Teamsters Women’s Conference: a first-hand account of unionists on the move

Some members of the Local 763 contingent pose together at the end of the closing session. PHOTO: Maria Rojas
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“Deep-Rooted Sisterhood.” This theme captured the spirit of the annual International Brotherhood of Teamsters Women’s Conference.

Held September 18–21, in Seattle, birthplace of Amazon and United Parcel Service, it drew more than 1,200 attendees — including huge numbers of UPS workers, Black women, immigrants, and other women of color.

Less than one year after the insurgent O’Brien-Zuckerman slate defeated a Hoffa-endorsed candidate, their leadership was visible and refreshing as they rallied members for huge battles to come.

How much they will walk their talk remains to be seen. But clearly, members expect real change and high hopes are being fueled by labor’s recent upsurge as seen in fights such as at Starbucks.

Workshops and plenaries covered a variety of topics, from assertiveness-skills training to contract negotiations and a first-time workshop on domestic violence. The closing session highlighted women organizing in a cross-section of workplaces, from the cannabis industry to public education. Informal activities included a meet-up for reproductive rights, parties, and the tradition of mixing it up by trading colorful union pins of different locals.

It was inspiring to meet so many women determined to strengthen labor, and who recognize that tackling issues of gender and race are central to that equation. I attended with members of my Teamsters Local 763, including Christina López and Su Docekal who are also my sisters in Radical Women.

Preparing for battle. The opening session featured General President Sean O’Brien pledging to lead a militant fight, and if necessary a strike, in the 2023 UPS contract negotiations. It’s the largest private contract in North America, covering 360,000 workers. Key issues include ending two-tier wages, subcontracting, excessive overtime, driver surveillance, and winning higher pay and more full-time positions.

The workshop on “UPS 2023 Negotiations” was packed. Attendees pointedly challenged the downplaying of gender-specific grievances in some locals. Fifteen people raised their hands when asked who had experienced discrimination around maternity issues. One mom shared how UPS had cancelled her health insurance during maternity leave. When her baby got sick she accrued $400,000 in medical debt — and her grievance is languishing! Teamster leaders promised to take up these issues generally, and hers specifically.

Another campaign is organizing Amazon warehouse and delivery employees. Two weeks before the conference the IBT launched a new Amazon Division. Attendees highlighted this initiative with a lively march on Amazon Headquarters, calling out its abusive and union-busting practices.

A session on “Building Amazon Worker Power” dived into strategies. In discussion, Amazon workers from a huge warehouse in Alberta, Canada, told how they have developed a strong core despite high turnover. They know the issues and are effectively organizing from within.

Tackling reproductive justice and racism. Teamsters still have  no position on abortion and this is unacceptable. Knowing many Teamsters women would agree and want to do something, our team of three had made “Teamsters for Reproductive Justice” buttons, which were a hit. At least half the attendees sported the buttons and it created a buzz that the international leadership took note of.

We also initiated an informal “Meetup for Reproductive Justice” so that folks could share ideas on how to mobilize our unions and the broader labor movement. Thirty people participated in rich discussion that included exploring the connection between unions standing up for reproductive rights and against racism. The meetup group agreed to continue collaborating, and with the help of the National Mobilization for Reproductive Justice, a labor-community coalition, a Zoom multi-union work group now exists. To get involved, email RW.us@radicalwomen.org.

Surprisingly, the conference didn’t have any sessions to explicitly address racism — but folks raised it from the floor, like at the “Teamster Women Rising” panel Su Docekal attended. Participants were frank and fed-up with the racism and sexism they confront on the job and, too frequently, from entrenched union leaders. Often the correcting ingredient of democracy is also lacking. But as one speaker wisely counseled: build a strong base to get things changed.

The power of everyday organizers. The importance of solidarity was emphasized at an inspiring session attended by Christina López, entitled “Deep Roots of Sisterhood: We are the Soul that Binds.” Discussion revealed how much working women share in common, from dealing with family and job pressures to battling discrimination. López said the multiracial group talked about how draining it can be to juggle so many challenges. “But then we looked at where we find our energy — and it was from each other!”

I saw tenacity, flexibility, grit, determination, and sheer joy from women who are proud of standing up for themselves and their union siblings. Amplifying the voices and power of these rank-and-file leaders is the hope and future of Teamsters and the labor movement.

Radical Women National Offices — United States: 206-722-6057; RW.us@radicalwomen.org. Australia: 03-9388-0062; RW.aus@radicalwomen.org. Website: radicalwomen.org.

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