“The First Woman To Do This and the First Woman To Do That”
[Interview with a Local Union President]
Although they are 42% of union members in the United States, women are under-represented as union officials. Labor Notes asked a 30-year activist in the United Auto Workers about particular problems women face when they take leadership roles. Wendy Thompson is president of UAW Local 235 in Detroit. Her plant, known as “the Gear,” produces axles and other parts for GM.
I interviewed Wendy in her office the day after she was re-elected for a second term and the day before she was scheduled to leave for the UAW Convention. We were constantly interrupted. There were the fun interruptions, with hugging and handshakes and all-round congratulations.
And then there were the unpleasant interruptions from a few extremely loud and disruptive members. Most of this opposition came from women who had been on the executive board. As the interview unraveled, I realized that I would be taking away a slightly more complex image of women in union leadership in the UAW.
FC When did you start working as an auto worker and were you among the first women to be hired?
WT I was hired in 1972. The first women started working there in 1970, so I was probably within the first 50 women.
FC Was there a policy against having female auto workers before 1970?
WT It depended on the plants. Some plants were considered to have women’s work, like Turnstead (southwest Detroit). They sewed seat cushions. But in a lot of plants, especially GM plants, they did not have women at all.
FC How difficult was it to get hired into an auto plant?
WT I was not very successful at first, there were a number of locations that said, “sorry, no ladies jobs”. When I filed an application at the Gear the fact that I was a woman was why I got it, I think. GM needed to hire women, because they wanted to avoid a discrimination suit. I think there was a directive from above to hire women and then they had to place them on jobs that they felt they could physically do.
FC Has the percentage of women working in the plants changed over the years?
WT The entire time that I worked here, up until GM sold the plant to American Axle Manufacturing in 1994, the percentage of women remained at only 10%. And then in 1994 American Axle increased it to 20%. They tend to be considered progressive on that question. There are other auto plants that have larger percentages of women, but this plant is known to have heavy dirty work.
FC What was it like being a woman in the plant at that time?
WT The first day that I came into the plant and the four of us walked down the line,there was a big cheer that came up from the male workers. We thought it was very weird, like they had been on a desert island for ten years and hadn’t seen a woman in all that time. That was nice, but as more women came in there was tension that developed with men who felt that the women were taking the better jobs. And there was a reality to that. The work here is very heavy and difficult, so they were looking specifically for lighter jobs to place women on. Men would just come up and say to you that you shouldn’t be working there. Sexual harassment was a real issue.
FC Did you expect that it would be difficult as a woman in the union movement given your minority status?
WT It was nice to be part of a whole grouping of women going in during the early 70s. We owed our jobs to the women’s movement. Within the UAW that started a whole movement of women’s committees in local unions and also women’s councils on the regional level. Local 235 did make an attempt to get women involved in the union. Very shortly after women started working in my plant they organized a women’s committee meeting. This was funny because it was headed by a man. However, when women got laid off in 1975 due to a big downturn in production, we really started getting active. First we were active in a laid-off workers committee and later, in 1980, we organized a women’s committee which had a very healthy active membership participation and life to it.
FC How successful was this women’s committee?
WT Very successful. It had a great deal of legitimacy. It really helped to encourage men to see that when women become active in the union, the union is strengthened for everyone. It set the example of how rank-and-file members can become active in the union. There were two of us in the committee who became elected in key positions and who were playing a leadership role. It was very easy to assert myself as a leader because there seemed to be a void for aggressive leadership interested in democracy. I had an interest and knowledge and encouraged members to take action against the company.
You should know that the women’s committee is an open committee. Any woman from the workforce can be an active member. The current women’s committee (the previous women’s committee functioned between 1980-86) is the only standing committee that is open to the whole workforce and has a high level of activism. The more people involved, the better it is. We are working to create an ad-hoc committee on health and safety which will also be open to all members.
FC What are some examples of things the women’s committee has achieved?
WT We had restrooms that were unsanitary. The women’s committee met with the shop committee members and management about this situation, and extra janitors were assigned. Not only did this create some new jobs, but they also started cleaning the men’s restrooms. So, our action benefited the whole workforce.
