Building Women’s Leadership in Unions and Worker Centers

SMLR’s Center for Innovation in Worker Organization (CIWO) Partners with Georgetown University on the WILL Empower project

By Steve Flamisch

The Center for Innovation in Worker Organization (CIWO) at the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations is teaming up with Georgetown University on a multi-year project to increase women’s leadership in the labor movement.

Left to right: Marilyn Sneiderman, Lane Windham, Sheri Davis-Faulkner, Joe McCartin

Supported by a combined gift of more than $1.5 million from the Berger-Marks Foundation, WILL Empower will identify, convene, and train women who are interested in pursuing leadership roles in public and private sector unions, worker centers, and community labor organizations. The project adds to CIWO’s growing portfolio of programs that are turbocharging the labor and social justice movements nationwide.

"Given the unprecedented attacks on women in today’s political climate, it is exciting to tap the creativity and energy of this next generation of women to lead a movement for transformative change,” said CIWO Director Marilyn Sneiderman. “Their vision, passion, and skills are needed now more than ever to win a more just country and world.”

Working in tandem with Georgetown’s Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor, CIWO will recruit diverse women who are emerging leaders in labor unions and other economic justice organizations to participate in the WILL (Women Innovating Labor Leadership) Empower project. They will attend trainings and conferences, engaging with dynamic peer groups to hone their leadership skills under the guidance of experienced mentors.

Women already active in unions will be eligible for academic fellowships, enabling them to step away from daily demands to pursue innovative ideas for broadening participation in the labor movement. Rank-and-file workers and recent college graduates will have access to apprenticeships with unions and other economic justice organizations.

All participants will be connected through an interactive, multi-media platform called the Future of Labor Interactive Project (FLIP), featuring online forums, research hubs, community-based projects, reports, and data.

“WILL Empower will be an indispensable new resource to build women’s leadership for the entire labor movement,” AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler said. “Women are half the workforce and nearly half of all union members. They hold the power to trail-blaze a stronger future for the labor movement.”  

Respected Scholar Joins CIWO to Lead Project

Nationally recognized scholar and labor expert Sheri Davis-Faulkner, Ph.D., joins CIWO to serve as project director for WILL Empower at Rutgers. She comes to New Jersey from Atlanta, where she served as director of the Westside Communities Alliance at Georgia Tech and as an adjunct professor at Spelman College. Davis-Faulkner holds a bachelor’s degree in Psychology and Political Science from Spellman College, a master’s degree in Women Studies from the Ohio State University, and a master’s degree and doctorate in American Studies from Emory University.

Early in her career, Davis-Faulkner completed an internship at the Rutgers Center for Women’s Global Leadership before entering the labor movement. She has more than 20 years of union experience, including work in the AFL-CIO Field Mobilization Department in the global rights program and SEIU’s Justice for Janitors campaign in Washington, DC.

“This project brings together all of my passions including women's empowerment, the labor movement, and the belief that public universities are a public good that joins academic expertise with community expertise to solve serious societal issues,” Davis-Faulkner said. “When we are successful, we will see labor leadership that is not only representative of the diverse complexions of the labor force, but also leaders who are prepared to present a more robust narrative of working women's everyday lives and get down to the business of inclusive agenda setting.”

Lane Windham, Ph.D., a fellow at the Kalmanovitz Initiative who spent nearly 20 years working in the union movement, will serve as project director for WILL Empower at Georgetown. She holds a doctorate in U.S. history from the University of Maryland. Windham’s book, Knocking on Labor’s Door, about union organizing in the 1970s, is due out later this year. Windham works closely with Professor Joe McCartin, a respected scholar and historian who leads the Kalmanovitz Initiative.

WILL Empower complements CIWO’s existing slate of programs, which seek to increase membership in unions and worker centers; build the bench of future labor leaders; reinvent collective bargaining; and strengthen co-enforcement of labor standards.

Sneiderman, the CIWO director, has three decades of experience in the union movement, including 10 years as Director of the National AFL-CIO’s Department of Field Mobilization. There, she launched a national campaign focused on increasing capacity and mobilizing support to win organizing, political, and policy campaigns in states and cities throughout the country. She has worked with leaders in community groups, unions, religious organizations, and civil/immigrant rights groups to fight for racial and economic justice through local movement building.

The Berger-Marks Foundation will close on June 30 and transfer its remaining assets to WILL Empower. Programming will begin in the fall.

“We are proud of the work our Foundation has supported,” said Linda Foley, President of the Berger-Marks Foundation. “But there is much work left to be done. We see the WILL Empower project as the most effective way to carry it on.”