All across the nation, throughout the month of March, there will be numerous celebrations and tributes to mark the accomplishments of women in America.
No doubt, there will be seminars, conferences and podcasts galore to discuss the struggles and wisdom of accomplished women, from Maya Angelou, who once said: “Each time a woman stands up for herself, without knowing it possibly, without claiming it, she stands up for all women,” to Rihanna, who is quoted as saying: “There’s something special about a woman who dominates in a man’s world. It takes a certain grace, strength, intelligence, fearlessness and the nerve to never take no for an answer.”
In the labor movement, there are many women who have set examples of courage and determination to improve the lives of working women and families. Some did so indirectly and regrettably as in the case of the 146 young immigrant garment working girls killed, and the 78 of whom sustained injuries, in the notorious Triangle Shirt Waist Factory fire in Greenwich Village on March 25 of 1911. From exit doors chain-locked by their employers to Fire Department ladders too short to reach them on the 8th floor, the findings in the aftermath of that horrendous fire led to our state and the nation to legislate safety and health hazard measures to protect workers on the job.
At Local 237, we don’t have to look very far for fearless women, with an extraordinary strength of character who exemplify “never take no for an answer”. One such Local 237 member is Marie Colvin. Marie was a war correspondent. She wrote about innocent women and children caught in the crossfire of civil war. Her bravery was legendary. A movie, “A Private War”, told the real-life story of Marie Colvin, portrayed by Rosamund Pike, that depicted her life behind enemy lines covering stories of human suffering that many did not want told, in dangerous locations, where few would dare to go. It was actually a sentence in one of the movie’s reviews that caused us to wonder about a possible link to Teamsters Local 237. Our research paid off because we discovered that fresh out of college, she was hired by Local 237 to write our newsletter. Marie Colvin was a Teamster! Her family told us that she wore our lapel pin proudly. One could easily imagine her today, condemning the bombing of a children’s hospital in Ukraine—if she were still alive. Marie’s journalistic diligence caused her to lose her eye at the hands of Sri Lankan terrorists in 2001, then her life, at age 56 in 2012, killed by a senior Syrian military officer to silence her. And as proud as we are of Marie, there are several other Teamster women who have done remarkable things on different battle grounds. For example: In March of 2010, Local 237 sued New York City on behalf of our 5,000 School Safety Agents, 70% of whom were women, mostly African Americans and Latinas. Many were single mothers. Their annual salary was about $7,000 less than their counterparts with similar titles working in other City agencies. Most of them were male. Some called this just a coincidence. It was discrimination! School Safety Agents have a tough job to do. They help to protect other peoples’ children. All they wanted was to put bread on the table for their own children. So I called for a meeting of School Safety Agents to tell them about plans to sue the City. I told them that we needed some volunteers to sign the papers and be the official plaintiffs. Of the 25 women in the room, 22 left. But three remained: Patricia Williams, Bernice Christopher and the late Corinthians Andrews. And for four years, these three gave testimony after testimony. They refused any settlement that did not include retirees. They took days off from work. They took time away from being with their families. They worked on the case despite health issues and attended most of our rallies. At times, we felt pretty much alone, but then we received support from two people, Hazel Dukes, President of the NYS NAACP and Sonia Ossorio, President of the NYC Chapter of NOW– two women who came to aid a cause on behalf of women workers, but benefitting all School Safety Agents. I still remember the day of the judge’s final ruling. Pat, Bernice, and Corinthians came into the courthouse and knelt in prayer before they took their seats. Perhaps there was a little divine intervention, but with the help of Hazel and Sonia, an historic settlement was reached. Clearly, the words of Vice President Kamala Harris ring true: “You’re going to walk into many rooms where you may be the only one who looks like you or has had your experiences. So, use that voice and be strong.” And that’s exactly what these women did!
Throughout the pandemic and beyond, so many of our women members were an integral part of our union’s overall efforts to keep the City functioning. For us, it is not difficult to identify women who should be honored during Women’s History Month. We are especially blessed to have among our own members, and our friends, women who care about others and want everyone else to care too. That’s who they are. That’s their legacy. And we take pride in knowing them. Thank you, Marie, Pat, Bernice, Corinthians, Hazel, Sonia and so many others who are the personification of our better angels.