January 4, 2012—Rosalyn Pelles, director of the AFL-CIO’s Civil, Human, and Women’s Rights Department, recently spent nearly two weeks in Uganda and Tanzania, where she facilitated women’s leadership training sessions and attended a trade union convention. In her 25 years in the labor movement, this was Pelles’s first trip to Africa and her first opportunity to work with the Solidarity Center. Pelles spoke with Solidarity Center Communications Program Officer Joan Seidman Welsh about the many cultural differences and similarities she shared with her union sisters in Africa and the global need for more women union leaders.
||Rosalyn Pelles, director of the AFL-CIO’s Civil, Human, and Women’s Rights Department. Photo by Joe Kekeris/AFL-CIO
Solidarity Center: When and where did the trainings take place? Who participated?
Rosalyn Pelles: The trainings took place September 5–15 in Kampala, Uganda, and Arusha, Tanzania. Women union leaders at all levels from all over their respective countries participated. In each country, there were more than 25 participants from more than 20 unions, all members of either the Trade Union Congress of Tanzania (TUCTA) or the National Organization of Trade Unions of Uganda (NOTU). They represented farm workers, dock workers, teachers, communications specialists, factory workers, and many other industries and sectors, but they had one common goal: They were there to talk about women’s leadership and how women leaders can contribute to the union movement.
SC: How was the content developed?
RP: Months before the training, I consulted with Rick Hall and Sonia Mistry [Solidarity Center country program director and program officer for the region, respectively]. I also contacted my counterparts in TUCTA and NOTU. They thought through what issues they wanted to cover and together we developed the curriculum.
SC: What were the key issues covered?
RP: The key discussion point was defining what makes a great union leader. We spent a lot of time debunking the myth of the “charismatic” leader. All it takes to be a leader is skills, commitment, and the ability to advance a program or campaign. A lot of women have these characteristics.
We also discussed women’s rights, women as organizers, barriers to inclusion, democracy and unions, and the nuts and bolts of collective bargaining. Discussions were vigorous, enthusiastic, and well informed. When you boil it down, though, these were the same issues we have here in the United States: balancing family and work life, giving elected women leaders the support and mentorship they need.
SC: Why was it necessary to have this training? Are there many women union leaders already in Uganda and Tanzania?
RP: Yes, there are many women union leaders, but their numbers are not proportionate to membership numbers. Strengthening women’s leadership role and including more women leaders are high on the priority list of both TUCTA and NOTA.
SC: What was a highlight of the trip?
RP: After the training in Uganda was over, we visited a unionized Dutch-owned plantation that cultivates seedlings for potted plants. This was the workplace of one of the participants, a true leader in her local union. Women employed there had gained many benefits through collective bargaining, such as a travel allowance, onsite health care and day care, a company cafeteria—it was such a family-friendly workplace! It was great to see her in her role as a well-respected and able union leader.
I also attended TUCTA’s National Women’s Congress, which preceded the full TUCTA convention. I was a speaker at both events. The Women’s Congress included quite a few leaders from the training, and the enthusiasm and excitement carried over as they discussed resolutions and strategies for electing women union leaders, making sure that they would have a voice in their own convention. I experienced a great sense of sisterhood that deepened with each event. We had a camaraderie that was clear to all in the room.
SC: What did you feel was the most important lesson learned for participants?
RP: Thanks to the collaborative process that enabled them to share best practices and experiences, they all understood clearly that ordinary women can do extraordinary work.
SC: This will be an ongoing program in East Africa. Would you like to facilitate another series of women’s leadership trainings? If so, what would you do differently, if anything?
RP: This program was a first step in increasing the Solidarity Center’s presence in these countries. The women were enthusiastic and eager to take back their learning to their union sisters, but I am not sure how formalized it will be. I would like to see a train-the-trainers model that can enable hundreds, if not thousands, of women to share the experience and strive for leadership roles in their unions.
SC: What did you take away from your experience? How do you feel that this training can help promote the development of women leaders in the labor movement both in the United States and worldwide?
RP: No union movement can afford not to bring women to the table. An experience like this gives people an appreciation for the labor movement and all that we as women can accomplish, and it strengthens our perception of women’s work and their role in the union. We all came away with a greater understanding of conditions around the world, what the possibilities are, and how all of us can make those possibilities real in our own countries. I look forward to continuing this process.