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Women of distinction PDF Print E-mail

Elizabeth Bunn


Odessa Komer


Mildred Jeffrey




 Elizabeth Bunn

Building on the Past
Elizabeth Bunn extends UAW fight for social justice
by Jennifer John

UAW Secretary-Treasurer Elizabeth Bunn is the union’s highest-ranking woman — and the first woman to hold the union’s No. 2 position. She’s also responsible for the union’s Technical, Office and Professional Department (TOP) and directs the Women’s Department. Bunn played a key role in negotiating a first contract for gaming workers at Detroit’s three casinos. She bargained innovative contracts for TOP members at Blue Cross Blue Shield, the state of Michigan (UAW Local 6000), the state of Indiana (UAW Local 9212) and others.

In addition, as a member of the National Writers Union, UAW Local 1981, Bunn provided critical support to the local’s long legal struggle to protect copyrights on the Internet. Before being elected vice president in 1998, Bunn was an administrative assistant to former UAW President Stephen P. Yokich. She first joined the international staff when Owen Bieber appointed her associate general counsel in 1985.

Bunn, 52, received her bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan and her law degree from Wayne State University Law School in Detroit. She is a member of the AFL-CIO Executive Council, a lifetime member of the NAACP and a member and officer of the Coalition of Labor Union Women (CLUW). She lives in Detroit with her husband, Jordan, and two sons, Paul and Jordy.

SOLIDARITY: Did you ever think that you’d achieve something like this when you were appointed to the UAW International staff 17 years ago?

ELIZABETH BUNN: No, I never did. The men and women in our union have been extremely supportive and committed to diversity at all levels. It’s a tribute to the UAW. I feel a great humility about holding the office of secretary-treasurer and thank all of the members of our union for bestowing this honor. I feel equally committed to supporting our young union activists — men and women — in their efforts to contribute to building the UAW.

SOLIDARITY: Along the way, who were your mentors?

BUNN: In particular, former UAW President Steve Yokich had a great influence on me with his overall vision of the
labor movement. But it wasn’t just that. He taught me how to balance a commitment to the union with a life outside the union. Regarding bargaining, Leonard Paula (retired administrative assistant in the former UAW Chrysler Department) taught me the importance of research and preparation before bargaining begins. Bargaining is about solving workers’ problems, and you can’t forge solutions if you don’t understand the problems. I also owe a deep debt to President Gettelfinger and Vice President Shoemaker. And, of course, all of the UAW women pioneers — Olga Madar, Millie Jeffrey, Odessa Komer, Carolyn Forrest — influenced me in many, many ways. On a day-to-day basis, the women activists in our local unions are my mentors.

SOLIDARITY: What advice would you give rank-and-file women of the UAW?

BUNN: Everything I’ve done in the union has been a rewarding experience. It’s important for our membership — men and women — to do the best possible job and feel the pride and power that comes from being in the UAW. There aren’t any arbitrary obstacles to holding any one position.

SOLIDARITY: As director of the union’s Women’s Department, your inventive Woman-to-Woman outreach effort in the 2000 elections in Michigan was credited with involving thousands of women in electoral activity for the first time. What prompted the union to expand its existing Worker-to-Worker program?

BUNN: We sought through the Woman-to-Woman program to involve local union women’s committees in the political agenda of our union. Politics makes a difference in people’s lives in many ways. Our goal was for women activists to talk with women in the rank-and-file about the specific ways politics affects women at work, at home and
in their communities. We had a great time in the process and hope to expand the program in the future.

SOLIDARITY: What are your goals for this union, particularly for women and minorities?

BUNN: We have to keep building on our past accomplishments and be vigilant every day in preserving our legacy. The fight for social justice has not been won. Recent events make that crystal clear. Trent Lott’s statements are proof that racism remains a significant part of our national life. And, it is disheartening in the extreme that the president of the United States is taking the position that it is unconstitutional for the University of Michigan to seek a diverse student body in order to enhance the educational experience of all the students.


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 Odessa Komer (1925 - 2004)

Another woman might have been satisfied with being elected the vice-president of a well-respected international union (the United Auto Workers); but that wasn't enough for Odessa Komer. While she had achieved the highest post of any woman in Michigan, in an overwhelmingly male union, (she was the only woman on the United Auto Worker's International Executive Board along with 20 men) she believed she could go further. She argued, "I get equal pay - I want equal responsibility" as she sought and was assigned major collective bargaining assignments.

Komer started her climb as a member of UAW Local 228 in 1953 when she became an assembler at the Ford Sterling Plant. During her 14 years with this 7000 member local she was elected to numerous leadership positions, culminating with the post of recording secretary. Each time it was a "first" in the local's history to have a woman filling the job.

