Coalition of Labor Union Women for Champaign County

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CLUW’s 2023 national convention

On the evening of March 27 more than 30 people representing about a dozen labor unions and community groups gathered at the Plumbers Local 149 Union Hall in Savoy to launch a chapter of the Coalition of Labor Union Women (CLUW) for east central Illinois. Attendees enjoyed tacos and quesadillas from the Maize food truck; celebrated Women’s History Month by learning a little about local labor women’s history; displayed historical photos, banners, charters and other materials from their unions; and held a conversation about issues facing local union women.

The idea for a local CLUW chapter started with a handful of labor women, who met over the winter to plan the March launch. It was a fitting time to start the CLUW East Central Illinois Chapter: during the 50th anniversary month of the founding of the national CLUW organization.

CLUW began in 1974. Riding the tide of second-wave feminism of the early 1970s, women in labor unions across the country were having conversations about the lack of economic opportunity for women, the need for more women’s leadership in the union movement, and the desire for union women to have a chance to network across the labor movement. A group of union women decided to host a meeting to bring women from across the country together to discuss forming an organization to work on these goals.

The meeting took place on March 23 and 24, 1974 in Chicago. The organizers expected a few hundred women to show up—more than 3,000 attended. They included farmworkers and meatpackers, electricians and flight attendants, and auto workers and women from all sorts of other labor sectors.

At the meeting they elected Olga Madar of Detroit as their President. Olga had left her job as a teacher to work at the Ford Willow Run Bomber Plant during World War II and had gone on to become a leader of the United Auto Workers. Attendees elected Addie Wyatt of Chicago as CLUW Vice President. Addie had been elected vice president of the United Packinghouse Food and Alliance Workers Union Local 56 in 1953, and went on to have a thirty-year career in labor union and civil rights organizing, including becoming the first Black woman ever to become a vice president of an international union in 1976. Addie was recognized as a Time magazine woman of the year in 1975.

That first CLUW meeting in Chicago also adopted a platform of four goals for the new coalition: to organize the unorganized; promote affirmative action; increase women’s participation in their unions; and increase women’s participation in political and legislative activities. These goals continue to guide the national organization and its local chapters to this day.

It is with this legacy in mind that CLUW East Central Illinois Chapter held its first meeting. The only other CLUW chapter currently operating in Illinois is in Chicago, led by 95-year-old labor legend Katie Jordan.

Both the AFL-CIO of Champaign County and the East Central Illinois Building and Construction Trades have provided financial support for the new CLUW chapter, and the Central Illinois Jobs With Justice chapter has pledged support.

The next meeting will be held May 22 at 5 pm at the Plumbers Local 149 Union Hall at 1005 N. Dunlap in Savoy. While the aim of the organization is to build a union network for those that identify as women in the local labor movement, everyone is welcome to attend CLUW meetings.

Dr. Stephanie Fortado is a teaching assistant professor at the University of Illinois Labor Education Program, providing workshops and extension programming for unions and the general public on the Champaign-Urbana campus and throughout Illinois. She is a past president, treasurer, bargaining team and strike committee member of the Graduate Employees Organization Local 6300, member of the Illinois Federation of Teachers, and former delegate to the Champaign County Labor Council. She is currently a steward of the newly formed Non-Tenure Faculty Coalition, IFT Local 6546.

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