UE Members Take a Strong Stand For Unity and Against Discrimination

October 23, 2019

UE convention delegates debated and adopted resolutions on Wednesday morning committing the union to a strong stand against racism, sexism, and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. The resolutions declare that racism “has always been a roadblock to building a strong labor movement,” that “until women have full and equal rights, all workers are held back,” and that “homophobia and transphobia keep us divided and weaken the labor movement.”

Delegates shared many personal stories about how they, their co-workers and their families have been affected by racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia, and stressed the need for unions to stand for equality for everyone.

Battling for Women’s Rights

Speaking on the resolution “The Battle for Equal Women’s Rights,” Becky Fernholz, Local 1161, shared her experience being discriminated against at work when she was pregnant and nursing. She praised her co-workers for standing up for her right not to work with toxic chemicals while pregnant and the local WIC office for putting pressure on her boss to provide her a clean and sanitary place to pump when she returned to work — the boss’s own office! (WIC, which stands for “Women, Infants and Children,” is a Federal nutritional support program for pregnant and nursing mothers and newborns.)

Marie Lausch, Local 222, offered an amendment, which was accepted as friendly by the Resolutions Committee, to return language about timely reporting of workplace injuries that had been moved to the resolution on workplace safety to the women’s rights resolution. She pointed out that the reluctance of school districts to conduct accurate injury reporting for para-educators disproportionately affects women.

Kathleen Coonrod, Local 203, and Dan Leary, Local 222, also offered amendments which were also accepted as friendly by the committee, Coonrod’s to clarify that at least one of the ombuds tasked with carrying out UE’s anti-harassment policy at conventions and regional councils would be a woman and Leary’s to change the title of the resolution. Leary made the case that “should be a battle for equal women’s rights, rather than preserve the inadequate ones they have now.” (The resolution was originally titled “The Battle to Preserve Women’s Rights.”)

Elizabeth Jesdale, Local 255, thanked General President Peter Knowlton for supporting her and other women leaders, and made the observation that for UE members who put in extra work before, during and after convention raising issues of equity for women and other marginalized groups of workers, “our free time is not free. Doing extra work is not equity, and until we can stop doing that extra work we do not have equality.”

Sekia Royall, Local 150, reported that her local would be joining women’s rights march later that the month in Greenville, NC in solidarity with “The Squad,” four Congresswomen who had been singled out for abuse by President Trump and told to “go back to their [expletive] countries” at a rally in Greenville earlier in the summer.

Charlene Winchell, Local 1121, noted that “we’ve experienced an increase in the attack on women since Trump has taken office. This has got to stop.”

Ricky Steele, Local 506, Becky Dawes, Local 893, and Patrice Jacobs, Local 150 also spoke on the resolution.

Fighting Racism and Standing Up for Immigrants

After the women’s rights resolution was adopted unanimously, delegates considered the resolution “Fight Racism,” as well as a resolution on standing up for the rights of immigrants that had been read the previous afternoon but not discussed due to time constraints.

Tim Hunt, Local 150, urged his fellow delegates to “get these words off the paper and put them in our hearts.” Margaret Dabrowski, Local 222, observed that “racism is not something we are born with, it is something we are taught,” and that it can be untaught.

Sharry Niedfeldt, Local 1161, shared that she gets “very distrubed” when her co-workers make anti-immigrant comments in her shop.  “I blame Trump fully for the division,” she said, nothing that all working people have similar goals: “justice, a good job, and to be able to support our families.” Armando Robles, Local 1110, pointed out that anti-immigrant sentiment had “always” been present in the U.S., but after Donald Trump began his campaign, racists “became more aggressive.”

Kelly Robtoy, Local 208, told the convention that a group of white supremacists have moved in to St. Albans, VT, and had approached her 16-year-old son, trying to recruit him. “Thankfully he has the right tools to back them off but not all children do,” she said. She also spoke about how the Border Patrol is harassing legal Mexican migrant farmworkers in Vermont who hold visas. “We need Trump out of office,” she concluded.

Scott Slawson, Local 506, described how some of the racial and gender undertones at the first two days of a recent conference he attended had made him uncomfortable, but that the “great discussion on gender and race” held on the last day was “very liberating.” He said that he learned “a couple of valuable lessons: If you witness it but take no action, you're just as guilty as the people who are doing it,” and “we’re all the same color on the inside, and we have to remember we’re human beings and it's about time we start acting like human beings.”

Dawn Meyer, Local 808, asked her fellow delegates to “keep in mind that yes, Donald Trump is a problem, but he does not stand there alone. We have congresspeople who are just being vicious to other congresspeople, we have legislators that are standing up in support of Donald Trump’s racism and calling it ‘not racism.’ Please remember to get all of them. All of them have got to go.”

