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AFSCME Women Take Charge

Through leadership programs - and this year's women's conferences - the national union is equipping women with the tools and knowledge they'll need to make a difference in our union, the labor movement and our nation.

By Jon Melegrito

Women comprise 56 percent of AFSCME's 1.6 million members. Their activism and leadership have been critical to our union's strength and success. Through leadership programs - and this year's women's conferences - the national union is equipping women with the tools and knowledge they'll need to make a difference in our union, the labor movement and our nation. Here are the stories of five activists who are doing their part to build AFSCME's power and confront the challenges ahead.

By Jon Melegrito

GIVING BACK

A member of Local 2208 (New Jersey Council 73) and a therapy assistant at the Trenton Psychiatric Hospital, Angel McRae is worried about her 10-year-old daughter Ashley's future. She is outraged that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) is axing funds for social services, public schools, public health facilities and libraries, while cutting taxes for millionaires. A single parent in her mid-30s, McRae is also concerned that people who are adversely affected aren't standing up to fight.

Last summer, McRae decided to change that. She posted messages on Facebook and Twitter, and phoned and e-mailed her co-workers, urging them to join a rally in downtown Trenton. Her efforts paid off. Thousands of AFSCME members and their families showed up at the Citizens Rally - the largest protest ever held outside the State House. Noted one Trenton columnist: "Christie's cuts are radicalizing a whole generation."

McRae is proud of what she did to make the rally a success. "I brought my daughter along because I want her to know that we need to stand up and fight when our jobs are on the line, when our rights are being trashed," she says.

The sense of urgency - in getting young people politically involved - is what's keeping McRae busy nowadays. "We need to ignite the youth vote once again, like we did in 2008," she says. "If we don't, then the Christies of this world will guarantee a bleak future for our kids."

To this end, she's intensely focused on mobilizing "Gen X" workers - the term AFSCME leaders in New Jersey use to describe the Next Wave of men and women, 35 and younger. Hundreds of these youthful activists met two years ago in Chicago, determined to build a new generation of leaders who can take the reins in the years ahead. They are all part of the union's Next Wave. To learn more, go to afscme.org/nextwave.

In preparing for their third Gen X Convention last November, she drew on her experiences working with Next Wave activists from all over the country. "We need to explore a variety of activities to get young workers interested," she says. "There has to be a good mix of serious and funny stuff to get them animated." To make the convention engaging and entertaining, McRae came up with comic skits and vignettes. "They loved it," she says. "We all learned something and had a good laugh at the same time."

'They Keep Me Young'

Coral Dayon is one of those who is impressed with McRae's tireless energy and dynamic leadership. The Local 2208 president and senior therapist program assistant works with McRae. "I saw Angel's great potential for becoming an excellent leader by watching her encourage her co-workers to be involved," Dayon recalls. "She exudes so much enthusiasm that it's infectious. She's very passionate about what she believes in."

Council 1 Exec. Dir. Sherryl Gordon, also an International vice president, agrees. She appointed McRae chairperson of AFSCME's New Jersey Nurses Council last year. "She's got the right people skills which makes her a good listener and an effective facilitator," Gordon says. "Given the issues they have to deal with, like staff shortages and quality health care, we're proud to have a leader like Angel."

Dayon, 52, also a single parent and mother of two teenagers and three young adults, treats McRae like family. "I assign her lead roles in committees because she is completely dependable," Dayon notes. "And she does it cheerfully - not out of self-interest but for the well-being of others."

McRae and Dayon have their work cut out for them. The results of last year's mid-term elections don't bode well for working women and their families. "This means we'll only fight harder," McRae lightens up, recalling the words of labor organizer Joe Hill: "Don't mourn, organize!"

IN MY CO-WORKERS' SHOES

Blanca Quintero, a 43-year-old home care provider, says that the opportunity to work for women through her union has been "a great blessing."

A member of United Domestic Workers (UDW/AFSCME) for seven years, Quintero is one of approximately 1.7 million independent providers nationwide - mostly women - who are employed directly by the "consumers" of their services. These are the elderly and disabled who live in their own homes, or sometimes, the homes of the providers themselves.

In her role as member organizer, Quintero reaches out to other providers, "who feel vulnerable and defenseless. They come from different countries, and cultures and language barriers often keep them from getting the help they need."

And she identifies with many of them because their situation is similar to hers.

When Quintero's 18-month-old daughter, Lislany, died of Cerebral Palsy 25 years ago, she struggled with "the most wrenching pain in my soul." Two years later, she gave birth to daughter, Lizeth, who also has special needs.

"Lizeth needed me to take care of her," says Quintero. "She's 23 now but she still functions like a six-year-old." Quintero, and her husband, Roberto, have two other children: Edgar, 27, and Lesly, 17.

But rather than curse her fate, Quintero considers herself fortunate. "What made me who I am is the fact that I have been the mother of a child with special needs, twice. The experience of living in fear for both of my daughters has made me value life even more - as a human being and as a woman. For children with disabilities, I have learned that I am the arm, the ears and the voice they do not have."

With this insight, three years ago Quintero founded "Grupo Mariposa," (Butterfly Group), a support organization for Latino parents of children with special needs. Drawing on her union's resources, she organized house meetings and workshops in Spanish to help them become better providers and active members of the union. Last summer, she led a busload of families and friends to Los Angeles to protest state budget cuts to In-Home Supportive Services (IHSS). They were outraged that the state would reduce wages for workers like them who care for the elderly and the disabled.

