Plenary Conclusions Panel: What Did We Learn/Where Do We Go From Here?

Plenary

Conclusions Panel: What Did We Learn/Where Do We Go From Here?

Moderator
Shawna Bader-Blau, Executive Director, Solidarity Center

Panelists
• Dorothy Sue Cobble, Distinguished Professor, Department of Labor Studies and Employment Relations and the Department of History, Rutgers University, U.S.
• Chidi King, Equality Department, International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC)
• Lisa McGowan, Solidarity Center Senior Specialist for Gender Equality
• Gertrude Mtsweni, Gender Coordinator, Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU)

Shawna Bader-Blau convened the final panel by saying the plenary was a time to “think together about what really has affected us,” and noted that “this is a room filled with action and we want to give some space and time for this room to reflect.”

She then asked Dorothy Sue Cobble for a historian’s perspective on the issues discussed during the conference.

Cobble began by saying it was “really inspiring for me to be here for two days with this group of women leaders.” One recurring issue hit her hard: “I have been stunned by the violence people experience every day.” She then explained that the prevailing academic theories of collective mobilization are outmoded and predicted the emergence of a new and stronger collaboration between the women’s movement and labor movement. She noted that “unions have changed … and are more open to partnerships.”

She also mentioned the importance of documenting stories and sharing them globally. “We’re really at this very exciting moment of partnership between the women’s movement and unions. Many of the partner groups have changed and are open to unions, and many unions have changed, and are open to partner groups.”

She recalled several phrases she will take back with her from the conference:

• We are not alone. We have to work in alliance.
• We are not defeated. She noted this point was repeatedly made in discussions on organizing.
• We are not going away. “Iris (Munguía), said it poignantly when she pointed to the book written by the banana workers. It’s very important to write down our stories for future generations.”

Gertrude Mtsweni listed some of her key takeaways from the conference, including the importance of organizing women workers in the informal economy, the value of partnerships and solidarity and the need to eliminate poverty and child labor. “Child labor is a key enemy,” she said.

Lisa McGowan noted the common thread running through the conference workshops: “We want to come as a whole person but don’t know how to do it.” Doing so, she said, means connecting and integrating the heart, mind and body, and this takes courage. “If you have been traumatized, chances are you have been cut off from one another,” she said. “Our consciousness around that and our gentleness around that are really important.” McGowan discussed the importance of adopting a strategic approach toward achieving gender equality, one that deserves attention and resources, and emphasized the need to start by understanding ourselves rather than with a predetermined answer.

Chidi King began by saying the conference was “a wonderful reminder of just what a powerful movement we are. It’s been inspiring to see that women are leading our movement. Women are transforming our movement.”

She noted that global union organizations, including the ITUC which is now headed by a woman, have increased the number of women in leadership positions. But “leadership is not only about occupying those decision-making positions,” she said. “It’s about leading your peers.”

King then discussed the role of the ITUC in promoting gender equality. She explained that a core aspect of ITUC General Secretary Sharan Burrow’s change agenda is women’s role in the trade union movement. She also mentioned the ITUC’s gender equality initiatives, including the Decisions for Life campaign to empower young women and the Labor Rights for Women program.

Shawna Bader-Blau then asked conference participants to share one new insight they gained from the conference about how they do their work and why it’s important.

Participants from around the world then shared their reflections from the conference. Common themes included the universality of the struggle for gender equality, the need to move beyond discussion to action, the importance of strategic thinking and the value of educating and empowering young women union leaders and activists. Participants also emphasized the importance of building and maintaining alliances at the national, regional and global levels.

“Women globally have the same problems. I thought it was just us here in Liberia,” said Oretha Tarnue, vice president of the United Workers Union of Liberia. “One of the things we can do is to take action.” For instance, “in the workplace, men also have problems, but they are afraid to challenge management. Women aren’t. We have to bring (women and men) together.”

Maria Auxiliadora dos Santos, from the Força Sindical’s Women Secretary, urged everyone to take everything from the conference and “put it into practice—don’t keep it on paper.”

Iris Munguía, coordinator for the Latin American Banana and Agro-Industrial Unions, also noted the strength she derived from recognizing the challenges she faced are shared around the world. “It was positive for me to see that we have problems in common. But we are all working on strategies to solve them.” She said she planned to take what she learned at the conference back to Latin America, especially for her work among banana plantation workers. “The space that we have here is a good space. We’re taking away new alliances to strengthen our work with women.”

Rosa Julia Perez Aguilar, secretary of Women’s, Child and Adolescent Affairs at the Sindicato de Trabajadores de la Empresa Camposal in Peru, said she will take the examples she heard at the conference back to her brothers and sisters in Peru. “These are things one learns not to keep but to share.” She concluded her remarks by saying, “We are strong women. We have the capacity to lead.”

Julia Quiñonez, a representative of women workers in Mexico´s maquiladoras and part of the Comité Fronterizo de Obreras, said she was “deeply impressed by the degree of inclusivity. These gatherings have to happen and keep happening.”

Eunice Maria Dias Wolf, secretary of Social Development in the City of Canoas, Brazil, said “in these two days, we exercised a method of refection and exchange of our experiences so we understand better our difficulties.” The next step, she said, is transformation, and Dias Wolf suggested the Solidarity Center follow up with an international training project for women.

In addition, conference attendees raised the issue of the role of men in promoting gender equality.

Nhlanhla Mabizela, Solidarity Center program officer for South Africa, said what he took away from the conference is the “clear roadmap how patriarchy hurts women.” But patriarchy also hurts men. “What is it that we’re doing as men? Are we blind to see that patriarchy also hurts us?” He suggested that men needed to listen to discussions about these issues to facilitate progress. “I think it’s about time that we as men begin to embrace gender equality, particularly in regard to emotional investment. We’re afraid to show that part of us that shows we care.”

Michael Merrill, dean of the Harry van Arsdale Jr. Center for Labor Studies at the State University of New York Empire State College, commented that empowering women is a way to transform the labor movement. “I believe labor needs to be transformed and women are key to that.  When only men are involved in the labor movement, “we’re working with one hand behind our back,” he said. “We’re half as strong as we could be.” With women as partners in the struggle for worker rights, “we’ll be twice as strong.” Regarding the prevalence of violence against women, a topic which emerged in conference discussions, he reminded participants of the familiar phrase, “an injury to one is an injury to all.”

Bader-Blau concluded by challenging participants to maintain and realize a vision for a better society and a better world.

“The global labor economy is designed by power elites, designed to keep us down. The labor movement fights that. What I heard these last two days is that everyone is fighting.”