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Washtenaw United: Gloria Llamas - Continuing the fight for workers' rights

Gloria Llamas
United Way of Washtenaw County
Gloria Llamas

WEMU has partnered with the United Way of Washtenaw Countyto explore the people, organizations, and institutions creating opportunity and equity in our area. And, as part of this ongoing series, you’ll also hear from the people benefiting and growing from the investments being made in the areas of our community where there are gaps in available services. It is a community voice. It is 'Washtenaw United.'


Gloria was a social Activist with Cesar Chavez. She began her career with Labor in 1978 and was in the workforce for 6-7 years and realized there were not enough women there and issues needed to be addressed. This led to Gloria becoming a Steward in the mid-80s to Mobilizer, Treasurer and later VP, Gloria has held nearly every position in the CWA. Blazing trails for women, Gloria was among the first and first minority women in leadership positions. Being Egalitarian is important to Gloria which is my much of her work is rooted in equity.


Communication Workers of America

Huron Valley Area Labor Federation


Giving back is a union tradition and United Way of Washtenaw County is honored to partner with members of organized labor to help communities. Whether it's contributing time, skills or money, union members help make a huge difference in our community through the United Way.

Our Community Services Liaison works with union members and local labor unions to enhance support of United Way and of the community. Working with local union leaders, we engage members in endorsing the campaign, and participation in campaign kick-offs and other campaign events.

History Behind the Partnership

In 1946, The American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) and United Way of America (now Worldwide) joined forces. The objective of this partnership at that time and today is to effect positive change in our communities; to become a part of the solution. This partnership included inviting Labor onto the Board of Directors at the national level as well as marshaling Labor Liaisons as a positive force at local United Ways across the country. It places emphasis on community service through volunteerism, education, information/referral, and support of United Way through employer-based giving campaigns and contributions from local unions and their staff.


David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU, and welcome to a conversation that serves as a conclusion to our Washtenaw United Women's History Month series. Throughout the month, we've been taking time each Monday to talk with women who have and continue to break barriers and tear down the walls and ceilings that continue to prevent us from reaching gender equity. I'm David Fair, and our guest today is yet another who chose a somewhat uncommon path for women by working in the labor movement in her quest for equity and social justice. Gloria Llamas began work with the Communication Workers of America union in 1978 and ultimately worked her way up to serve as its president. Now, she's an executive board member for the Huron Valley Labor Federation, which is a regional office of the AFL-CIO. And, Gloria, thank you so much for making time today.

Gloria Llamas: Thank you for having me.

David Fair: What about your upbringing led you to your chosen career path?

Gloria Llamas: I believe that my upbringing was reflected from my grandfather, who was a union member. My mother, who was a union member. But mostly my social justice work was watching my grandfather help settle migrants in Saginaw. That's where I grew up in Saginaw. And he was always doing civil work. And watching him do that, I think, my first introduction was leafleting for the Cesar Chavez grape boycott when I was 12.

David Fair: That's a pretty young age to start in with something as heavy as that. What drove you to that place?

Gloria Llamas: My grandfather, who was active always in the community. So, it was his introduction, and he explained it to us and what was going on. He was always explaining to my brothers and sisters. So, that was my introduction, and I thought it was important as a child to help. And one small way that I could help was leafleting grocery stores.

David Fair: How did then, as you grew older, choosing union work continue to serve the higher calling of moving forward the notion of equity and equality?

Gloria Llamas: Working for a union, and I have to say that, given my age, and I don't mind saying I'm 66, I came about and was able to get my job the year that affirmative action took place, so I would have not been hired at AT&T. I do remember somebody telling me I wouldn't hire you if it wasn't for affirmative action, and I thought to myself, "Well, at least I'm getting the opportunity, right?" It was an excellent career move, but as I moved my career within AT&T, that introduced me to the union. I had always been active outside of the union, but I found that I wanted to be a part of that movement because I didn't like the representation. And it was male dominated, right? And I ended up in a male dominated field at AT&T and didn't get the representation that I felt like I deserved and needed. And don't get me wrong, because the union is the one place where everyone is protected. You know, the first places where you get protected for being a woman for the LGBTQ community. A lot of the benefits started being within a union, but, like all organizations, they were all male dominated and all white.

David Fair: And that's a really interesting perspective because, again, there can be conflict in an organization. Even when it's working for equity, its own hierarchy has been slow to its own vision and mission.