"Coming together to share our pain and join hands to fight injustice made us all realize how important a union is," Quintero says. "I've learned what it's like to be in my co-workers' shoes. They have told me that I had something to do with their getting involved, that they also feel rewarded for giving back because of the security and support the union provides."

"Blanca has done a tremendous job as chair of the Riverside Chapter to mobilize and get home care providers active," says UDW Exec. Dir. Doug Moore, who is also an International vice president. "Her demonstrated leadership and activism have inspired many of her co-workers to step up and be involved."

Quintero points to the union's training tools, including the conferences and street actions, as indispensable to her development as member organizer, chapter chair and executive board member of UDW's State Board.

"Many of us are natural leaders but aren't able to develop to our full potential," she asserts. "This is especially true among women who come from cultures where they are discouraged from seeing themselves as leaders. AFSCME has given us valuable opportunities to learn from one another, to change, to grow and value ourselves for who we really are."

"Coming together to share our pain and join hands to fight injustice made us all realize how important a union is."

Blanca Quintero

WE ARE SCRAPPERS BY NATURE

When AFSCME member Phyllis Thede made history by becoming the first African-American candidate from her district to win a seat in the Iowa Legislature, the media likened her to Barack Obama - the nation's first African-American President.

"I wasn't really thinking about that," says the 55-year-old secretary of Davenport's North High School, who has served as Local 751 (Council 61) president, contract negotiator and grievance chair. "All I wanted was to win the race for my constituents. It's clear that we're crossing party and color lines."

She also wants elected officials to do something substantive for the people of Iowa. "That's what prompted me to run," she recalls. "As a member of our school district's negotiation team for several years, I got frustrated waiting for change. That was the start for me. I knew I had to get more politically involved."

In the 2008 election which swept Obama to the White House, Democrat Thede unseated Republican Jamie Van Fossen, a 14-year incumbent, with 56 percent of the vote. Her narrow defeat in a state Senate race two years earlier only spurred her to try again.

Thede, mother of three daughters and wife of a school teacher, wants to see more women in public office because they have a firm grasp of the issues. "We live our lives as daughters, sisters, mothers, wives, workers," she asserts. "We understand what it takes to run a household, a farm, a classroom. We've done it all. Plus, we're a natural for the political arena because we are scrappers by nature."

Thede's mom, who died two years ago at 87, was that sort of woman. "She was a housekeeper but never afraid to speak her mind," Thede says proudly. "She was tenacious, bluntly honest and a woman who was ahead of her time."

"Women need to be involved to help shape their future," she says. "I want to make sure our senior citizens are provided for. Living on a fixed income is difficult enough. I want to help pass bills on fair share, prevailing wage and choice of doctors. We'll probably not get all of this done, but we need to keep trying."

Outside the Box

Last November, she campaigned for Sheri Carnahan - an AFSCME sister and a recently retired member of Local 3011 - who ran unsuccessfully for a seat in the Iowa Legislature but vows to run again. "Sheri got me started in the union 10 years ago," Thede says. "I know a lot about her personal and professional experiences as a community activist, political organizer and someone who worked for 31 years helping unemployed Iowans retrain for new jobs and start their lives all over again."

Carnahan's activism was sparked seven years ago when her husband Tom was mugged in front of their Davenport home. Instead of moving, they decided to stay and fight. "We worked with law enforcement, the city council and various community organizations to start a Neighborhood Watch," recalls Carnahan. "I saw first hand the process involved in making our communities stronger and safer."

Married for 12 years, the Carnahans have created a blended family of four adult children and seven grandchildren. "They are the reasons why I do what I do," she says. "For most of my life, I was more like a worker bee, staying behind the scenes to help get things done or get people elected. Women sometimes underestimate their own power. But we know how to balance budgets and arrange personal lives. We are multi-taskers by nature. We can do it."

Council 61 Pres. Danny Homan, who is also an International vice president, said "Phyllis Thede and Sheri Carnahan are two sisters on a roll. Through their tireless advocacy for change, they strive each day to make life better for Iowa's citizens, their neighbors and their children."

Building Activism

At AFSCME's first Women's Leadership Café - held during the 2010 International Convention and attended by more than 500 women - participants shared ideas on how to engage women members in their local unions and encourage them to take leadership roles. Recommendations include:

  • Establish formal mentoring programs and promote "one-on-one" mentorships that encourage members, notably fellow retirees, to share experiences and provide guidance to younger members.
  • Provide leadership training and promote scholarship opportunities.
  • Reach out to women members and activists by providing a variety of networking opportunities.
  • Share information and encourage activism by giving women specific tasks and responsibilities.
  • Start a program designed to forge partnerships between Next Wavers (young women 35 and under) and their older co-workers.
  • For a summary of the Leadership Café discussions, visit afscme.org/womenleaders.


Women's Conferences

Eastern/Central Region
March 18-20, 2011, Orlando, Fla.

Western Region 
Fall 2011 (Date & Place TBA)

For more information, call 202-429-1250, 
E-mail education@afscme.org, or visit afscme.org/women.

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