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Summer School Builds Leadership Skills of Union Women

The first time Jackie Elliot went to the Northeast Summer School for Union Women, she had been a PSC member for nearly three decades and was already active in the union.

Jackie Elliot (L) and Debra Bergen (R) are both on the planning committee for this summer’s Northeast Summer School for Union Women that will take place on Queens College campus from July 26-31.
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But, she says, she got an “extra push” from the five-day conference last year, which left her ready to assume more responsibility. Along with classes and workshops on collective bargaining, labor law and leadership skills, the school also offered a class on grievance training. Elliot took that class last summer and earlier this year she became a grievance counselor for her CLT chapter.

Making Connections

“Everything started to fall into place. It gave me a lot more confidence,” she told Clarion. “I plan to go there for as long as I can. It had that much of an effect.”

What stood out the most for Elliot, she says, was the school’s strong sense of sisterhood. She recalls talking and learning from women across the union movement: from female bus drivers to retail workers, from attorneys to home-care attendants.

“It’s the ultimate connection – to hear about women’s life experiences, to talk to women from 19 to 92, no matter what [their position], how big or small,” said Elliot, who has been part of the PSC Environmental Health and Safety Watchdogs since 2008 and is its current co-chair.

Elliot is helping plan this year’s summer school, which will be held in New York City for the first time in its nearly 40-year history. The PSC and CUNY’s Murphy Institute for Worker Education and Labor Studies are co-sponsoring the conference with the United Association for Labor Educators. It will be held on the Queens College campus from July 26-31.

The conference is rooted in the traditions of early workers’ education as exemplified by the Bryn Mawr Summer School for Women Workers of the 1920’s and the WPA worker education programs of the 1930’s. Encouraged by the rising feminist movement of the seventies, the Coalition of Labor Union Women, (CLUW), and the Untied Association of Labor Educators (UALE) launched the current school in 1975. Designed by a committee of labor educators, the residential school brings together rank and file women workers, officers and staff to strengthen their knowledge of the labor movement and develop their skills, enabling them to seek leadership positions within their unions. The PSC has supported membership attendance at the school for many years and many attendees are now in leadership positions in the union.

PSC member Sarah Hughes, who works at the Murphy Institute, will be teaching leadership skills and is one of the co-coordinators for this year’s school. “It’s really fun to watch people get excited about getting involved with their union,” said Hughes, a former staff member in the PSC’s Organizing Department. “You learn something each year, and you get grounded by other people’s experiences.”

Hughes says what’s important about the school is that both facilitators and participants work together to create a collective experience, whether it’s through formal classes or workshops or role playing. The around 100 attendees reflect on what kind of leaders they are and what kind of leadership is needed in the union movement, chart out power structures in their own organizations, set goals and think about women and labor in the broader political sphere.

PSC Director of Contract Enforcement Debra Bergen has participated in the school for over 20 years. She first attended in 1987 as a student, and since then has taught workshops in leadership skills and grievance handling, and has twice has been a co-coordinator.

“The skill-building workshops offered at the school, like leadership skills are important, especially if you have just become active in your union or were recently elected to union leadership,” Bergen said. “But the evening activities are equally important, because that’s where the sense of community and union solidarity is really developed.” Bergen says this year’s conference sessions will address topics such as new immigrant organizing and the LGBT community in labor.

Building Skills

With its location in New York City, Bergen hopes to have a sizeable presence from the New York labor world and beyond. Bergen says the school is both a learning and a bonding experience. She attributes her own involvement and accomplishments in the labor movement to the mentors she has met and been influenced by at the school. Like Elliot, Bergen says the school gives her many reasons to keep coming back.

“It’s the sisterhood,” she told Clarion. “It’s the opportunity to reconnect with our union sisters from other unions throughout the Northeast.”

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Find out more information or apply to the Northeast Summer School for Union Women. The school will be held July 26-31 at Queens College.