Empowerment and solidarity at the 2019 Summer Institute on Union Women in Vancouver

Earlier this month, twelve members from Teamsters 856 attended the 2019 Western Regional Summer Institute on Union Women (SIUW) at the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Vancouver, Canada.

Twelve Local 856 members had the experience of a lifetime at the 2019 Summer Institute on Union Women.

The 2019 SIUW provided women from unions, worker centers, and community organizations an opportunity to strengthen their organizing skills, discuss and develop solutions to issues within the labor movement, and grow as leaders alongside other participants.

The institute also gave participants with heavy job and familial responsibilities in their day-to-day lives a chance to become further involved in the labor movement.

“Never before had I done something that was so much bigger and greater than me,” said Local 856 St. Rose Hospital Member Annette Johnson. In addition to being a full-time emergency room nurse, Johnson takes care of her family. At the institute, she said, “I felt young and free again. There were no responsibilities of home, so all I had to think about was what I was there for…learning things to take back to my house, my neighborhood, and my job in order to change things.”

For Clift Hotel Shop Steward Erica Goldblatt, the experience gave her a unique chance to connect with likeminded individuals. “It’s not a frequent thing to be surrounded by other women with a similar drive to help lead and improve not just their workplaces, but their society at large,” she said. “I don’t know if I had ever been surrounded by such intelligent, interesting, and incredible women before attending the institute—ever!

The gendered focus of the institute allowed participants to feel empowered as women. “It’s always been men at the forefront, so it’s nice to see how the SIUW brings women together and shows how strong we can be together to make change when given the tools to do so,” said Deborah Berthold, Local 856 member at Marin General Hospital. “It was nice for us to know that when we come together, we can make our workplaces different, easier, and right.”

Local 856 members picketing in solidarity with MoveUP union members.

This year’s contingent of Local 856 members bonded immediately. “From the very first day, everyone seemed to come together and connect with one another like family,” said Star Lopez, a Local 856 shop steward at Hertz Monterey.

The 12 women bonded over four days of learning new concepts, exchanging experiences, and building power. Sara Scott, Local 856 shop steward at West Contra Costa Unified School District (WCCUSD), said that the bond between them was “undeniable.” She continued, “I think each woman in that group came and represented themselves and their workplace in an impactful way, and that is how we were able to bond so well.” By the end of their time in Vancouver, Annette Johnson and another participant even “started finishing each other’s sentences!”

At the institute, Local 856 members were reminded of the power of worker solidarity. Participants joined eight MoveUP union members in their strike and boycott of Westminster Savings, a credit union in British Columbia. Upon seeing the group of SIUW women, some of the members were “moved to tears” by the support. Sarahvone Calhoun, Licensed Vocational Nurse and shop steward at Contra Costa County Health Services, described, “I was emotionally impacted by participating in that march.” She explained that “It is important that we march against injustices that are happening to our fellow coworkers. There is always strength in numbers. When I see my brothers and sisters fighting for something, I am strengthened.”

Phuong Nguyen, Local 856 member at Delta Dental, remarked that the credit union action was “what the union is all about. We are like a family, rooting for other unions.”

Nguyen was particularly moved by the organizing classes she attended, for they helped strengthen her leadership skills. “I learned to speak more and become more of a leader than a follower,” she said. She intends to share her new skills with her community, where she plans to create a space of support for single mothers. “I’m a single mom, and there are a lot of single moms in my area who have trouble with their kids. I want to get these women together so they can share their different experiences. The SIUW has brought so many ideas that I want to incorporate in my own life and community.”

The core class on advanced leadership inspired Diane Alcala, Local 856 shop steward at the Contra Costa Behavioral Health West County Child Clinic, to confront workplace issues with bravery. “As women, I think we are taught to ‘be nice’, to not ‘stir the pot,’ but sometimes it’s not about being nice—it’s about being clear,” she said. “I learned to be unafraid of having a courageous conversation.”

Monica Pacini, Local 856 shop steward at WCCUSD, shared similar sentiments. “Having an opinion and letting it be known is okay, but I learned how to express it in a good way—rather than it coming across as a complaint or rant.”

Pacini also reflected on how her time at institute reaffirmed her leadership role at her workplace. “We have to make sure that we are practicing equality for everyone—especially if we are put in a position where we can,” she said. At her job, Pacini works as a liaison between the administration, the teachers, and the parents of WCCUSD. She took the collective bargaining course at this year’s SIUW in order to be better equipped for the bargaining process of her site’s upcoming contract. She expressed, “Not everyone is placed where they can vouch for others. If I’m able to do it and capable of doing it, why not?

At the institute, Clift Hotel Steward Erica Goldblatt’s understanding of leadership changed fundamentally. “It helped me understand that a) I can’t do everything by myself and b) I shouldn’t do everything by myself,” she said. “It’s not helpful to anyone to be the savior…the power is to be able to come together as a group. Change doesn’t happen because of one leader, but from all of us taking a role in the change.”

Sarahvone Calhoun came to the same understanding. “You can spoon-feed people all the time, but they will never grow up unless you give them the opportunity to feed themselves,” she said. “Then they can move forward and empower more people.”

Local 856 member organizer, Lisa Day-Silva, was deeply impacted by the “wealth of knowledge and experiences” present at this year’s institute. “I see things differently now,” she said. “I learned that I grew up with certain privileges that I take for granted. Listening to the experiences of women from around the world brought me to a deeper level of understanding and compassion that I can carry forward.” She describes her time at the institute as “electrifying.”

Sara Scott said that her main takeaway from the 2019 SIUW was that “We are doing the right thing.” She said, “We are paving roads to better the world—roads that we have to make collectively…and women do that anyway.”

Because the women learned and experienced so much together at the institute, they have stayed in contact daily ever since through a group chat. They hope to eventually continue the conversations that were started at the institute by planning a debrief and workshop day together. Sarahvone Calhoun said, “We are making the commitment to stick together, sending each other events to stay updated, etc.”

In regards to the group of women who attended this year’s SIUW, Star Lopez states, “We will be forever united in our minds and in our hearts.”

Special thanks to the members who attended the 2019 Summer Institute on Union Women:

Annette Johnson – St. Rose Hospital

Sarahvone Calhoun – Contra Costa County Health Services

Star Lopez – Hertz Monterey

Victoria Huerta – Northwest Administrators

Sara Scott – West Contra Costa County Unified School District (WCCUSD)

Diane Alcala – Contra Costa Behavioral Health (West County Child Clinic)

Monica Pacini – West Contra Costa County Unified School District (WCCUSD)

Erica Goldblatt – The Clift Hotel

Deborah Berthold – Marin General Hospital

Lisa Day-Silva – Member Organizer

Phuong Nguyen – Delta Dental