Union Women from Around the World Keep Meeting to Press for Their Rights. Does It Do Any Good?

News Abroad
tags: womens history, womens rights, Union Womens Labor Program, Womens Union



Brigid O’Farrell is an independent scholar affiliated with the Eleanor Roosevelt Papers, a sponsored project of the George Washington University, and the author of She Was One of Us: Eleanor Roosevelt and the American Worker.

Delegates to the International Congress of Working Women, Washington, DC, 1919. (Library of Congress)


“Union Women’s Labor Program” announced the New York Times headline when over two hundred women from 19 countries met together for two weeks. Their recommendations included a call for equal pay for equal work, equal opportunities for trade and technical training, maternity benefits, and unemployment protections. Was this article about the March meeting of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women? Or April's Women in the World Summit, co-sponsored by the NYT?

No, union women have a long history of international solidarity that informs their struggle for gender equality today and this NYT piece was about the first International Congress of Working Women convened by the National Women’s Trade Union League in Washington, DC in 1919. Almost 100 years ago, women gathered from around the world to prepare for the first month-long session of the International Labor Organization (ILO).

While the agenda focused on legal labor standards, the Women’s Trade Union League was also committed to the right of workers to organize and join unions. According to historian Dorothy Sue Cobble, “They believed in international solidarity and argued that enacting ‘universal industrial justice’ through international law and trade unionism was the only basis for a lasting peace among nations and peoples.”

Eleanor Roosevelt volunteered as a translator for what she described as a “very advanced & radical gathering.” During the WTUL meeting she began to see solutions to the problems she had encountered in NYC settlement houses a decade earlier: legislation, unions, advocacy, international solidarity. This gathering of women in 1919 led to her life-long friendship with labor organizer and suffragist Rose Schneiderman, one of the Congress organizers.

Together Roosevelt and Schneiderman championed women workers and their right to join unions through the Great Depression, the New Deal, and World War II. The First Lady began her syndicated My Day column in 1936 and became a member of the Newspaper Guild, AFL-CIO, for over 25 years. In 1946 she accepted President Truman’s offer to become a delegate to the newly formed United Nations, where she chaired the Human Rights Commission. Schneiderman testified at an early meeting in support of a UN Commission on the Status of Women declaring, “The workers of any one nation can make or maintain their gains only if the women all over the world have their rights under an International Bill of Rights.”

The leadership of delegates such as Denmark’s Bodil Begtrup and Hansa Mehta of India helped establish the Commission on the Status of Women. These women worked closely with Roosevelt to make the language in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights inclusive. Article 24, for example, defines “everyone’s” right to work with decent pay and conditions, unemployment protections, equal pay without discrimination, and the right to join a union. The Declaration, which included women’s rights in the human rights framework, was passed by the General Assembly on December 10, 1948.

Working conditions are much better for women today than they were 100 years ago. UN Women, the department that coordinates women’s issues at the United Nations, released a recent comprehensive report on women’s progress concluding that significant achievements had been reached:

. . . more girls are enrolling in school; and more women are working, getting elected and assuming leadership positions. Where once it was regarded as a private matter, preventing and redressing violence against women and girls is at least on the public policy agenda. Women have gained greater legal rights to access employment, own and inherit property and get married and divorced on the same terms as men. These areas of progress show that gender inequalities can be reduced through public action.


The report documents many problems, however, that remain. Women continue to be segregated into separate jobs from men where they earn less money. Even in very similar jobs worldwide, women earn on average 24 per cent less than men and often face violence and harassment on the job and at home. Care work done by women is undervalued, underpaid or not paid at all. Gender and race are part of the multiple forms of discrimination faced by women across the globe. Migrants, refugees, indigenous and rural women, those with disabilities, and young girls are limited by structural and cultural constraints in countries north and south, developed and developing in the global economy.

On March 13, 2017, the United Nations convened the 61st meeting of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW61) in New York City. The theme for the annual gathering was “Women’s Empowerment in the Changing World of Work.” There were 162 Member States represented, while over 3,900 representatives from 580 civil society organizations participated from 138 countries. Coordinated at the same time, the Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO) Forum met just outside the United Nations with representatives from 8,600 NGOs from around the world. This was a larger gathering of international women than the Beijing Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995.

Over 150 trade union women participated. Barbara Byers, secretary-treasurer of the Canadian Labor Congress and recently appointed member of the UN Women Executive Director’s Civil Society Advisory Group, led the union delegation organized by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), in cooperation with the Education International, Public Services International, and the International Transport Federation, known as the Global Unions, representing 72 million women workers worldwide. Forty union women from the United States also participated in the second annual Women’s Global Leadership Program designed by the AFL-CIO to increase awareness and develop leadership skills to address the global issues facing union women in the United States.

“Agreed Conclusions” is the official document negotiated by the Member State delegates that provides guidance to the UN on women’s issues for the coming year. As the meeting began Global Union Women stated that unions are central to women’s economic empowerment and “economically empowered women have access to decent work, control over economic resources and over their own time, participate meaningfully in economic decision –making at all levels, and can access quality public services.”

Throughout the two week negotiating process trade unionists sought to ensure that the document included the rights to decent work, equal pay for work of equal value, family friendly policies, union representation, collective bargaining, and ending violence and harassment. They stressed the need to address issues of the informal economy and marginalized workers and they concluded that “having a job is not enough.” Union women worked closely with the International Labor Organization to have the conclusions include reference to the ILO conventions establishing international work standards, especially the Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work.

One of the key union priorities is to stop violence and harassment that women and men face in the world of work. In 1993 the UN Declaration for the Elimination of Violence against Women was adopted by the General Assembly. Today, trade union women strongly support working with governments and NGOs to develop labor standards in an ILO convention to end gender based violence at work. At a union panel an ILO representative presented the long and detailed process necessary to produce a draft convention for review by member governments, employers, and unions in 2018. With support from Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of UN Women, Phumzille Mlambo-Ngcuka of South Africa, this campaign will be a focus of the ILO, the UN Commission on the Status of Women, the NGO community, and trade unions in the years ahead.

CSW61 was also surrounded by concerns about the increasingly hostile environment of emerging far-right governments in the US and around the world, especially as participants learned that President Trump’s travel ban against Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen had prevented NGO representatives from attending. At the same time two very conservative public delegates were representing the United States.

Yet despite the challenges new and old, from the Women’s Trade Union League meeting in 1919 to CSW61 in 2017, union women continue their efforts on behalf of economic justice and gender equality. Over the past 60 years the CSW has built the international human rights framework for addressing these issues. Trade unions remain partners in this process and a critical force for developing and implementing labor standards as they work with many allies within that framework. While the process at the United Nations is slow and complicated, progress is being made. Legislation and unionization remain important strategies. As Eleanor Roosevelt said about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights “One should never belittle the value of words . . . for they have a way of getting translated into fact.” Delegates at the International Congress of Working Women would be frustrated at the slow pace, but proud of the progress being made.




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