International Women’s Day: U.S., South African Union Women Share Strategies

Image: James ParksThe problems facing working women extend across national boundaries, and today, International Women’s Day, women organizers on opposite sides of the world shared ideas and inspiration. In a live teleconference, AFL-CIO Secretary Treasurer Liz Shuler and four young women organizers in the United States talked with a roomful of women organizers in Johannesburg, South Africa. Shuler began by saying:

With the global jobs crisis increasing unemployment…young workers, young women workers entering the workforce struggle to find decent work.  Given the challenges facing young women workers around the world, the AFL-CIO, ITUC [International Trade Union Confederation] and [the South African trade union federations] hope to use International Women’s Day as a way to shine a spotlight on the important role unions can play in the lives of young women workers.

Organizers in both countries spoke about rising unemployment and precarious work as key challenges to organizing women workers. Unemployment among women around the world is growing. In a special report, Living With Economic Insecurity: Women in Precarious Work,” the ITUC, found that while the initial impact of the crisis was equally detrimental to men and women, increasing numbers of women are now either losing their jobs or being forced into temporary and informal forms of work. To read the full report, click here.intl_womens_day_wp

During the teleconference, Jacquelyn Jones, an AFSCME organizer in Baltimore, said unions can play a major role in helping women find good jobs. But many young people don’t know about unions and it is important to educate them.

Although the workers in both countries face similar problems of discrimination, low pay and balancing work with family, the South African workers said they have a particular problem with sexual harassment. In many industries, such as textiles, women have to perform sexual favors often to get a job and get promotions.

The South African women included members from three union federations: Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), Federation of Unions of South Africa (FEDUSA), and the National Council of Trade Unions (NACTU).

The South African women described how their labor laws protect their freedom to join a union on paper, employers often ignore the rules in practice. They fire workers who join unions.

Women in both countries said the teleconference energized and inspired them. Alista Hubbard and Karin Firoza, both AFSCME organizers, described how organizing has changed their lives. Nafisah Ula, a researcher in the AFL-CIO’s Center for Strategic Research, said her organizing experience showed her how much power working people can have when they come together.

Participants said they will continue to work to create change, despite the challenges. As Gertrude Mtsweni, COSATU’s gender coordinator, said:

Touch a woman, you touch a rock. If one woman gets weak, one comes to lift her up. Together we came and together we can do more.

Shuler added:

Though we are far apart in distance, we are together in courage.

This blog was originally posted on on March 8, 2011. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: James Park’s first encounter with unions was at Gannett’s newspaper in Cincinnati when his colleagues in the newsroom tried to organize a unit of The Newspaper Guild. He saw firsthand how companies pull out all the stops to prevent workers from forming a union. He is a journalist by trade, and has worked for newspapers in five different states before joining the AFL-CIO staff in 1990. He also has been a seminary student, drug counselor, community organizer, event planner, adjunct college professor and county bureaucrat. His proudest career moment, though, was when he served, along with other union members and staff, as an official observer for South Africa’s first multiracial elections.

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Madeline Messa

Madeline Messa is a 3L at Syracuse University College of Law. She graduated from Penn State with a degree in journalism. With her legal research and writing for Workplace Fairness, she strives to equip people with the information they need to be their own best advocate.