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N.J. State AFL-CIO Economic Empowerment Summit Draws 200 Union Women

Women (and a few men) attending the WILD conference get energized with morning stretches.

More than 200 union women who work as electricians, teachers, carpenters, dock workers, operating engineers, nurses, casino dealers and office workers came together for the 12th annual New Jersey State AFL-CIO-sponsored Women in Leadership Development (WILD) conference in East Brunswick on March 6 and 7.

The conference is the biggest event of its kind for union women in the country, attracting participants from as far away as Virginia, South Carolina and Texas. Since its inception, the WILD conference has sought to build union solidarity and women's leadership roles. U.S. Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-N.J.) delivered opening remarks via video.

"This conference is so important because it explores broad questions of how unions can help women be their best and how women push unions to be the same," Watson Coleman said. "Working women need policies and protections that make their futures and dreams more secure, and their communities a place where their families can grow and prosper. I am glad that in New Jersey union women are taking an active role in making that happen."

The theme of economic empowerment was developed by conference founder Laurel Brennan, secretary-treasurer of the New Jersey State AFL-CIO. "Women still earn 78 cents for every dollar earned by a man, a statistic that unfortunately hasn't improved in the past decade," said Brennan. "This conference enables our union sisters to focus their collective power and energy on public policy injustices that affect women and families, such as gender pay inequality. The best pay equalizer is still a union contract."

Mary Gatta, a sociologist and senior scholar at Wider Opportunities for Women who teaches at Rutgers University, discussed the findings in her book, "All I Want Is a Job!" which she wrote after posing undercover as an unemployed client at a New Jersey One Stop Career Center.

Women are particularly vulnerable in the current economy, said Gatta, whose 2014 book puts a human face to workforce development policy.

The second keynote speaker, Jennifer Higgins, AFT Local 1904 professional staff negotiations coordinator, talked about the current economic climate and how to fight back against the Koch brothers' well-funded, coordinated attacks on working families.

Yvette Flowers, secretary-treasurer of Longshoremen (ILA) Local 1422 in Charleston, S.C., said she found her first WILD conference "enlightening" and "empowering." With unions under attack throughout the country, she said continuing education is a key to "improving our environment and keeping our work."

One of a few men at the conference, Clifton Smith Jr. of ILA Local 1223 said so-called women's issues like equal pay affect everyone. "It's important to me as a parent of two daughters and as a co-worker," he said. "It's important to all of us to bring up equal pay and equal rights."

The participants also attended workshops that explored workplace obstacles to achieving economic prosperity and how they can be overcome.

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