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REPORT: Union leaders against all odds

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2 December, 2014Women unionists working in traditionally male-dominated fields face discrimination on many levels. Discrimination for being in the minority at work, discrimination for being a unionist and discrimination within their own union for being a woman. On top of that, women in Latin America live in a predominantly patriarchal society.


REGION: Latin America

TEXT: Leonie Guguen

Despite this, women have still managed to rise to the top of male-dominated unions in Latin America. Four union leaders from Brazil, Chile, Colombia and the Dominican Republic are proof that women are capable of leading unions in the face of many challenges.

“I wanted to fight injustice and the lack of democracy in the workplace,” says Lucineide Varjão, president of Brazilian chemical workers’ union and IndustriALL Global Union affiliate CNQ-CUT, on her decision to be active in her union. “Companies write the rules, make demands and punish workers who they believe do not comply with the rules they impose.”

Originally trained as a social worker, Varjão started out as a domestic worker in an explosives factory in São Paulo. She got her first taste of union discrimination when she was dismissed after taking part in an eleven-day strike that won important victories for the workers. After moving to a plastics company in São Paulo, she became involved in CNQ-CUT, soon becoming a member of the union executive and holding several posts before becoming president last year.

However, Varjão’s success has not been without struggle.

“Unfortunately, I have always faced discrimination and prejudice both at work and in the trade union movement. If you are a woman, if you have children, you are the victim of prejudice in many ways. Some companies prefer men as employees because they don’t get pregnant and won’t need to go on maternity leave. There is no doubt that this greatly restricts the opportunities and professional development of working women.”

The sexism in unions is part of the gender discrimination that is entrenched in many Latin American countries.

“The deep-rooted sexist culture in Brazilian society imposes rules that form obstacles for women. Women constantly have to prove they are capable of taking on a leadership role in the unions or in any other institution. Breaking through this culture is a daily battle,” adds Varjão.

“We live in a patriarchal society that believes women are incapable of taking decisions about our own lives and of taking responsibility in public life. Day in, day out, this attitude imposes what men’s and women’s role in society should be. The major challenge we face is to change this mentality and these practices, so people realize that a woman’s place is everywhere!”

Standing up to sexism

Varjão says sexism in the trade union movement exists but is better disguised: “Women have to prove and prove again that they have the ability and training to take on political roles; there is a lot less pressure on men in this respect.”

Erica Hidalgo, vice-president of the Chilean workers’ union at Enap Magallanes, a state-owned energy company, tells of a similar experience:

“In general, men try to stop women standing for leadership positions in trade union elections. If women get elected the men close ranks to make sure that women do not get appointed to senior positions,” says Hidalgo who is also national secretary of IndustriALL affiliate, FENATRAPECH, representing workers in petroleum and related industries.

“I suffered a lot of discrimination from my peers when I first became leader. With time, patience and knowledge, I gradually asserted my position and they accepted me.”

Union leader Claudia Blanco is the only woman train driver at the Colombian coal mining operation run by Prodeco, a Glencore subsidiary. She is responsible for transporting coal, freight and passengers and reveals that discrimination initially came from her own colleagues:

“A lot of people did not believe that I would be able to do the job of train driver. But when they saw that I was working hard and was dedicated to the job, they realized that women are capable and that women could also play a role in the union, despite the prevalent sexism,” says Blanco.

Blanco was encouraged by her all-male colleagues to become president of the Ciénaga branch of SINTRACARBON, IndustriALL’s Colombian affiliate in the coal-mining sector.

“When I witnessed the injustices and abuses at Prodeco I realized the importance of the union,” explains Blanco. “It is a weapon that workers can use to confront the company and stop the abuses. Prodeco is very anti-union, it has strong anti-union policies, and blatantly violates workers’ rights. So our union branch faces the constant challenge of fending off these attacks by the company.”

Despite being harassed at work and intimidated by her bosses, Blanco has been able to make advances for her co-workers.

“We have achieved the reinstatement of several colleagues, without them facing sanctions. We also have more respect of workers’ rights. Our colleagues can speak to the management of the company without fear as they feel they have the support of the union,” says Blanco.

