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This Day in Labor History: March 23, 1974

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On March 23, 1974, the Coalition of Labor Union Women formed. A nonprofit organization within the AFL-CIO, the CLUW seeks to improve the standing of women within the union movement, as well as to organize more women into unions and promote union and legislative policies that help working-class women.

The labor movement has made a lot of progress in terms of gender equality. Women make up a large portion of organizing staffs, a growing percentage of executive boards and international presidents like Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers. On the other hand, a male chauvnist culture still dominates unionism as a whole. Any unionist who pays attention to these things knows its true. I’ve overheard too many conversations where someone has started talking about the women in the room like it’s a high school locker room. Some of this is class culture. Feminist language is far more accepted within the academy than the industrial workplace; for someone like me, it’s really jarring to hear inappropriate remarks about women when they may or may not be out of earshot.

This was all way worse in the 1970s. Women throughout American society were struggling for recognition of their rights and issues, including at the workplace. The feminist movement was peaking, challenging sexist notions throughout society. In the labor movement, it was nearly impossible for women to get their concerns voiced. They had no positions within the highest reaches of the AFL-CIO or in nearly any international. Sexism was entrenched in many union workplaces and union representatives often ignored the anger of women against bad treatment, including sexual harassment, wage disparities, and lack of promotion opportunities at the workplace and within unions. The problem was even worse for women of color. Some unions were better than others thought; the United Auto Workers was the first union to come out in favor of the Equal Rights Amendment, in 1970.

The CLUW was created in June 1973 under the leadership of Olga Madar, Vice-President of the United Auto Workers and Addie Wyatt of the United Food and Commercial Workers. Madar had risen through the UAW from her start with the union in 1941. She was most famous for spearheading the fight to desegregate the nation’s largest bowling organizations in 1952. She also led the UAW’s Conservation Department in the 1960s, lining up union support for environmental legislation and land protection. Wyatt was the first African-American woman to hold an executive position within an American union, as VP of the Amalgamated Meat Cutters Union before moving to the UFCW. Wyatt was a major player in labor’s support for the Civil Rights Movement. She was also named, along with Barbara Jordan, Time’s Woman of the Year in 1975.

After a few smaller organizing conferences around the country, 3200 women met in Chicago on March 23 and March 24, 1974 for the CLUW’s foundational meeting. The meeting took a challenging tone to the chauvinistic attitudes of organized labor. Said Myra Wolfgang of the Hotel and Restaurant Employees and Bartenders Union, “You can call Mr. Meany and tell him there are 3000 women in Chicago and they didn’t come here to swap recipes!” The meeting set aside time for women to voice openly the problems they faced as trade union women. Like many moments in the feminist movement, the CLUW helped isolated women around the country realize there were many others who faced their predicament. It gave them a collective power not unlike the consciousness-raising meetings that marked the feminism of the early 70s. The CLUW announced its solidarity with Gloria Steinem and the National Organization of Women; in fact, Steinem was there as a representative of American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. In doing so, the CLUW leadership set the organization as a close ally of mainstream feminism, which alienated radical women to some extent, but probably made political sense in a climate where labor’s leadership was not particularly supportive of its existence.

Organized labor’s immediate response to all of this? The UAW sent a message of support. AFL-CIO President George Meany said nothing at all, as did most internationals.

The CLUW’s creation was an important moment and symbol. But we shouldn’t overestimate its ultimate importance. First, the organization never had a clear mission with tangible goals. Was it primarily a women’s organization or a labor organization? Second, there were a lot of generational tensions within the CLUW between the somewhat older women who led its founding and had pioneered roles for women within organized labor and younger women who demanded more radical positions, including signing up poor women who were not union members. It also tended to replicate the bureaucratic union structure it evolved from rather than embrace the worker democracy union reformers of the period called for. Madar and Wyatt had a strong committment to working within the established labor movement rather than challenging it from the outside. In fact, most of the highest ranking women union officials were extremely concerned about the CLUW saying anything or passing any resolutions that were openly critical of established union leadership. This same dynamic often hurts union reform efforts today. Women from the Teamsters threatened to walk out if the CLUW supported the United Farm Workers (the Teamsters were trying to beat out of the UFW–often literally–for jurisdiction to represent agricultural labor). So in many ways, the CLUW reflected the complexities of the labor movement as a whole in the mid-1970s.

On the other hand, the CLUW has been important in making sexual harassment an issue organized labor had to take seriously while pressing unions to fight for wage equality. Pay disparities actually grew during the 1960s. In 1960, women made 63.9 cents for every dollar earned by men. In 1970, it was 59.4 cents. By the end of 1974, there were 24 local CLUW chapters with 2500 dues-paying members. But this number was disappointing for CLUW activists; even worse was a decline in 1975. The CLUW eventually turned into a relatively small but still useful organization of labor union women pressing labor issues within the AFL-CIO. If it failed to revolutionize women’s roles within organized labor, well, that was hardly its goal in the first place.

Possibly the biggest victory for the CLUW was the election of Linda Chavez-Thompson to be Vice-President of the AFL-CIO under John Sweeney in 1995. However, the VP job is more symbolic than anything. What really matters in the power structure is the Secretary-Treasurer, who happened to be one Richard Trumka of the United Mine Workers, the heir apparent from the moment Sweeney took the job. Today, Elizabeth Shuler has that position. Trumka is young enough though that there’s little talk of his eventual replacement so it’s hard to know what her potential to be the first female president of the AFL-CIO really is.

The Coalition of Labor Union Women continues today, pushing for such recent victories as the renewal of the Violence Against Women Act, with the expanded protections Republicans fought to exclude from the bill. The organization also continues to hold meetings across the country to rally unionist women to push for both labor and gender equality.

This is the 55th post in this series. Other posts are archived here.

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