New twist for union leadership. Women break into top slots in blue-collar locals

Gloria Betancourt has worked in a cannery for 25 years, but her largely female union has never had a Latina woman official. Ms. Betancourt hopes to change that situation this month as she wages a vigorous campaign to be elected business representative and trustee in Teamsters Local 912. The 4,000-member union of mostly Latina women cannery workers is headquartered 100 miles south of San Francisco. Three other women are running for top union jobs in the same local, so it appears likely that the union will elect at least one Latina women when the mail ballots are counted Dec. 23.

Betancourt's fight mirrors a nationwide trend, as women from many different backgrounds begin to assume union office in what was once a virtually all-male world. Cynthia McCaughan, coordinator of women's activities for the AFL-CIO's Civil Rights Department, sees a gradual increase in the number of women union officers. The AFL-CIO International Executive Board now has three women members.

Ms. McCaughan says that in 1987 women and minorities were the only groups increasing their union membership. ``As women enter unions,'' says McCaughan, ``they exert pressure for more representation. Therefore women run for office.''

In 1987 there were 16.8 million union members, 34 percent of whom were women. But women hold far less than one-third of local and national union positions.

``We have problems with male chauvinism in society,'' McCaughan notes, ``so it shows up in unions.'' She maintains there is no discrimination in formal union policies, ``but you still have men who think women shouldn't be leaders.''

Chuck Mack, secretary treasurer of the 65,000-member Teamster joint council in northern California, agrees that there need to be more women union leaders because ``women can relate better to problems of other women.'' But he denies that there has been any sexism by Teamster leaders, pointing out women and minorities can run for office like anyone else.

But Gail Sullivan, a former San Francisco Teamster business representative, says Teamster officials have a ``good old boy network'' that discriminates against women. ``Nobody says `you don't understand this because you're a woman,''' Ms. Sullivan says. ``But you're just excluded.''

She says Teamster officials meet on the golf course, in bars, or even the men's room and thus exclude participation by women.

The Teamsters Local 912 in Watsonville was run undemocratically for 30 years and excluded women from major elective office, says Gloria Betancourt. Election rules prohibited many women seasonal workers from voting, she says. In addition, because of home responsibilities and lack of confidence, many women did not participate in union affairs.

Betancourt says that the 18-month-long strike at Watsonville Frozen Foods that ended in 1987 changed all that. ``Our strike committee was run by women,'' she says, ``and now we're more confident.''

Betancourt is part of the Workers United slate of former strike leaders challenging incumbents and another opposition slate. Incumbent Pamela Cheaney, the first woman vice-president in the local's history, does not stress women's issues in her campaign and chooses to emphasize the incumbents' record of experience.

The results of the Teamsters 912 election may have an impact on the surrounding community.

If Latina women win in the current Teamster 912 election ``it'll open the doors for Mexican women at all levels of the city - including city council,'' says University of California at Santa Cruz economist Bill Segal.

Regardless of whether she wins, says Gloria Betancourt, the movement among women workers in frozen-food factories will continue.

``From now on,'' she notes, ``things are going to be different. Women are standing up.''

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