There were also tensions around dress issues. The safety rules for dress were implemented in an unequal fashion. Men were allowed to wear tank-tops, but not women. Management claimed that they weren’t safe without sleeves. However, they only enforced this rule with women. Also, supervisors were using safety rules to say that they did not think that certain clothing for women was “appropriate” by some standards. That problem was corrected by intervention of the women’s committee.
We did a survey on childcare. Previously it had been negotiated that there would be an on-site childcare center. However, management decided not to live up to what they negotiated, and then in the next round of negotiations it was dropped from the contract altogether. There wasn’t a functioning women’s committee at the time, and ironically the union’s representatives on the childcare committee were all men. When we reorganized the women’s committee in 1999 we conducted a survey on childcare, and determined that there was a need for an on-site childcare center. We have also visited other childcare centers that were negotiated for other UAW locals and reported back with our findings. The women’s committee is requesting a meeting with the shop committee on the results of our survey and visits and our goal is to make an on-site childcare center a key issue in the next round of contract negotiations.
The women’s committee has also organized a workshop on sexual harassment, which was a big issue. We have played a role in cutting down on the amount of sexual harassment in the workplace by increasing knowledge about how to fight back.
FC When and how did you get elected?
WT I was elected district committee person in 1975. In 1980, when a male recording secretary retired, a female was placed there as an appointment. The fact that a women became recording secretary at the same time as I was elected led to the formation of the first women’s committee and helped encourage the participation of women in taking leadership positions in the local. Women have since been able to fill positions that were traditionally male. There is a good percentage of women on the executive board today.
But here’s the thing. On the grievance committee there are three women out of 27. That’s it. Committee person, shop committee - all the people handling grievances are generally still male. Earlier I was able to challenge the structure, but I wasn’t able to get very many other women to follow in my footsteps. It became okay to give women positions in the local that don’t have a lot of power. Grievances are, however, seen as the core function of the union and women are not seen as able for that job.
FC So many top officer positions are now held by women. Now that being a woman union leader is ‘normal’ in your plant, how does that change the terrain, for better or for worse?
WT It is hard to keep the women’s committee going once women become responsible for broader areas of work within the local. When women gain leadership positions there always is that tension there. And then there are more women with mixed union politics at the top level. But it’s still better to have a women’s committee that is open to all women so that new women can come in and you have a potential of new leadership.
What it points to is the need for the women’s committee to grow and recruit. That takes time. We need people who can replace women who go on to elected positions with responsibilities for the whole local. We’ve had difficulty growing in that respect. The women’s committee in our local grew most significantly when there was a strong women’s movement.
FC What this then seems to point to is that without a women’s movement and a good union culture, women aren’t going to be any different from most men in their relation to the union. Do you agree?
WT I would say that people get involved in their union when something happens to them. They have some kind of problem that needs to be dealt with and they go to the union to have the problem solved. Women will want to get involved in a women’s committee if they see the union playing an active role in helping them overcome their problems. The existence of the women’s committee was indeed originally tied to the existence of a women’s movement. I have made an effort as President to reactivate it, and there is now a broad layer of young women in the plant who are showing an interest and are active.
However, what has happened over and over again is that women with good leadership skills and union politics would get sucked into the bureaucracy. The problem now is that these young women, this new generation of potential activists, have an image of the union which only focuses on the appointed jobs. There are 60 appointed union positions or joint positions in our local of 3,000 people. They don’t see the union as a tool to improve people’s lives, but rather as a way to get a job off the line that’s easier.
For example, the woman who became recording secretary - it was very clear that she wanted an appointment with the International from day one. I’m not interested in that, but she didn’t believe that, so she considered me to be competition. She didn’t anyone could not want an appointed job! She could not see how appointed positions and a union controlled by one bureaucratic caucus (known as the “administration caucus” within the International) weakened and corrupted the union. Yet she was genuinely influenced by the women’s movement and did consider herself a feminist. So on that basis it was something where we could work in alliance around certain issues.
But the women’s committee is being maintained because there are women with a genuine interest in the true purposes of the union movement and so not all women are succumbing to the image of the union as only being about appointed positions.
