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Stories from the Women Workers Who Make Our Country Great

Stories from the Women Workers Who Make Our Country Great

More than 250 women workers and labor participants are coming to Washington, D.C., this weekend to share their stories at the White House Summit on Working Families. 

Women are coming together and improving their workplaces by fighting for policies that include everything from raising the tipped and minimum wage, making equal pay for equal work a reality, demanding more consistent and adequate hours in retail scheduling to making sure everyone has access to affordable child care and can receive basic workplace accommodations during pregnancy. These women workers know collective bargaining and collective action are important for achieving workplace policies that work for women and families. 

Check out some of these women's stories below and follow the hashtag #WFSpeakUp for updates over the weekend and Monday. 

Vanessa Casillas, Chicago, Bricklayers (BAC) Local 56 

Casillas is a graduate of Chicago Women in Trades’ Technical Opportunities Program. She entered the bricklayers’ apprenticeship program in 2005, where she was named the top student in her pre-apprenticeship class and later won first place for her year in the District Council’s apprenticeship contest. Casillas says about her career choice: “I like being outside and working with my hands, and if I feel good doing it, why should I be limited if I’m a woman? Why shouldn’t I be out there making the big bucks, having health insurance, a double pension and annuity with the union? Why should I stay making $12 an hour doing something I’m not really happy at when I want a well-paying career that offers me a good future!"

Rocky Hwasta, Cleveland, United Brotherhood of Carpenters (UBC) Local 373

Hwasta became a carpenter in 1985. Hwasta says women were not accepted then and are not welcomed now. "Although I had a bachelor's degree, as a single mom, I needed a good-paying job with benefits to raise my family of three children," says Hwasta. She continues, "My job has been challenging and rewarding. I learned a variety of carpentry skills, which I used proficiently on the job and in my personal life. Pursuing this career was one of the most satisfying choices I made in my life. Retired now and receiving a worthwhile, livable pension, I continue to advocate for women to join the ranks of workers in the building trades!"

Celeste Kirkland, New York, Transport Workers (TWU) Local 100

Kirkland, born and raised in New York City, found herself single after leaving a difficult relationship. She worried about being able to provide for her two sons, often working jobs with no benefits or job security. She now works as a power distribution maintainer for New York City Transit. This is a union job that gives her equal access to a nontraditional job with equal pay. Having the protections of a union job, especially as a women working in a nontraditional role, empowered her to care for her sons, as well as purchase a home for her mom. 

Tiffaney Lewis, Pueblo, Colo., United Steelworkers (USW) Local 3267

Lewis, a steelworker from Colorado, says being a part of her union means she can provide for her two young children, Luke and Jennifer. "Being a part of a union means that I can walk into my plant every day and know that as a woman, I will earn equal pay. They [her children] are able to play sports, dance and do many other extracurricular activities because of the wages we are able to collectively bargain."

Lewis says, "I know because of my collective bargaining agreement I am able to work in a safe environment so that I am able to go home to my family every night. I also know that if my children were to become ill, I would be able to get the best medical care possible because of our medical benefits that are also part of our contract. Being active in my union makes me want to work harder to make sure others are able to have the comfortable lifestyle that I am able to have."

Zelda Mnqanqeni-Waters, Philadelphia, UNITE HERE

Mnqanqeni-Waters is a waitress at the Radisson Blu Warwick Hotel in Philadelphia. She is a tipped worker who knows the instability that comes with working in this industry. When she joined the union, she knew she could fight for not just better wages and working conditions for herself and her family but that job security was something that many in her industry don't have and deserve. Right now she and her co-workers are saying that in order to provide for themselves and their families, they are fighting for language that protects their jobs against the harsh practice of subcontracting. "We'll do what it takes to make sure we have a future at this hotel that we can count on. We know what we're worth and we'll stick together to get it."

Carmella Salinas, Espanola, N.M., AFT 

Salinas, a single mother of three, has been an early childhood educator for 14 years, now working at the Family Learning Center in Espanola, N.M., a state-funded program for low-income 4-year-olds. She is also a full-time student at Northern New Mexico College, seeking a degree in early childhood education to quality as a credentialed teacher for the New Mexico Pre-K program.

