Chicago’s Union Herstory Still Growing

By Mac-Z Zurawski.

On May 20th, 2017 one of the largest unions in Chicago, LiUNA Local 1001, re-elected a woman, Nicole Hayes, as their president. For over eight years, Ms. Hayes has been an integral part of this union’s growing women’s membership, now fully a quarter of 2000 strong. On Hayes’ journey, she has encouraged other women to run for office and win, including two recently elected. Nikki continues the tradition of trailblazing women in Chicago’s Labor Movement herstory.

That herstory would not be complete without including Lucy Gonzalez Parsons(1853 – 1942). Parsons, who was considered by Chicago Police to be more dangerous than a 1000 rioters, was a radical advocate of working women and men in all aspects of labor in Chicago and the globe. She was a founding member of the Industrial Workers of the World in Chicago while advocating as a renowned writer for the labor movement. She was one of the first feminists to believe women should be treated equally in the labor force, including pay and benefits. Unfortunately, she did not live to see the vast changes that accompanied WWII. Her life ended as Rosie the Riveter’s began. Happily however, on May Day 2017, a street honorarium was finally dedicated to one of Union’s fiercest loyalists, on the very holiday Lucy helped to create.

In 1930 Addie Wyatt(1924 – 2012) and family moved to Chicago seeking a golden opportunity as part of the Great Migration. Yet, dismal realities set in as the family found intense racial segregation and unequal opportunities for African-Americans and women. At 17, Addie, though qualified to be a typist, was instead sent to the canning department of Armour & Company. She joined the United Packinghouse Workers of America in the early 1950s when she discovered they did not discriminate, and by her leadership women were finally allowed equal pay and expanded jobs on the packing floors. She consistently worked toward women’s and civil rights throughout her entire career, helping to formalize women’s equality in union contracts that were akin to the Equal Rights Amendment. Her advocacy and hard work kept her rising through the ranks of several unions, and eventually led her to be elected Vice-President of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union in 1972. Addie’s list of union accomplishments is exhaustive, but include working alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and being appointed to a position on the Labor Legislation Committee of the U.S. Commission on the Status of Women by Eleanor Roosevelt. Additionally, she collaborated to create the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists promoting both color and gender, and in 1974 she introduced the Chicago Coalition of Labor Union Women. Both groups are still alive and kicking in Chicago.

Fast forward as Karen Lewis(1953 -), president of the 29,000+ member Chicago Teachers Union, repeats herstory. On September 10th, 2012 with just two years under her belt as president, she led the first CTU strike since 1987. After decades of declining workers’ rights throughout most industries, she won rights and guarantees for teachers reminiscent of the Wyatt and Parsons eras. That strike revitalized the Labor Movement in Chicago, spurring the powerful formation of various Independent Political Organizations and Chicago’s Progressive Party. Her leadership continues to create educational classes through the CTU Foundation for all workers, parents, and Chicagoans, in general. She has continuously pushed her membership to march in the streets, participate in 1 day strikes and become politically active. Chicago’s very own, Ms. Lewis has become the 21st century icon for women in labor.

These stories provide a glimpse of the amazing women who have broken through boundaries for women in unions. Today, women union leaders continue to flourish in Chicago including the CTU, UAW, LiUNA, APWU and SEIU. Women like Katie Jordan, a founder of CLUW with Addie Wyatt, continues to grow membership, leadership, and educational opportunities for union women. The newly formed Working Journalists Union of Chicago has women leaders aiding in professional development, and negotiating for equal pay when formalizing writing contracts. If you’re a union woman in Chicago, the glass ceiling is penetrable, and the sky’s the limit. Let’s fight to keep it that way.

By day Mac-Z Zurawski is an 18 year member of LiUNA Local 1001 working on a garbage truck for the City of Chicago. At night she is an adjunct professor, media and policy liaison for Alderman George Cardenas (12th Ward), writer, researcher and social activist. Check out her new blog, Political Star at Feel free to contact her regarding educational, speaking and consulting opportunities. LinkedIn: Twitter: @maczzurawski