March 11, 2014
By Steven Wishnia
“We’re little women who move big things,” LaTonya Crisp-Sauray of Transport Workers Union Local 100 told an International Women’s Day forum March 8. Women transit workers, she said, aren’t just the bus drivers and subway conductors we see; they also include cleaners who “power-wash all night long,” money-train guards—“yes, we pack heat”—and track workers—“yes, we lay track.”
The forum, at the City University of New York’s Joseph S. Murphy Institute for Worker Education, was “in honor of working women and women in their unions,” said Sonia Ivany of the Workforce Development Institute, who organized it along with Maria Figueroa of Cornell University’s Worker Institute. The more than 200 people who attended were predominantly female, including a number of subway and construction workers in sweatshirts and work boots.
City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito told the crowd they needed to “continue the fight for equality, because we’re not there yet,” noting that less than one-third of the Council’s 51 members are women. Public Advocate Letitia James said that with women workers averaging 70% of what men make and some city employees earning so little that they’re homeless, “you all need a raise… and we need to make ‘retroactive’ part of the discussion.” Her main issues, she said, include getting more city contracts for women and minority-owned businesses, reducing outsourcing, the feminization of poverty, and building more affordable housing—“and we need to make sure we build union.”
The heart of the forum was presentations by seven union officials: Minerva Solia of Local 1199 SEIU; Barbara Edmonds of DC 37, Crisp-Sauray, Evelyn De Jesus of the United Federation of Teachers, Helen Schaub of Local 1199, Elly Spicer of the New York City District Council of Carpenters, and Yolanda Pumarejo of Social Service Employees Union Local 371.
Schaub celebrated home health-care aides winning a raise to $14 an hour, but said they are much more likely to get injured on the job than other workers. For-profit nursing homes have resisted safety measures, she added. De Jesus, a former Lower East Side kindergarten teacher, said women are finally gaining union leadership positions, including five of the UFT’s seven vice-presidents. A Murphy Institute survey found that while 45% of U.S. union members are women, only 16% of union presidents are.
Spicer, director of training for the Carpenters, said women are now one-sixth of the union’s apprentices. She then called on other building-trades women in the audience, including Wendy Webb of Laborers Local 79 and Leah Rambo of Sheet Metal Workers Local 28.
Pumarejo focused on the political context. The “effort to dismantle public-sector unions,” she said, grew out of attacks on social-service clients, who are mostly women, and has now targeted the workers who serve the poor, who are also mostly women. “I don’t think we should allow anyone to speak bad about unions,” she said later. “We’re entitled to those pensions. We earned those salaries.’
Ivany called the event “a great success,” saying that “we were able to bring together women from key sectors of the labor movement,” from the building trades, both public and private-sector unions, and immigrants.