1,000 Teamster Women Gather for Annual Conference
Shelley Goodman, a 21-year Teamster school bus driver and organizer, stood at the podium before 1,000 of her fellow Teamsters, excited to be attending the 2013 Teamsters Women’s Conference.
“It’s a great day to be in New Orleans, but it’s an even greater day to be a Teamster,” Goodman said.
The three-day conference, themed, “New Day, New Power, New Orleans,” had one of the largest attendances in its history. The event featured an impressive program of speakers, dozens of educational workshops and union-building activities for Teamsters from Alaska to Puerto Rico and everywhere in between. It was hosted by Local 270 in New Orleans and Joint Council 87 in Mississippi.
Jim Hoffa, Teamsters General President, opened the conference by introducing Becky Strzechowski, the new director of the Women’s Conference, while honoring Sue Mauren, who led the conference for four years until her retirement last year.
“I’m honored to continue Sue’s good work and excited to lead this conference that General President Hoffa started 13 years ago,” said Strzechowski, who is also an International Vice President and President of Local 700 in Chicago.
Hoffa told the crowd that it’s as important as ever that Teamsters organize, fight for working people and vote for politicians that will stand with workers.
“We need political activists. We need to fight right-to-work. I can’t stress to you how important it is that you vote,” Hoffa said.
Donna Brazile, an academic, author and political analyst, as well as a New Orleans native, echoed that sentiment. Brazile urged Teamsters to battle anti-worker forces that are “picking on” working people. The proud card-carrying union member called on Teamsters to “never get weary of doing good.”
“It’s a new day, ladies, and you’ve got the power to change the world. We’re going to drive these anti-labor governors out all across American in 2014,” Brazile said. “Grow this union, grow this Women’s Conference, register everyone you know. Do not be afraid to talk about politics. I have faith in you and solidarity with you.”
“‘New Day, New Power, New Orleans,’ that is the theme of this year’s conference. Times are changing and we face more and more challenges. It’s so important as a Teamster, whether you are a man or a woman, to get involved in your union,” Strzechowski said.
Strzechowski noted that while Teamster contracts support equal pay and treat men and women equally, unorganized workers across the U.S. and Canada are suffering.
“The reason you are here is you believe in your ability to stand with your sisters and brothers to bring equality to workers,” said Ken Hall, General Secretary-Treasurer.
Hall noted that nationally, women still only make about 80 cents to the dollar that men make, and 69 cents to the dollar in Louisiana. He also noted that women are underrepresented in both state and federal-level elected office, and given those circumstances, it is unlikely that workers can rely only on government to make sure everyone is treated equally.
“That’s where unions come in, and that’s where the Teamsters Union comes in,” Hall said. “Teamster contracts provide wage rates and benefits that are the same, regardless of your gender or race, and that’s why unions are so important in the fight for equality.”
Leading that fight are the Teamster women who spoke as part of a “Women Activists” panel. They shared their emotional and spirited stories of determination and resilience in the face of anti-union employers. The women came to New Orleans from all over North America, and altogether they are working on campaigns that impact more than 20,000 Teamsters, either current Teamsters or those about to become Teamsters.
They work and organize at IKEA in Canada, in the U.S. at the ports, as well as at taxi cab companies, school bus companies and the University of California system. They are diverse—but they would all agree they have one thing in common—they are tenacious Teamsters.
Dot Tompkins, a Teamster shop steward from Canada, has been locked out with her co-workers at IKEA for the past four months.
“This is a fight on workers, and we are grateful for the huge amount of support we have received. We are stronger now than the day we went out,” Tompkins said.
“I have been blessed to work in a department where I have supportive supervisors; however, when I went to union meetings I heard about brothers and sisters who weren’t being treated well and that fire was lit in me. I feel I need to be a part of a voice for those who don’t have one, and that’s why I became an activist,” said Callie Wilson, a University of California research assistant working on brain cancer research and a member of Local 2010. “It is up to us to speak up for and encourage each other.”
Cynthia Pikins, a 30-year school bus driver and member of Local 270 in New Orleans, received the Teamster Woman Activist award for her involvement in her union.
Teamster women are not only helping their fellow Teamsters and communities, they also reached out in New Orleans. More than $4,000 and a crate of school supplies were donated by Teamsters attending the conference to benefit Mary McLeod Bethune Elementary School in New Orleans.
Thanks to their generous donations, the elementary school students there will have a good start to the school year.
