Women of Steel Know Their Power

More than 1,000 passionate union activists descended upon Pittsburgh for the 2023 USW International Women’s Conference, where they took part in several days of educational workshops and celebrated the Women of Steel who give the union its strength.

The conference buzzed with attendees from all of the union’s 12 districts in the U.S. and Canada, who came to flex their union muscles, learn new skills and take inspiration for charting future paths back to their home locals.

The delegates shook the conference hall with booming chants and cheers from the very start. International Women of Steel Director Randie Pearson took the stage to welcome delegates.

“Good morning, Women of Steel,” she said. “This conference is about knowing your power, and part of my power is being my authentic, honest self.”

Pearson, who worked at an oil refinery in Toledo, Ohio, from 2006 to 2017, spoke candidly about the challenges she faced as a woman in a male-dominated industry, and about the important education she received years ago at her first women’s conference.

“My union sisters and I knew that our voices were important on the job,” she said. “Not just for us, but for the sisters that came before us, and the sisters who are going to come after us.”

International Vice President Roxanne Brown thanked her fellow Women of Steel, emphasizing the power women have to make a difference in their unions and in their communities.  

“In every room, show up as yourself,” Brown said. “Be authentically you, and all that comes with you, particularly as it relates to the fights we fight collectively every day as a union: things like a good job that allows you to put food on your family’s table, send your kids to school and retire one day and leave a legacy for future generations.”

Brown referenced the theme of the conference, “Know Your Power,” setting the tone for several days of education and excitement.

“I tell you this to remind you to not just know your power, but use it wisely,” said Brown, noting that her six-year-old daughter was inspired to take to the microphone at the 2022 USW International Convention after seeing her mother take the stage.

“It’s important for our girls – big and small – to see us doing powerful things.”

Brown spoke to the many women in the union who are shattering glass ceilings, including Cathy Drummond from Local 9460 at Essentia Health in Hibbing, Minn., who took office Oct. 13 as the new District 11 director.

The delegation also paused to acknowledge former USW International President Tom Conway, who passed away on Sept. 25, and welcomed David McCall as the union’s new international president.

“The Women of Steel are integral to the sustainability and growth of this union,” McCall said. “It is our job to continue fighting for their equal opportunity, involvement, and rights in our workplaces.”

AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler greeted conference attendees on video and reflected on the importance of women’s activism.

“I know how tough it is to be the only woman in the room,” said Shuler. “But unions are how we stand together, get equal pay and get the opportunities we deserve.”

Building Strength

The week consisted of dozens of workshops covering all aspects of building union power, safety and solidarity, with a particular focus on the challenges women face in the workplace.

Luevon Boddie-Lewis of Local 9-00719 has worked at the WestRock Co. paper mill in Demopolis, Ala., for 18 years, but this was her first time attending the women’s conference.

Boddie-Lewis, a laboratory technician, said Women of Steel is crucial for creating unity with union women in diverse sectors, and emphasized the opportunities the conference offers for networking.

“There’s nothing women can’t do,” said Boddie-Lewis. “Women make the world go around, and we are here to help bring them together.”

Nyeshia Daniels, who also works at WestRock and is in her fifth year in quality control, said the union difference is that someone is there to fight for her rights on the job.

“We’re here today because we want to equal the playing field,” said Daniels. “Only 5 to 10 percent of our work force at WestRock are women – that’s not many. We are trying to create strength among them.”

Conference workshops ranged from civil and human rights classes on supporting trans, non-binary and gender non-conforming members, to health and safety courses on hazard mapping, aging in the workplace and improving women’s personal protective equipment. Rapid Response workshops guided members through building legislative activism.

Ada Acosta, a member of Local 13-00001 who has worked for seven years at the Shell chemical plant in Deer Park, Texas, was one of just two members to attend from her local. Acosta said the most surprising takeaway from the conference was how many industries make up the Women of Steel.

“This is my first time at this conference, and to me, Women of Steel is all about supporting each other and learning new ways to do that, no matter what field you’re in,” said Acosta. “I’m excited to take what I learn here back to share with my local.”

Rallying in Solidarity

Delegates took their solidarity outside the conference hall when they converged on the University of Pittsburgh campus to rally in support of the staff and graduate workers who are at various stages of union organizing.

Women of Steel joined hundreds of others calling on the university administration to show fairness and neutrality toward its workers. Staff members at Pitt are gearing up for a union election, while graduate workers launched their union card drive on Oct. 2.

USW flags flew high as members filled the streets with booming voices. The crowd held signs and chanted, “Get up, get down, Pittsburgh is a union town!” and numerous other rallying cries.

Fatima Ijaz, an administrative assistant in the Department of Physics at the University of Toronto, joined the conference this year as a first-time attendee. She and more than 7,000 administrative and technical staff from the University of Toronto, Victoria University and St. Michael’s College belong to USW Local 1998.

Ijaz and other USW members who work in higher education spoke to members of the Pitt organizing committees at the rally about the process of winning their unions. 

Amanda Buda, of Local 412 at the University of Guelph in Ontario, serves as the Women of Steel coordinator for her local. She was participating in her first women’s conference, and said she was proud to rally alongside other higher education workers for fair treatment. 

“There are a lot of people here that are in the same boat and in very similar situations,” Buda said. “If I have any advice, it's that you don't know what you don't know. It’s always best if you have any type of question to reach out and ask a current union member how they did it, because there's always an answer and information that will benefit you in the long run.”

Press Inquiries

Media Contacts

Communications Director:
Jess Kamm at 412-562-6961

USW@WORK (USW magazine)
Editor R.J. Hufnagel

For industry specific inquiries,
Call USW Communications at 412-562-2442

Mailing Address

United Steelworkers
Communications Department
60 Blvd. of the Allies
Pittsburgh, PA 15222