OPINION: The Labor Movement is empowering working women

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By SHARI SEMELSBERGER
Secretary-Treasurer
Transportation Trades Department, AFL-CIO

Women’s History Month is a time to reflect on the paths paved by women before us, while also recognizing the barriers that still exist today. This includes gender wage gaps that vary by race and ethnicity, and lack of access to affordable childcare or paid maternity leave for working moms. However, my grandmother, my mother and I are living proof that women do not always have to compromise family life for career life – you can have both if you have a union job.

My life story is a testament to how the Labor Movement empowers working women and why our movement must continue opening doors for women, young workers, immigrants, and all working people who can benefit from a union job. The momentum we are  seeing around the Labor Movement today is a result of people demanding what they deserve. A study by the U.S. Department of the Treasury in 2023  found that unions help to close the wealth inequality gap and grow the American Middle Class.

Unions have been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. I come from a long line of union members. In 1913, my great-grandfather arrived in the United States from Italy and got a job working on the street car tracks in Washington, D.C. as a member of Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 689. Three generations of men in my family worked within D.C’s rail and transit system.

My parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, siblings, aunts, uncles, and cousins have belonged to over a dozen local unions since the early 20th century, including IAM, ATU, IAFF, CWA, various units of the AFL-CIO, OPEIU, Letter Carriers, Operating Engineers, Teamsters, and Yard Masters under SMART-TD.

UNIONS HAVE PROVIDED FOR MY FAMILY
For over a century, unions have provided a life for my family and me. More importantly, unions provided an avenue of independence for my mother and grandmother. At a time when women were constrained through financial and social barriers, the wages and benefits of good union jobs allowed them to support households and raise children by themselves.

My grandmother was a single mother of six, forced to return to work the same year her son was born. As a shop steward, she spent two decades at the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers  (IAM) headquarters.

Back then, life as a career woman wasn’t  as commonplace as it is today. While my father served in the Vietnam War during the Tet Offensive Campaign, my mother Marie started as a temp at the D.C. Labor Council, which turned into a 16-and-a-half year career. She became secretary to the president until moving on to the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) for over 23 years. She finished off her career logging more than 40 years in service to the Labor Movement.

MY FAMILY’S FOOTSTEPS
Following in my family’s footsteps, I began my career at the Transportation Trades Department, AFL-CIO (TTD) in February of 1999 in an entry-level, receptionist position. Two decades later, in November of 2021, we suffered an unexpected and tragic loss when our TTD president, Larry Willis, passed away from injuries sustained in a bicycle accident. Greg Regan, TTD Secretary-Treasurer at the time, was next in line to be president. He asked me to be his partner in leadership, and he must have had to ask me 15 times before I finally said yes – and I am so glad I did.

When considering taking on this Labor leadership job, my priority was my family – first and foremost, I am a mother. I did not want to give up time with my family, or time volunteering at my kids’ schools. But Greg promised me that I did not have to sacrifice any of those things, or give up time with those closest to me. I was elected to the position more than two years ago, and that promise to me has been kept ever since.

UNION WORKERS ARE ESSENTIAL
My entry into Labor leadership coincided with the COVID-19 pandemic, when the shortcomings of management and companies were more exacerbated than ever. Essential workers were deprived of hazard pay, sick leave, and basic safety precautions at a time when the world needed them the most.

Union workers are so essential because they are skilled in their craft, they are dedicated and loyal. When there is no reciprocity from employers– when profits are hoarded at the top– workers are forced to strike. Union-busting tactics, intimidation, and crackdowns on solidarity in the workplace have forced many employees into complacency, but that is changing. Today we have 88 percent of young people in support of unions, and seven in 10 Americans overall.

A UNION CONTRACT IS FOR EVERYONE
A union contract is for everyone – there is no bias. It raises the bar for those included in the contract, but also for everyone in that industry and for workers across the country. It raises the bar for women workers, for immigrant workers, for Black and Brown workers, and for workers whose identities intersect between or beyond those.

The momentum we are seeing around the Labor Movement is a testament to people demanding what they deserve. A study by the U.S. Department of the Treasury in 2023  found that unions help to close the wealth inequality gap and grow the American Middle Class.

I believe that every person should get a chance at fair wages, benefits, and the American dream. After 25 years of serving the transportation Labor Movement and following generations of union membership, I know that belonging to the Labor family is the best way to do that.

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