‘Sky’s the limit’ as women workers revive Minnesota’s CLUW chapter

Outrage over the Supreme Court decision rescinding women’s right to an abortion has sparked interest among a growing number of local union members in the Coalition of Labor Union Women.

CLUW is a constituency group affiliated with the AFL-CIO that offers space and support for women in the labor movement to advocate for shared issues. Minnesota’s CLUW chapter had been dormant for a decade.

That’s no longer the case. A first meeting earlier this summer drew 44 activists, who got to work drafting bylaws and applying for recognition of the re-emergent Minnesota CLUW chapter. After a second meeting in August, Co-chair LeiLani Hauge said they should have an officially recognized charter by Labor Day.

“We’re still in an infancy stage,” said Hauge, a representative with AFSCME Council 65 who lives in Fergus Falls. “But it’s beautiful to see as we move forward what our potential is.”

Minnesota CLUW intends to meet the first Thursday of each month from 5:30 to 7 p.m. Meetings will be hybrid, with some joining virtually and others gathering in a union hall. So far, the Minnesota AFL-CIO in St. Paul has been the in-person gathering spot, but organizers hope to move meetings across the state.

Participation is open to all union members in good standing.

“We have public-sector workers, private-sector workers, women of color,” said Co-chair Leah Midgarden, a field organizer with the Southeast Area Labor Council. “We’ve got some younger folks in their late 20s or early 30s, and we are very blessed to have some retirees who were around during the previous iteration of Minnesota CLUW.”

Union members founded CLUW in 1974 – a year after the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision – around four core objectives, which “continue to be the cornerstone of CLUW’s activities,” according to the organization’s website. They are:

  • empowering women for greater participation at all levels in the labor movement.
  • organizing the unorganized.
  • promoting affirmative action, social and economic justice in the workplace.
  • increasing the participation of women in the political and legislative processes.

CLUW says its members “speak out for equal pay, child and elder care benefits, job security, safe workplaces, affordable health care, contraceptive equity, and protection from sexual harassment and violence at work.”

But the Supreme Court’s attack on reproductive freedom was the spark that led to CLUW’s awakening in Minnesota, and organizers said they hope to inform and advocate for abortion rights within the movement and beyond.

“Let’s be honest, there is still a sentiment in the public as well as organized labor broadly of not understanding why family planning is fundamentally a workers’ rights issue,” Midgarden, who lives in Red Wing, said. “There are social and economic impacts when childbearing people are not able to make the decision about when they will become parents.”

“Some of our folks are the ones who were actually picketing and marching when Roe v. Wade came onto the circuit in 1973,” Hauge said. “As a young union member and representative, I’m learning a lot from these folks.”

Hauge and Midgarden said union members or retirees who want to learn more about the Minnesota CLUW chapter should look for a table at upcoming union events, like the Minnesota AFL-CIO Convention this month. And they can also reach out by email at lmidgarden [at] semnalc [dot] org or lhauge [at] afscme65 [dot] org.

“I believe the sky’s the limit,” Hauge said. “We’ve got very passionate people, and because we all come from a labor-movement background, we know how to fight. We fight every day.”

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