“As Teamsters, we stand for so much and we can help so many people,” said Joanna Levingston, a member of Local 848 in Covina, Calif. “The experience of being here is like none other. It’s a learning experience and an opportunity to interact with women from other locals.”
“Teamster women are powerful,” said Leatha Walker, a member of Local 984 in Memphis, Tenn., and a Durham School Services school bus driver. “We have to put that power in our spirit. It’s a new day, new power, and not just in New Orleans, but back at home.”
Q&A with Becky Strzechowski, Director, Teamsters Women’s Conference
Q: What are the goals of theWomen's Conference?
Our goal is to educate and empower Teamster women. This conference gives Teamsters the opportunity to network, learn from workshops and brainstorm ideas. They get inspired to continue their work of strengthening our union, and they take back what they’ve learned to the Teamsters in their locals and the nonunion worker that they know. It’s also a lot of fun.
Q: What can Teamsters do to get more involved?
As busy as our modern lives are, there is always time to get involved in some way, big or small. We can demonstrate our political power at the ballot box just by voting. In the workplace, become a shop steward or mentor a coworker. Become a union organizer. At the Women’s Conference we talked a lot about women’s committees, which are growing in number, and those are a great way for Teamster women to participate. At the very least, commit to buying American and Canadian-made products, and of course, union-made products.
Q: You mentioned women’s committees. Can you talk more about the growth of Teamster women’s committees and what they are accomplishing?
Women’s committees are a successful tool for Teamsters in local unions to mobilize the membership, raise awareness of the importance of the union and promote worthwhile causes. I’m particularly proud of our Joint Council 25 women’s committee, which was formed in 2009. The committee set up a scholarship program for Teamster women and this year raised $30,000 at a gala dinner. The committee sponsors seminars and meetings, with speakers on special topics. We also organized a team for an annual breast cancer walk, and will soon hold a health fair for Teamster women. Women’s committees are a valuable way to bring members together whose paths might not have ever crossed. They get ideas to bring back to their own locals and get motivated to get active in our union.
Q: What is the value in having a conference for Teamster women?
We have more female Teamster members than at any point in our history. Women recognize the importance of having a union and they’re organizing. In four out of 10 families with children, women are the primary breadwinners. While Teamster contracts are gender blind, women in the work force overall still make about 80 cents to the dollar that men make, and that impacts the family bottom line. These are challenging times for our economy and for workers, but it’s no surprise that women in our union are rising to the occasion.
All in the Family
Shelley Goodman has witnessed a lot of hardship in her 21 years as a Durham School Services school bus driver and Teamster organizer.
While organizing in Jacksonville, Fla., Goodman met a nonunion school bus monitor who sold her blood to make ends meet. At an election in Minnesota, one of the workers who had terminal cancer came to cast his vote in the Teamster election for a better future for his co-workers.
“I’ve witnessed all these battles,” Goodman told the audience of 1,000 Teamsters at the Women’s Conference. “But there are two women who I would like to recognize today. They encouraged me to be an activist. They are my two daughters.”
Courtney Goodman-Bell is a business agent with Local 777 in Chicago and Kacie Goodman-Romero is a special education teacher in Louisiana and a chief shop steward working to organize and mobilize her co-workers.
“Mom would go to her shop steward meetings and bring us along when we were little. I remember workers coming to our house to talk to Mom, the fighter,” Romero said.
“Being in a union is ingrained in us. Our father was a union ironworker. When I was eight years old, Mom organized at her bus terminal. For us, it was common conversation at the dinner table,” Bell said.
Romero is learning from her mother and sister about empowering workers to stand up for their rights.
“I’m glad to be at the Teamsters Women’s Conference because having moved from Illinois to Louisiana, a right-to-work state, I have a lot to learn about organizing and unions. I want to empower myself to help others,” Romero said.
Romero is one of five union members among a work force of 80. The teachers and staff have a growing interest in organizing, but also a fear of retribution from their employer. Bell is the youngest daughter, but advises her sister on how to organize in her workplace.
“I’m a business agent and I represent school bus drivers, and I can explain to them, I rode a bus, too, with my mom. I know the gratification and challenges of being a bus driver,” Bell said.
The two sisters have the same fire as their mother to empower workers to better their working conditions and their lives.
Of her daughters, Goodman said, “I am extremely proud,” as she called on the audience of Teamsters to continue their fight and pass it on to the next generation.