Her hours were recently cut from 40 hours a week to 25 because the school cannot afford her $10.75 per hour wage. Salinas receives food stamps, qualifies for Medicaid, has no retirement benefits and, during one week in the past year, faced the indignity of having her Internet, electricity, water and gas disconnected for non-payment of bills.

“I believe in what I do so I remain in this low-wage job and fight for what I believe in. For these reasons, my children and I get by with what we have,” she says. “I wish I could be a parent who could help my two daughters pay for college, but being passionate about teaching young children does not afford me that luxury and that is something I struggle with every day.”

Salinas says that for early childhood educators to stay in the classroom, there needs to be a culture shift in how our nation invests in early education, requiring permanent and adequate funding that allows educators to get a college degree and receive a salary and benefits that reflect what they are worth and that they are professionals.

Katelin Sims, Hannibal, Mo., USW Local 11-205

Sims, a steelworker from Missouri, says being a dues paying member of the United Steelworkers gives her the ability to work under a contract. This contract provides Sims with fair wages, health care coverage, a safe working environment, a retirement plan, job security and her union gives her a voice in my workplace. "Without my union, I wouldn't be able to raise my children with that comfortable middle class lifestyle that I was raised with. I'm proud to be involved in the labor movement because without it, workers in this country would be stripped of the rights that so many fought and died to secure."

Priscilla Smith, Lakeview, N.Y., AFT 

Smith is a teacher's aid in western New York, working with small groups of students in first-grade and third-grade inclusion classrooms. She helps students achieve their individual academic goals by helping teachers with the daily lessons, addressing behavioral issues, wiping tears from a child’s cheeks, giving a hug to a student who forgot his lunch, or giving a high-five to a child who correctly answered all the multiplication questions.

“I am often shocked and disappointed when I realize how little teacher’s aides are compensated for their hard work and dedication,” Smith says. Six years ago, to afford her daughter’s college tuition, she had to take a part-time job at a local dry cleaners, working three evenings a week and four hours on the weekend. Last year when her son started college, she had to work a third job, as a substitute child care provider in her school’s morning program. To make matters even more difficult, her husband’s position in Buffalo was eliminated due to the recession and he had to take a job in Pittsburgh, traveling home only on weekends.

Smith would like to see the Family Medical Leave Act re-evaluated to meet the needs of today’s workers so that it applies also to people who work multiple part-time jobs, not just to those who work 1,250 hours per year. She also would like to see the minimum wage increased, as well as other wages. “If I make $5.00 over minimum wage and minimum wage increases $1.00 per hour, then I am closer to the new poverty limit than I was before because my new wage did not increase to coincide with the minimum wage increase.” 

She also is concerning about the unaffordability, for many, of child care and the rising cost of long-term health care for seniors. “People cannot afford for their families to grow old."

Gloria Wright, Detroit, AFT

Wright has been a Detroit pre-school paraprofessional/assistant teacher for more than 20 years. Despite obtaining an associates degree—as required by state law—she hasn’t seen a raise in her average $16 per hour wage in more than five years.

Wright works with 18 pre-schoolers, performing instructional tasks with the lead teacher. She feels so rewarded when her students accomplish a task she helped them with, big or small. The job gives her a chance to build a relationship and trust with the students, parents and staff. But job satisfaction doesn’t pay the bills, and she and her colleagues feel frustrated by not receiving deserved pay hikes.

“I’ve thought about it, but I wouldn’t want to change my career. It gets pretty hard to make ends meet at times, but it’s going to be alright,” Wright says.

Dina Yarmus, Philadelphia, Pa., UNITE HERE

Yarmus was born and raised in Philadelphia.  She has worked at hotels and restaurants, for the past seven years.  She followed in her older sister’s footsteps, who was a waitress and worked at a popular Philly restaurant. Her sister’s co-worker suffered a severe injury after being attacked by a dog, had to miss work and had no health insurance.  Yarmus' sister tried to push for the restaurant to respond by offering a modest health care plan.  The company felt threatened and her sister was fired.   After that, Yarmus made a choice to get involved in her union, and has since been part of successful fights to defend her health care from attack.  It was a victory immediately felt, after tearing her ACL, Yarmus was able to have surgery, costing her a mere $50 copay and incurring no debt.

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