She participated in all phases of bargaining, both grievances and contracts. In 1964 while serving on the local bargaining committee, she was responsible for getting a clause into the contract that made seniority a consideration in better job assignments. Three years later that clause was incorporated into the national Ford agreement.

In 1967 Odessa Komer was appointed to the staff of the international union as education director of its 100,000-member Region I in Michigan. The UAW convention elected her to an international vice-presidency in 1974 and returned her to that office at each convention until her retirement in 1992.

Some of her major contributions are highlighted in her leadership in the UAW drive to launch women's councils and women's conferences across the United States. Under Komer's direction, each year a new group of 200 local women attend a major women's conference of intensive training at the UAW Family Education Center. This support structure has paid off; UAW women got elected to top local union posts in roughly the same proportion as their membership, a rare accomplishment in any organization.

With the jobs of 22 million women workers at stake, Odessa Komer led the UAW challenge to corporate policies that removed women of child-bearing age from dangerous areas, insisting that those areas be safe for all workers. Her battle was waged all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and the UAW position was upheld.

The achievements and involvements of Odessa Komer are many and varied. They include: Board of Trustees of Macomb Community College and the first woman president; Advisory Board, National Organization for Women; National Vice-President, Coalition of Labor Union Women; Advisory Board Member of Women's Occupational Health Resource Center; Advisory Board Member, National Women's Political Caucus; and Member of President's Advisory, Committee for Women, appointed by President Carter. Governor Milliken appointed her to the powerful three-person Brown-McNeely Malpractice Insurance Commission (1975-1980), the only woman serving with two medical doctors. In 1980-81 she was appointed to the Governor's Task Force on Prison Reform


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 Mildred Jeffrey

April 05, 2004
Mildred Jeffrey 1911-2004
Steven Greenhouse writes in The New York Times:

Mildred Jeffrey, who for seven decades was an influential behind-the-scenes combatant in the women's, labor and civil rights movements, died on March 24 in Detroit. She was 93.

Her death was announced by the United Automobile Workers union, where she was the first woman to head a department, becoming director of its Women's Bureau in 1944. She was a founder of the National Women's Political Caucus and was the unofficial head of a group of women who helped persuade Walter F. Mondale to name Geraldine A. Ferraro as his running mate on the 1984 Democratic ticket.

As a student at the University of Minnesota in the early 1930's, she and an African-American classmate helped integrate restaurants in Minneapolis. Decades later, she marched in the South with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

In 2000, President Bill Clinton awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor.

Mildred McWilliams, known as Millie, was born on Dec. 29, 1910, in Alton, Iowa, the eldest of seven children. Her grandmother, a widow, ran a farm and raised 16 children by herself. Her mother, who was the first woman to become a registered pharmacist in Iowa, in 1908, raised seven children on her own after her husband left the family.

In 1932, Ms. Jeffrey received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of Minnesota, where she immersed herself in the socialist and progressive movements. In 1934, she received a master's degree in social economy and social research from Bryn Mawr.

With the passage of laws promoting labor unions, she became an organizer for the Amalgamated Clothing Workers in Philadelphia and later the education director of the Pennsylvania Joint Board of Shirt Workers.

In 1936, she married another Amalgamated organizer, Homer Newman Jeffrey. They organized workers in the South and the East, taking mill jobs and rushing to unionize factories before management fired them for their activism. They divorced in the late 1950's.

During World War II, they moved to Washington and became consultants to the War Labor Board. There, they became close to Walter and Victor Reuther, the U.A.W. leaders.

In 1944, she moved to Detroit when the Reuthers offered her the job as head of the union's new Women's Bureau. She organized the U.A.W.'s first women's conference when a flood of returning veterans resulted in the large-scale postwar layoffs of women from factory jobs.

From 1949 to 1954 she ran the union's radio station. She also became director of its community relations department, aligning the union behind many civil rights efforts, and from 1968 to 1976, the year she retired, she headed the union's consumer affairs department.

Throughout her years at the union, she was active organizing, canvassing and raising money for the Democratic Party and civil rights efforts.

After helping create the National Women's Political Caucus in 1971, she became a leader on the Democratic Party committee that ensured that half the delegates to its 1980 convention were women. She helped propel the careers of many women in politics, including the governor of Michigan, Jennifer M. Granholm, a Democrat.

Patricia Schroeder, a former United States representative from Colorado, said, "Millie is the political godmother for many of us."

Ms. Jeffrey ran for only one office, when she was elected in Michigan to the board of governors of Wayne State University in Detroit. She served on the board for 16 years, including three years as its chairwoman.

She played a major role in many groups, including the Coalition of Labor Union Women, Emily's List, Americans for Democratic Action, the National Abortion Rights League and the American Civil Liberties Union.

Three years ago, Ms. Jeffrey told a University of Minnesota magazine: "My underlying goal was always to empower women. Get them to learn their rights, and to exercise them!"


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