you who have joined us today. There are real people and their stories behind the images in this mural: the daughter of one of the workers whose girls’ soccer team whitewashed the wall for the mural, the poem of one of the GE women who was on our first women’s delegation to Mexico, Erie as a stop on the underground railroad and many others. But the mural also serves as a symbol of the solidarity of women workers around the world and of the mostly male workforce and leadership in Erie who supported its creation and proudly display the mural in their union hall.

"If He Had Stolen a Railroad He Would Be a United States Senator."

I don’t think I need to convince anyone here that it is important to organize unions. But you may be surprised to learn that today almost half of all unionized workers (45.8 percent in 2013) are women and at the difference it makes. Notwithstanding different educational levels, unionized women make 13 percent more than similar non-union women. In addition, the gender gap between what unionized men and women make is 9.4 cents compared to 18.7, or about half the differential for non-union workers. Not perfect, but decreasing and certainly better.

Unionized women are 36 percent more likely than non-union women to receive health-insurance benefits through their job and are 53 percent more likely than non-union women to participate in an employer-sponsored retirement plan.

But to focus on the relative gains of union women is to miss the forest for the trees. As mother Jones explained, “I asked a man in prison once how he happened to be there and he said he had stolen a pair of shoes. I told him if he had stolen a railroad he would be a United States Senator.” I suppose that at any point in time we are standing between the past and future, but today more than ever before it feels to me like a critical moment. We are now experiencing first-hand the devastation caused by the application of neo-liberal policies around the world, as we fight against privatization, de-regulation, the slashing of social services and rights, and the impacts of free trade. A key result has been the transformation of decent jobs with good benefits to various sorts of precarious employment: temporary or sporadic, part time, short-term, often sub-contracted through temp agencies to strip workers of benefits, keep wages down, and insulate employers from liability. In this context, one of the most important struggles facing us is the fight against the Trans Pacific partnership or TPP, and the form that that will take in the US in coming months is the fight, yet again, against Fast Track.

The human face of this fight can also be seen in the faces of millions of immigrant workers around the world who have been forced from their homes by economic necessity or war. Make no mistake: the increase in migration is both the result of policies that make it impossible for workers to find work to sustain themselves and their families in their home countries and intentional government policies to promote the use of guest workers who must accept limited wages, benefits and are denied the right to organize. The demand for a right to stay home -- a right not to migrate --emphasizes the shift that we must make in addressing the underlying problems that force workers to leave their families and homes.

We need to stand together with workers from other countries, joining with other unions against common employers and recognizing that workers from other countries must be our allies, not our enemies in the fight against corporate globalization.

And some of the most creative organizing we see in the United States today is being done by immigrant workers: taxi drivers, day laborers, home health and child care workers, farm workers all provide hope that we can find new and effective ways of organizing.

I want to thank Charlie, Rose and the other organizers of this event as it is perhaps the most meaningful award I have ever received. And it is timely, as I will be retiring from UE at the end of the year. But the struggle continues, and as Mother Jones said: “The first thing is to raise hell... That’s what I do in my fight for the working class.” While I am leaving UE, I am not leaving that fight!

Thank you!


David Bacon

"The UE's relationship with the unions and workers in Mexico has shown that mutual respect, mutual benefit and equality is the real basis for solidarity."

David Bacon
Photographer & writer

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