Patrice Jacobs, Local 150, reported that “in our community right now, we’re going to start holding meetings where we can start having everyone try to come together and unite as one, because it’s a time for a change, it shouldn’t be this way.”

Antwon Gibson, Local 610, reminded delegates that racism “didn't start with Donald Trump,” and related how after winning his job back someone at his company targeted him with racist graffiti in the bathroom. He also blasted Joe Biden’s role in writing and pushing through the 1994 Crime Bill, which significantly increased the number of people in prison in the U.S. “Because of his legislation, my biological father is still in prison today for a non-violent act,” said Gibson, also noting that “a lot of my friends that I grew up with, their fathers are in the same position” because of the bill’s harsh sentencing provisions. “We need to talk more about prison reform,” Gibson concluded.

Noemi Dickerhoff, Local 1008, related how a company lawyer had mocked her accent while sitting across the table from her during negotiations. When he apologized during a sidebar, she told him “You didn't embarrass me, you embarrassed yourself.”

Angaza Laughinghouse, Local 150, asked his fellow delegates, “How many of you all participate in King Day activities?” and made the point that doing so was a positive step locals could take to fight racism. “We don't have to wait until we see some ugly manifestation; we can be affirmative.” Tony Hall, Local 690, said that “being ‘not racist’ is not enough.”

Joni Anderson, Local 1107, shared that when she attended this year’s May Day rally for immigrant worker rights in her state capitol, she was “very surprised” that there weren’t more people “like herself” there to support their fellow workers. Madison’s new mayor “reminded us that all people, whatever their status, have the right to free speech, to peaceably assemble, and to petition our government for needed change,” Anderson said. “So I think we ought to stand with people on May Day and every day during the year and support people so that we can get the change.”

“We cannot hate one another,” declared Wes Henshaw, Local 123. “We have to start acting as one, and that we’re all important.” He reminded his fellow delegates that “the Ku Klux Klan, they got to hide behind hoods.”

William Young, Local 150 and Victoria Hilton, Local 808, also spoke on the resolution.

Ending Discrimination Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity

Kathleen Coonrod, Local 203, spoke first on the resolution “End Discrimination Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity,” reminding fellow delegates about the importance of using gender-neutral and inclusive language (e.g., adding “and siblings” to the traditional “brothers and sisters,” or replacing “brothers and sisters” with gender-neutral term like “comrades”). “We have some of the most militant, committed, dedicated members, in our local and beyond, who have been trans and non-binary,” said Coonrod, “and it is a very basic sign of respect to include them.”

Victoria Hilton, Local 808, said that “as a union that stands for equality, the union for everyone, we have to march forward and stand in absolute solidarity with our brothers, sisters and siblings in the LGBTQ+ communities,” a community to which her daughter belongs. “We need to make sure we stand for equality for everyone. We cannot allow any one of us as human beings to be marginalized.”

Elizabeth Jesdale, Local 255, recalled the bloody beatings her brother, who is gay, withstood. He went on to get a doctorate, writing a thesis demonstrating that states without hate-crime laws have higher suicide rates. She emphasized the importance of winning legal protections for LGBTQ+ communities — as the resolution notes, “26 states provide no protections for LGBTQ+ workers against workplace discrimination” — because “people are dying without them.”

Ricky Steele, Local 506, announced that he stood “in full support” all three resolutions. “I stand proud to be a member of the UE for their forethought and their advancement in these areas. People, we have to move forward with these resolutions. We can't just sit here and say it, we have to be it. We have to do this in our community and we definitely have to do this in our workplace.” As an “old soldier,” he recognized that he sometimes says things out of “ignorance,” and he urged UE members to be understanding and “make corrections in a positive way” with each other.

Marie McDonald, Local 203, explained “a couple of new terms and concepts” about non-binary people. “Just because we're different doesn't mean that we don't want to be accepted and addressed as who we are.”

“There are men and there are women and there are some people who don't feel that they are either,” McDonald explained. "The term ‘non-binary’ applies to a person who does not identify as either male or female.”

McDonald suggested that at future conventions, pronouns could be printed on name tags to help avoid confusion, and concluded,” I ask that you listen and engage in conversations with us [and] keep an open heart to our differences.”

Jessica Bautista, Local 1004, Charlene Winchell, Local 1121, and Angaza Laughinghouse, Local 150 also spoke on the resolution.

An African-American woman and man dancing, with several white men behind them
UE delegates expressed the spirit of unity through music as well as words — following the unanimous passage of the “Fight Racism” resolution, Local 150 leaders and Fruit of Labor singers Nathanette Mayo and Angaza Laughinghouse got delegates on their feet and singing along to the Fruit of Labor song “When Justice Speaks.”

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