Report from the UAW Women’s Conference 2011

In mid-August, hundreds of UAW women (and a handful of union brothers) gathered at the beautiful The Walter and May Reuther Family Education Center in northern Michigan for the annual Women’s Conference. At the opening night right after we arrived, UAW President Bob King was the keynote speaker. He spoke with passion about the work ahead, to defend working people’s democratic right to organize and demand a fair share of the wealth that they create. He also warned about the specter of progressives sitting out the next election because they are so frustrated and disappointed with President Obama and the nightmare of what could come in his place now that the Tea Party is so strong and the Supreme Court has opened the door to right wing money pouring into campaigns.

 We also heard the next morning from UAW Vice President and Woman’s Program Director Cindy Estrada, who asked the attendees to stay engaged and get active in the 2012 campaign. Those of us who tuned into public radio on our scratchy hotel alarm clock radios heard Estrada the next morning at a press conference denouncing the Michigan Governor who is demanding $206 million from public union members there. 

All of the facilities were built of big red cedar logs, which fits the woodsy grounds and nearby beach setting. The 2011 theme, “Takin’ It to the Streets” was everywhere, from the registration packages emblazoned with the red logo, to the conference t-shirts we were given, to the music that played in the meeting hall at the beginning of every session. Adjoining the large meeting hall was the even bigger cafeteria and dining room. The food at Black Lake is great, especially considering that it is served cafeteria style.

 Unlike past Women’s conferences, when there was free time to visit the beach or stroll the grounds, this year the UAW worked the attendees from morning and to night, except for brief intervals between the afternoon sessions and dinner. There was one full day of “Social Unionism,” which presented an overview of the current political economy; a session on labor history; the immigration reform issue, (which was somewhat controversial, as some attendees clearly felt no sympathy for the students who could benefit from passage of the Dream Act, which was the focus of the immigration session).

 And one evening we heard from a panel of representatives from organizations that are working for social and economic justice in Detroit: a multimedia effort that is training Detroit youth how to shoot and edit video, build web sites, do radio; a Time Banking Community activist; an incredible woman who is a founding member of the Ferndale Health Clinic – a free resource that has been built from a dream that started at a coffee shop just a few years ago. And of course there was also a representative from the growing urban garden movement in Detroit.

 I think just about everyone made at least one trip to Mazey’s that is at the Center. From the outside, it looks like an extremely narrow utility shed. There are no windows, no sign over or on the non-descript door, and unless you are with someone who knows what lies behind that door and down a narrow, descending hall, and down a skinny staircase, you wouldn't even notice it.

 But that would be your loss, because Mazeys is a wonderful, classic bar that has a secret, hide-away feeling. It’s unmarked and undistinguished appearance is the result of Walter Reuther’s opposition to having a bar of any kind (he was a teetotaler) on the center’s grounds. But his trusted aide and UAW Treasurer Ernest Mazey lobbied for just such an establishment at Black Lake. He eventually won, but Walter Reuther insisted that it be nearly invisible.

 Many found the place on Karaoke Night, a Woman’s Conference tradition, and it seemed that everyone took a turn at the mic, including this reporter, who teamed up with a new friend from a big plant near Chicago, to perform “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.”

 And that we did, and everyone came away with a renewed sense of the tough times working people face today and in the near future, yet the speeches and workshops of the conference gave all hope that we can prevail if we stay engaged and get active and spread the word that these are dangerous times.

I would add that there seemed to be a disconnect between the UAW presentations, which were about politics and the economy, and the Women’s Committee members, who seemed to be active in community service and raffles to raise money for community groups. It seems unlikely that many of these women will go home and share the ideas and statistics they gathered at the conference, unless the UAW follows soon with program ideas to engage its locals in grassroots activism.

 Perhaps an easy opening would be a flyer or an organizer visiting locals to share Bob King’s message about the prospect of electing a Tea Party candidate to replace President Obama, followed by an offer to send members out to gather signatures to put Obama on the 2012 ballot. Or in states that have November 2011 elections, why not get members out actively campaigning for progressive candidates in September?

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