Quick Hit Ellyn Fortino Thursday September 13th, 2012, 6:58pm

Forum On Women In The Workplace Highlights Role Of Unions In Fight For Fair Employment Practices

Unions have been crucial in helping women get rights, better pay and benefits in the workplace, panelists at a forum in Waukegan stressed Wednesday evening.

With a backdrop of teacher strikes in Chicago and Lake Forest, this forum focused not on endorsing candidates for office, but on dispelling "ignorance" too often associated with unions, according to an organizer with the pro-union group Industrial Workers of the World.

“We are in the fight for our life,” said Helen Ramirez-Odell, a panelist at the forum who worked nearly 44 years as a Chicago Public Schools nurse and is now a CTU district supervisor. “It’s taken a lot to get teachers to this point.”

The panelists at the thinly-attended meeting at Waukegan High School included a Chicago Teachers Union strike coordinator, an organizer with the Chicago branch of the Industrial Workers of the World and representatives with the pay-equality advocacy group 9to5.

Key issues discussed included ending workplace discrimination, closing the gender pay gap and requiring paid maternity leave in the workplace, among other topics.

In addition to the current sticking points of the CPS and CTU contract negotiations, including CPS’ policy for recently laid off teachers and how teachers are evaluated, Ramirez-Odell said workers in Chicago’s public school system do not receive paid maternity leave, adding that should change.

“We want a voice in the decisions that are made that affect our schools, something that it seems women have to fight for much harder than those occupations that are predominantly male,” she said.

Ramirez-Odell, also a CTU strike coordinator, said Mayor Rahm Emanuel has offered some temporary disability pay for teachers and other city workers, and that would allow women to take time off for family and medical leave while receiving some income.

“But that has not been worked out,” she said.

What has made its way into the contract, she said, is the assurance that new mothers who teach or work in the schools are able to provide milk for their babies.

In the past, she said it’s been difficult for recent mothers working at school to catch a break long enough to express milk.

“Having a place in the school that’s clean and private is not as easy as it sounds in a lot of places,” she said.

Although much of the talk focused on what’s happening in Chicago, the forum took place in the North Shore’s 10th congressional district where Democrat Brad Schneider, a businessman from Deerfield, is looking to replace first-term U.S. Rep. Bob Dold (R). The district covers parts of Grayslake, North Chicago, Waukegan, Highland Park, Zion and other cities.

Democrats are hoping to win the competitive race as part of an effort to gain back control of the House.

The Illinois Education Association, which represents most suburban teacher’s unions, endorsed Dold in July. Schneider gained an endorsement from SEIU* and the Illinois Federation of Teachers, which includes the Chicago Teachers Union.

The panelists didn’t endorse Dold or Schneider, but speaking generally, they said they would be in more support of a candidate that fights for public education and laws and programs that support working people.

Haley Whiting, the Chicago organizing chair for Industrial Workers of the World, told the audience that there’s “nothing scary” about a group of workers getting together to better their working conditions.

She said women and other union members should stand in solidarity with workers throughout the world, which is the “only way” working class people can permanently and sustainably better workplace conditions.

“We have more in common with the working people overseas than we do with these CEOs and owners of major companies here in the states,” Whiting said. “Their solidarity lies with people who make the same income as them ... not with us.”

Sponsors of the three-part educational series included the Illinois Tenth Congressional District Democrats, Lake County Women in Action, the Lake County League of Women Voters and Citizen Action Illinois.

Part two of the series will cover the facts on women’s healthcare at the North Shore Unitarian Church in West Deerfield on October 3 at 6:45 p.m.

* The SEIU Illinois Council sponsors this web site.

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