By SHERRY HALBROOK
PEF members who attended a day of international events in New York City March 14 had a rare and illuminating glimpse of what women around the world have in common as they strive for equality, and how important public services are to them. SEE VIDEO
Titled “Gender Responsive Public Services – The Strategic Role of Frontline Public Service Workers,” the day of interactions among women union activists from many countries was sponsored by Public Services International, a global union federation representing 20 million working women and men who deliver vital public services in 163 countries. PSI champions human rights, advocates for social justice and promotes universal access to quality public services. PSI works with the United Nations system and in partnership with labor, civil society and other organizations. The events were part of the 63rd meeting of the UN Commission on the Status of Women.
The UN’s theme for March 8, International Women’s Day, “Think Equal, Build Smart, Innovate for Change,” is meant to put innovation by women and girls, at the heart of efforts to achieve gender equality. Learn more online here: unheardwomen.org.
“Achieving a gender-equal world requires social innovations that work for both women and men and leave no one behind. From urban planning that focuses on community safety to e-learning platforms that take classrooms to women and girls, affordable and quality child care centers, and technology shaped by women, innovation can take the race for gender equality to its finishing line by 2030,” is the UN’s international goal.
The day’s events began with a reception, continued with workshops and speakers, and concluded with a rally at a nearby park. Included among the featured speakers were American Federation of Teachers Vice President Jan Hochadel and AFT staff member Chris Runge, who has worked intensively with PEF on its member engagement efforts.
“It was amazing to see women come together from all over the world,” said PEF Secretary-Treasurer Kay Alison Wilkie. Meeting the women and hearing about their experiences and challenges directly from them was very powerful, she said.
Wilkie said she was particularly struck, for instance, by the account from Brazilian women of a woman activist there who was murdered on her way home from a union workshop.
“They showed a video about a workers’ strike by women in Glasgow, Scotland that was incredibly powerful,” Wilkie said. “These women had suffered so long and they were finally fighting back for their fair share. Their strike unified Glasgow.”
These stories made her realize, Wilkie said, “how important it is for us to succeed to set a standard that will help women and workers in third world countries. If we don’t set a baseline of rights, they have no chance to end wage inequality and limited economic opportunity. Good government jobs are very important to the world economy. We set the floor for the rest of the world.”
PEF Region 11 Coordinator Bernadette O’Connor said, “It was quite an experience to hear from women leaders from all over the world. What really touched me were the personal stories of what women face on their jobs. It is a common struggle of women in workplaces worldwide against discrimination, sexual harassment, abuse and exploitation.”
O’Connor said she was inspired to join with this diverse group at the rally calling for women and activists throughout the world to rise up, demand equal rights and respect, and form powerful bonds of solidarity.
“Our message was, ‘Be respected and be respectful!’
PEF Trustee Jeanette Santos said that hearing from such a diverse group, she was struck by the many subtle abuses workers, especially women, may experience.
“The various forms of abuses within the labor workforce are not always detectable,” Santos said. “However, it is those instances where it’s so covert and camouflaged, they go undetected and unaddressed. During this ‘Me Too’ movement, it is imperative for women to unite and voice these concerns and issues.”
For PEF Executive Board member Scarlett Ahmed, council leader of PEF Division 245 at the state Labor Department, the morning reception made a strong impression as she met with and heard from women activists from many continents and countries.
“I realized that all over the world there’s an attack on public services that affects women, both because they rely on public services and because they are often the ones with the job of providing public services,” Ahmed said. “It was refreshing to hear such honest discussion and people facing reality. We heard from other union activists like us. In America we have an image of labor activists as working-class men, but now I see it’s often the women who are on the front lines, and we should support them.”
Ahmed said she enjoyed speaking at lunch with women from a Workers Center in the United Kingdom about the strong fight women in Glasgow, Scotland put up for fair pay.
“They didn’t stop at just demanding fair new pay rates. They demanded fair back pay,” Ahmed said.
She recalled hearing women from Brazil talk about recent government actions there that seem to deliberately disadvantage LGBTQ citizens and women.
Ahmed said she found it both “meaningful and frustrating” to hear about so many courageous struggles. “It touched me, but it also enraged me because I felt helpless to change it. I realize it is fascism that’s rising everywhere. It is very apparent.”
As she heard about workplace safety and health issues that unions and women are facing in many countries, Ahmed said she thought of the coming March 25 anniversary of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in Manhattan that took the lives of 145 workers, nearly all young women and girls who were locked in and could not escape.
“So much of the clothing we buy and wear now comes from Asian countries, where they continue to have similar tragedies,” Ahmed said. “America has just outsourced the problem. I think we dehumanize people because they are undocumented or from other places and cultures, so their suffering doesn’t matter as much to us.
“The work for all of us should be solidarity.”