USW’s ‘Women of Steel’ share hopes, struggles

By Jim McKay, Post-Gazette, Tuesday 8 February 2000

They call themselves, Women of Steel, even though many work in universities, hospitals, government, hotels, banks and nursing homes—as well as foundries and steel mills.

About 775 of them—all members of the United Steelworkers of America—are in Pittsburgh this week to participate in the union’s first international women’s conference at The Westin William Penn, Downtown.

The conference is a recognition of the changing demographics of the workplace and the growing importance of women to the union movement and to the USW, which was founded here in 1936 by men unaccustomed to seeing women on the shop floor.

Sharon Stiller, an assistant to USW President George Becker on women’s issues, said the four-day conference ending tomorrow is an opportunity for women in the union to network, share stories of their struggles and learn how to become active in an organization that can be intimidating:

We’re not trying to change the structure. We just need it to become a little bit more user-friendly.

Women, particularly minority women, are more receptive than men to unions and collective bargaining, according to polls conducted for the AFL-CIO, the umbrella organization for 78 national unions.

Yet union representation is higher among men. An estimated 16.1 percent of working men belonged to labor unions last year, compared with 11.4 percent of women. Overall, unions represent 13.9 percent of the work force.

The gap between the number of women who may believe in unions but don’t belong to them represents an opportunity for a labor movement whose future relies on organizing new members. That means paying attention to issues important to working women, including equal pay for equal work and affordable quality child care.

If you’re going to be organizing, you’re going to be organizing women, Elaine Bernard, director of Harvard University’s trade union program, told the conference yesterday.

Bernard, a high school dropout who worked as a machinist before returning to school and a career as an academic, defended unions as effective tools toward ending wage, sex and racial discrimination.

She called the conference a milestone in the evolution of the steelworkers and said women must be more aggressive in seeking positions of influence in the union. And once they get there, she said, they should hold open the doors for others.

Barriers ought to be demolished, not hurdled, Bernard said.

USW Secretary-Treasurer Leo Gerard said women make up a significant portion of the work force at companies and institutions the union has recently tried to organize.

The conference is one of several ways the union is trying to create opportunities for involvement outside traditional local union politics, he added, citing a shop-floor communication program called rapid response, leadership development training, scholarships and intern programs.

If we don’t make room for women, give them an opportunity to grow and participate, they won’t join, and why should they? Gerard said in a hallway interview after speaking.

Gloria Bingle, a 33-year veteran of USX Corp.’s Irvin Works in West Mifflin, said she was too intimidated when first hired to speak up in a union hall dominated by men who sometimes congregated around a keg of beer.

A course entitled Women of Steel changed that by giving her tips on parliamentary procedure and public speaking.

Now, Bingle said, women have risen to where they can peek at leadership through a crack in the door.

I think it’s time to kick the door open, she said to resounding applause.