Gloria Llamas: Yes. Yes. But I have watched it evolve. I have been part of that movement to push it to be involved. I have to say the union has embraced me, but it also has always been a fight. It always has been a fight to move up and and earn the votes because my positions were not given to me. The first voluntary ones to volunteer in the union, to do mobilization, to volunteer, to help mobilize information--

David Fair: But then you have to be elected.

Gloria Llamas: And then you have to be elected to all the other positions are elected positions, which is winning over your fellow workers. And, you know, I'm sure you have heard it from other women. You just have to work twice as hard to be recognized to be as good.

David Fair: And, unfortunately, that continues today. But has it been your experience in that trying to enact the necessary changes is better accomplished from within an organization than from outside pressures and perspectives?

Gloria Llamas: I believe we need both, but it was my intent that I needed to change it from within because I had to work within that organization, and I needed the protection of the union, and I wanted it. But I also felt like the pressures needed come from those supporting the union just like any other barrier that we have to break. It can't be done solely from within. It needs the support of the public, the people of the organization at the top. But you have to be a policymaker. I truly believed that I needed to become a policy maker to enact true change along with support, be it the public or my fellow union members. It can't be done alone.

David Fair: Washtenaw United and our Women's History Month conversation with Gloria Llamas continues on 89 one WEMU. Gloria is currently an executive board member for the Huron Valley Labor Federation and a foundation of your work and your personal interest has been around the subject of creating social justice. That phrase means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. What does it mean to you?

Gloria Llamas: It means equality. I see myself as an egalitarian. It means trying to advocate for those that cannot advocate for themselves and doing that, educating them, educating others. And what that means is that helping to break that glass ceiling wherever it is. We talk about it as a glass ceiling, but opening up and removing roadblocks that prevent anyone from moving forward in their life or getting justice. And I know that that's a broad phrase. I have worked it in a lot of different ways. I've advocated for children, I've advocated for women, I've advocated for people who didn't know the court system. I've worked in restorative justice. And what does that mean? That means trying to shine a light on where things are broken but need to be fixed, so it can truly embrace everyone and become stronger.

David Fair: So how do you put your vision of social justice to work as a board member--executive board member--of the Huron Valley Labor Federation? What kind of very specific measures does that take in our community?

Gloria Llamas: For me, it means I've dedicated time to being a part of our political arm that interviews candidates, seeking out union members, and training them to run for political office that share our same philosophy about workers' protections, workers' rights. So it's active work. It's not just setting policy, right? And that all takes time. Interviewing people, getting training, and training other people. I've done a lot of training, received a lot of training. So, at the Huron Valley Labor Federation, we have actively worked in advocating for workers in Ann Arbor and around and supported different unions that may be striking. And I think the last group of people that we tried to support was the Kellogg workers. Anybody who's going on strike lend them support through membership, mobilization, boots on the ground, manpower where we can, but also drafting letters to regents, governors, City Hall, asking people to be active all the way from, you know, township level up.

David Fair: You have seen and helped enact a great deal of change over the years, but I think we can all agree there's still a great deal more work to be done. As you reflect on your life and career to this point, what would you like to say to the girls of today, the women of tomorrow, and anyone who would continue to pose barriers to achieving true equity?

Gloria Llamas: To never give up. To look for allies. To join in with like-minded people. And you can do it through organizations, whether you choose to do it through your church or a union. Don't be afraid to speak up. And stand up for yourself and find those that will support you, mentor you, along the way. Don't be afraid to ask.

David Fair: And to those who continue to work against the kind of social justice you work toward, what's your message to them?

Gloria Llamas: My message to them is don't be afraid of change. We're not a threat to anyone. For those people that work against that change, to me, it has to do about hoarding wealth or being afraid of sharing what they think is power.

David Fair: I'd like to thank you for the time and for sharing your insights today, Gloria. Much appreciated.

Gloria Llamas: Well, thank you for having me.

David Fair: That is Gloria Llamas, executive board member of the Huron Valley Labor Federation, a part of the AFL-CIO, a longtime labor leader and activist for equity and social justice. Gloria is our final guest in our Washtenaw United Women's History Month series. To listen to the others, simply visit our website at WEMU dot org. Washtenaw United is produced in partnership with the United Way of Washtenaw County, and you hear it every Monday. I'm David Fair, and this is 891 one WEMU FM and WEMU HD One Ypsilanti.

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