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Women Labor Leaders in Action builds unions, fights RTW


(Nov. 2, 2017) — In May and August, 20 emerging women labor leaders came together for one week each month to grow our leadership skills.

Women Labor Leaders in Action, also known as WLLA, was created by Kate Shaughnessy, Leadership Development Coordinator for the AFL-CIO. Kate applied for and won a grant to support women leaders in the labor movement, and decided to do her pilot program in Washington state. She gathered together a group of successful women labor leaders from around the state who all participated in the work of determining program goals and selecting topics for leadership training.

Once they had the basics together, each member of the WLLA Steering Committee nominated several women to participate in this pilot program. Each person nominated to participate was chosen because of demonstrated leadership or leadership potential.

The goal of the Women Labor Leaders in Action training is to build a network of up-and-coming women leaders in our state, and to give these women the foundational skills, campaign skills, and support network that we need to become the future champions of our movement.

If you’re going to lead, you need a foundation. You need to know who you are, where you came from, and how that can influence your choices. Effective leaders know how to manage their time well, build teams and coalitions, and have a vision for the future. We communicate clearly and know how to actively listen. To survive and thrive, we must know how to navigate internal politics to win. Labor leaders know how to run campaigns: whether political, internal, or as part of contract negotiations. Knowing how to do a power analysis, knowing the tools in your toolbox when it comes to strategies and tactics is essential for successful labor leaders.

We are only as strong as we are united. A clear focus of the WLLA was building a strong, supportive network so that we can lift each other up as we climb. Women today face enormous challenges and societal pressures. Balancing life and work, raising our children in the labor movement, and having the resilience to do what we must day in and day out takes a village. A village was built at WLLA, and it remains standing.

The 2017 WLLA cohort also gave birth to a campaign against so-called “Right to Work” (RTW). Because RTW predominately impacts women and people of color, and because RTW’s sole purpose is to destroy our movement, we decided to fight as hard as we can, together as sisters.

To that end, we wrote and submitted a Resolution to the 2017 Washington State Labor Council Convention: Calling Upon the WSLC and Allied Organizations to Protect Worker Freedom. Our resolution was passed unanimously at the WSLC Convention and will lead to a statewide labor summit early next year on building stronger unions here and fighting RTW.

The 2017 WLLA Cohort is now engaged in a number of different avenues across our state to fight RTW.

We are convinced that the best way to retain our membership is to have one-on-one conversations with our members, with the goal of getting at least 85% of our membership to recommit to the union. We are determined to surface rank-and-file leaders to help teach workers how to share their stories about how RTW will impact them and their families. We are creating a toolkit that any local can use for education and mobilization around RTW, and we are in the process of gathering 100 stories from workers to share with all WSLC affiliates. We must strengthen ties between the union movement, communities of color, women, LGBTQ, faith, immigrant/refugee, youth, and the environmental movement, if we are going to be successful.

The simple fact is this: through Right to Work, anti-union think-tanks, foundations, educational systems, and mass marketing campaigns; organized business has conspired to enrich the 1% and destroy the living standards of working families. We are not willing to accept this sad state of affairs and are determined to make a difference for ourselves and our children.

If you’ve got a story you’d like to share about how your union has changed your life, please email

Rachel Dorfman is Secretary/Treasurer of the Professional Musicians, AFM  105 based in Spokane. Learn more at the AFM 105 website.

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