03/08/2017

Women Workers Rising swells support for women's rights

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The AFT helped rally thousands for Women Workers Rising on March 8, an event held on International Women's Day and the Day Without a Woman general strike.

Some women refused to work, and some school districts closed to accommodate the absence of teachers, whose participation highlighted their value by showing the world what it would be like to operate without them. At the same time, AFT members and leaders rallied and mobilized in multiple locations nationwide to celebrate women's work and women's worth.

Weingarten speaking at the rally"When millions of us stood together in January, we saw clearly that our army of love outnumbers those who push fear, greed and hatred," said AFT President Randi Weingarten. "Let's raise our voices together again, to say that women's rights are human rights, regardless of a woman's race, ethnicity, religion, immigration status, sexual identity, gender expression, economic status, age or disability." (Read her prepared remarks.)

At the Women Workers Rising rally at the Department of Labor in Washington, D.C., Weingarten shared the stage with other speakers and performers. These included playwright Eve Ensler, whose play "The Vagina Monologues" has become a cultural touchstone; members of Congress Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), who is the first Indian-American woman to be elected to Congress, Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) and Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio); and activist leaders from the National Domestic Workers Alliance, Good Jobs Nation, Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, United Students Against Sweatshops and others. Sophia Urista offered full-throated blues and led the crowd in singing with her; Keri Gray celebrated her blackness, her femaleness and her disability.

A set of monologues representing historic figures in women's labor brought the history of women workers to life. "I can work as hard as any man," recited one speaker, the quote from Sojourner Truth resounding through the crowd. "Ain't I a woman?" Others described the Triangle shirtwaist factory fire, the struggles of millworkers and migrant workers, and the triumphs of heroines like Mother Jones and Fannie Lou Hamer. Other women described their own experiences with sexual harassment as they worked for tips in restaurants, with supervisors who required they raise their hemlines and lower necklines, and fired them for refusing to perform sexual favors.

Rally signFor many women workers, harassment and workplace violence are just part of making a living, and they can't speak out or seek justice for fear of losing their jobs. But there is power in resistance and persistence, Weingarten told the crowd. "The power of collective action is real," she said. "The power of collective action is the core of the labor movement. … We will not let injustice, inequality and discrimination hold us back."

Beyond D.C., other events were held across the country. The Chicago Teachers Union rallied hundreds of members, families and allies, in a celebration of Chicago's all-inclusive women's movement that featured speakers and music. Members of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers gathered before school to demand a fair contract for their majority-female teachers' union. The Professional Staff Congress at the City University of New York drew hundreds of people to a Wednesday evening rally. And Rutgers AAUP-AFT hung International Women's Day posters, supported a graduate student-led walkout and teach-in, and urged members to take account of gender and racial divisions in their departments and work with the union to change it.

Women have made some great strides toward equity, but still earn just 79 cents to every dollar men earn. They are disproportionally represented in low-income, low-esteem jobs. Unions are longtime champions of women's rights, and as a result, women in unions earn 30.9 percent more per week than women in nonunion jobs, Weingarten said. The AFT is home to thousands of women workers: 75 percent of teachers and more than 90 percent of nurses in the United States are women, and women are well-represented among the AFT's school staff, higher education faculty, other healthcare workers and public employees.

[Virginia Myers]