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One On One: A Conversation with Walthene Primus

Chairwoman of AFSCME's National Women's Advisory Committee and President of New York City Housing Employees Clerical Local 957 (DC 37), Walthene Primus talks about being fearless and fighting for women’s rights

Chairwoman of AFSCME's National Women's Advisory Committee and President of New York City Housing Employees Clerical Local 957 (DC 37), Walthene Primus talks about being fearless and fighting for women’s rights

Walthene Primus
Walthene Primus (Photo by Luis Gomez)

As the president of her local and a member of DC 37's executive board, Walthene Primus has been a tireless champion of workers’ rights. As evidence, her union is now winning 90 percent of its grievance cases. “We’ve saved members’ jobs and won them thousands of dollars in back pay,” she says.

As the recently appointed chairwoman of AFSCME’s Women’s Advisory Committee, Primus has now become a strong advocate for the rights of female workers. She is committed to ensuring that all women not only get respect on the job, but are also trained to become leaders.

The advisory committee, established in 1978, works to promote women leaders within the union through training programs, conferences and networks at the local, regional and national levels.

Primus became involved with the union as an employee of New York City’s Housing Authority. She rose quickly through the ranks, first as a shop steward, then head shop steward, secretary, grievance representative and, in 1999, president. Now in her fifth presidential term, Primus devotes herself to ensuring that her members are respected on the job, have good working conditions, and receive opportunities for promotion.

AFSCME WORKS asked Primus to comment on some of the key issues affecting AFSCME members today.

How can AFSCME women help to develop the next group of female leaders and activists?

AFSCME women have always been fearless leaders in all the struggles we’ve been through. They’ll continue to lead in the upcoming battles. That’s why we’re invested in encouraging and honing their leadership skills and providing the resources they need through our education and training programs and annual conference. AFSCME also has a wonderful mentorship program for those who want guidance.

What practical advice do you have for women who want to assume leadership roles with AFSCME?

Take advantage of every opportunity to network with other members. If you are young, reach out to retirees for their wisdom, counsel and experience. Take advantage of scholarships and training programs, and attend conferences.

How have this year’s unprecedented attacks against working families affected women, in particular?

It’s put programs such as Head Start, child care, family planning, low-income housing and women’s health services at greater risk of being cut by lawmakers. Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security are at greater risk as well. These are programs that women depend on because we are, on average, poorer, live longer and have more health care needs than men. If these programs are cut, women will be hit the hardest. Sisters, we need to get involved and speak out against these attacks. Write or speak to your representatives. Don’t vote for politicians who don’t have our interests at heart. Let’s fight back on all fronts.

The Affordable Care Act, the new health reform law, is under attack in some states and in the courts. What are your concerns if opponents of this law succeed?

Women have a lot at stake in making sure that health reform stays on track. For example, under the new law, health insurers can no longer charge women higher premiums than they charge men of the same age. Also, the prohibition against health insurance companies denying coverage for so-called “pre-existing conditions” will greatly benefit women. Women will also benefit from the expansion of Medicaid eligibility and subsidies to help pay for insurance even more than men, because women are poorer than men on average. We can’t let the opponents of this law succeed in setting us back.

What inspired you to play an active role in AFSCME and in the labor movement?

It began when I realized that $19.50 in union dues was deducted from my first paycheck. It was not that I had a problem with paying dues; I just needed to know what it was for. That inspired me to learn about the benefits of the union. I became a shop steward. I continued on from that.