The women’s committee remains crucial in helping rebuild a union the way it should be. We’ve campaigned hard at trying to defeat these careerists in our local elections and we’ve been successful. This sets the tone and example for all members, including women in the women’s committee. So, I am hopeful that there will be more agreement on moving forward in unified fashion. Also, another problem was that there were too few women in the grievance procedure structures. But now a female committee person was just elected in June for the first time in a long time.
FC What are differences between your local and other locals when it comes to women’s issues and women’s leadership/role within the union?
WT The women’s committee in our local stands out. The fact that we’re a majority black local, and also given the role black women play within the community, is reflected in the role women are playing in the local. There is a women’s department at the level of the International, and Region 1 (east of Detroit) also has a women’s council. Both bodies do have a tendency to attract members with careerist aspirations. The UAW work with women was positively impacted in the past by the strong women’s movement, but when the women’s movement died, the UAW women’s work went downhill. Therefore, the regeneration of our women’s committee was not an initiative of the International. On the contrary. The formations within the International have a tremendous potential to change women by encouraging a careerist orientation. Many women get active in the Region 1 women’s council in order to get an appointment. The careerist elements in our local wanted to get active in that council. We blocked them by putting forward our own representative who won.
FC What are your observations on differences in leadership style for men and women?
WT Well, the leadership style of the women careerists has been different than the leadership style of women who are genuinely trying to build the union. They have adopted a bullying style. This tendency is associated with men, but the female careerists have adopted it as part of getting ahead. I have noticed that some men have changed their leadership styles when they see my style of leadership, or that of other women trying to build the union. This is because they are in agreement with our way of doing things. The style I practice involves being a good listener and trying to get people to work together on points of agreement. It’s about having a union of activists. It still is a problem where the careerists are ultimately more active than others as their motivation is personal advancement. The real potential activists are often trying to raise families, go to school, and so they generally find less time.
FC Do you see yourself as an advocate for women?
WT I have put myself forward as an advocate for women but from my position as President of this local I’m also an advocate for all groups. It is not contradictory to be both at the same time. Of course it is a constant source of debate. Various men in the workforce will debate that with me. They say that I’m doing more for women than I am for men. I tell them that I’m trying to get everyone active and the women’s committee is just one area. For instance, I hope everyone will become active in the ad-hoc open committee on health and safety.
FC What do you think is the main lesson concerning “women in union leadership”? What is of interest about your time as a woman in the UAW?
WT I’ve often been in the position of being the first woman to do this and first woman to do that. I have felt I had to do a lot more and be a lot competent and a lot more active to get to the same place as a man. I’ve been frustrated by what I felt was a lack of credibility because I was a woman. But I have been able to overcome that. It has changed people’s attitudes about what women can do. Clearly this has had an impact, as it has opened the door for other women to come forward.
FC Why is the rank-and-file activism of women important for the union as a whole?
WT There are particular problems that face women and if we join together in a women’s committee to fight around those issues then that encourages women to become more involved. But also they can clearly play a leadership role that helps everybody. If the women’s committee fights for an issue in the plant and wins it because they stick together as a group, then that implies that any group of workers that sticks together and fights for an issue can win also. There are a lot of issues in the plant with management as far as working conditions and inhumane treatment and these are issues that the workforce wants the union to deal with. The UAW has de-emphasized the fight for working conditions in favor of the fight for wages and benefits. When I went into the plant in the 70s there was a lot of discontent with the way the union functioned internally. The idea of coming forward and changing becomes important for the entire membership. Like for instance when I came here and they told me group grievances were illegal. This was not true, so I ignored that and instituted it and was successful in getting management to respond.
FC Finally, is there something you did that surprised you, that you never imagined you’d be able to do before?
WT Oh - the whole thing! I never imagined myself to be working in an auto plant. I never thought I’d be able to perform the physical labor I was able to perform. Also, I felt like I learned to write, through writing newsletters for the plant. I was a shy and quiet person. But my feelings about injustice brought me out.
I suppose I didn’t see myself as being able to be successful in winning elected positions, and it taught me that when it comes to beliefs and ideas, people do take them seriously. People do recognize when someone stands up for what they believe in and for what they think is important. People want leaders who are consistent and straight up. It’s encouraging that you can strive to be that way and people will see that as being positive.