As general secretary of textile union Futurazona-CTU, Mayra Jiménez has been instrumental in leading a turnaround in working conditions for garment workers in the Dominican Republic, where the sector was once dominated by child labour.

Jiménez began working in a Korean-owned textile factory when she was 14 years old. The company employed 1,200 girls, all of whom were between 13 and 17 years old. At age 15, she was covertly organizing her fellow workers, by 16 she was director of an unofficial union that represented around 20,000 workers in the industrial area. Nearly all other union leaders were men.

“We created a trade union but it wasn’t recognized by the labour ministry. We couldn’t organize at the company, as was legally required, because we would have all been fired,” says Jiménez.

A turning point came in 1989 when a pregnant colleague and union activist, Rafaella Rodriguez, lost her baby when she was badly beaten after confronting management at another Korean-owned garment factory. “All workers were outraged,” reveals Jiménez. “We reported the incident internationally and with all the pressure we made, we got the working code modified.” The code had been established while the country was still in a dictatorship and was changed in 1992.

“I saw very positive results from the beginning. I saw how a fight to confront abuses could lead to a global improvement for workers around the world and we achieved a modification of the code that we never thought possible.”

Jiménez, who is now a trained lawyer, says that while there are no longer underage girls working in garment factories, many of the gains they made related to working hours and maternity rights are now under attack:

“After 22 years we are still fighting very hard because employers, supported by the government, are proposing a change in the working code where workers lose the rights they fought so hard for.”

“They are thinking of letting a woman get fired if she gets pregnant, which is a very big aggression in terms of reproductive and family rights,” reveals Jiménez who says that employers want to hire younger people with less rights and no social security or compensations.


Jiménez has clear advice for women seeking to get involved in unions. “The best way to learn how to be a leader is by participating. A union is a big school.”

Brazilian union leader Varjão agrees:

“Participate! Don’t wait for other people to do it for you. Unions are tools for building a more equal society. We cannot hang about waiting for things to happen. Every one of us has to play our part, in the union, in the neighbourhood where we live, in the school where we study or at the workplace, that is, in all the areas of life where we are active.

“Women must always try to help each other and show solidarity with each other, because we must act together as a group in the battle with this patriarchal society. We have a saying that one woman’s story is the story of all women and it is this similarity in our situation that unites and strengthens us.”

Union affiliates in Latin America are leading the drive for a 40 per cent quota for women’s representation at all levels of IndustriALL.

“Our region was the first to decide to promote this initiative. If there isn’t a clear and effective application of this policy it is going to be very hard,” says Jiménez who says that union structures and goals need to correspond with women’s visions and specific needs. “Women need to feel that the union is improving their quality of life as well as improving their salary and working conditions.”


Equal representation in union leadership should exist even if most members are men, argues Hidalgo: “Only women can know the needs of other women. There is a long way to go before men understand our real needs and see us as equals. We cannot change things unless we have equality at the leadership level.”

Equal participation by women and men cannot be expressed simply in terms of a number or a percentage says Varjão: “Parity is not only a number, it is a policy for strengthening and encouraging equal participation by women in the unions. In addition, it is the inalienable democratic right of women to participate in conditions of equality.

“It is not natural that men predominate at the leadership level, in decision making bodies and the centres of power. Parity is a way of changing this situation and ensuring the presence of a ‘critical mass’ of women in these structures. To enforce parity means changing the structures of power and democratizing political practices,” adds Varjão.

Practical steps

There are many practical steps to help women. Hidalgo advocates training alongside men, while Jiménez says that unions need to change attitude:

It seems that every union assumes family and childcare issues are the responsibility of women and that is a very big limitation for participation.

Varjão recommends unions change the times when meetings, including mass meetings, are held so that more women can take part.

She urges:

“Women should be assertive and not become discouraged or intimidated by discrimination and prejudice. It is important for women in union leadership positions to avoid repeating the actions and practices typical of men. They must establish another pattern of behaviour based on solidarity, fellowship and the decentralization of power, so as to promote greater participation by women in all areas of society, at the workplace and in the trade union movement.”