''A REAL-LIFE 'NORMA RAE'''
Subject: Peggy Glavas, Union Organizer
"A REAL-LIFE 'NORMA RAE'"
Like the heroine you remember from the movie, Peggy Glavas is a gutsy
blue-collar mom who has challenged the establishment -- both labor and
management -- and has won. By Marcia Cohen [Good Housekeeping, 7/90]
Peggy Glavas has always been proud of being a "factory worker's
daughter." Her grandfather, father, and brother have all bee laborers
and union members at Butler Manufacturing, a steel fabricating company
in Galesburg, Illinois. . . .
Galesburg is a factory town. Like most rank-and-file factory workers,
Peggy lives with her family -- husband George; daughter Marcy, 11; and
son Alexander, 7 -- in a small house near the factory. The company's
professionals and managers live in grander style near the golf course
and lakes. Peggy has always been conscious of the distinctions between
the two groups and intensely loyal to her "family" of co-workers.
After graduating from high school in 1974, she held several low-paying
clerical jobs. Then in 1976, she heard that Butler, in compliance with
a new EEOC ruling, was hiring women for some of the higher-paying
factory jobs previously held by men only. Compared to what Peggy had
been earing, they pay was substantial, so she applied for a job in the
factory and was hired as a truckloader's "helper."
Just 5'2" and 110 pounds, Peggy is as strong as she is strong-willed.
She loved the job. "Loading a truck carrying 40,000 pounds is like
putting together the pieces of a big puzzle," hse says. "I felt like
I was really accomplishing something."
In December of that year, Peggy also got married -- to George Glavas, a
young artist she'd been dating. But happy as she was in her new
marriage and in her work, she began to pick up signals that she and
the few other female factory workers at Butler were not welcome. In a
rush to finish a load one day, she caught her hands between heavy metal
girders and crushed two fingers, leaving her in searing pain for several
months. "Suddenly I seemed to go from valued employee to
'accident-prone,'" says Peggy, "and for the next year I felt the bosses
were assigning me the heaviest lifting . . . any work that would hurt
Then in 1978, when she informed management that she was 2-1/2 months
pregnant, she was told she would have to take an immediate unpaid
maternity leave. (Today such an action would be illegal.) Angry, she
filed a complaint with the Illinois Fair Employement Practices
Commission -- which ruled in her favor and awarded her a sum of money
she agreed not to divulge.
The ruling, predictably, did not win her popularity with her employers.
Two days after giving birth to daughter Marcy, Peggy, still
recuperating, received a letter from Butler's personnel department
saying she'd be considered a "voluntary quit" if she didn't return to
work within the next three days.
"They were playing on my maternal instincts," Peggy asserts, "trying to
get me to decide right then and there between my child and my work, even
though I was entitled to maternity leave." She countered by getting a
note from her doctory saying she could return only after 5 weeks. (When
son Alex was born in December 1982, she was able to take a maternity
leave without problems.)
Having arranged for a baby-sitter to care for her baby, Peggy returned
to Butler's on an evening shift -- and started attending meetings of
her union, Local 2629 of the United Steelworkers Union. The approximately
700-member local included only about 80 women at the time. At first
Peggy was timid about airing complaints, but gradually she started
speaking up on issues that concerned her and others: the wage freeze
that had been imposed on workers but not on management, worker safety,
medical benefits -- and, especially, the company's general treatment
of women employees.
To better understand labor law and the technical language of union
contracts, Petty took night classes at nearby Car Sandburg Community
College. She soon noticed that some union officials seemed lax in
pursuing workers' grievances and contract rights and began to suspect
they were advancing their own, not members', interests by making secret
"sweetheart deals" with management.
At union meetings Peggy closely questioned union officials, and in 1982
was elected secretary of Local 2629. In 1985 she became its first
Being a woman in the predominantly male world of management and labor
unions has been anything but easy. One of her most frequent adversaries
across the bargaining table was Butler's personnel manager, James Asplund.
Peggy's stubborn dedication to workers' rights apparently baffled the
man who admits that once, "just for fun," he dangled a live mouse in
Peggy's face -- only to be shocked when she didn't flinch. "I've never
known anyone like her," says Asplund. "I don't understand her motives,"
but he adds, "she's a good worker and she's smart."
Peggy also found herself going up against what she describes as the "old
guard" of the union itself. "As I kept speaking up on issues," Peggy
says, "some fo the 'old guard' of the union didn't like it. It would
have been easy to do what some officials do -- just ACT like I was
representing the people. But I couldn't live with myself if I did
Once, while she was still union secretary, she was asking questions
during a meeting when an opponent called the police and had her ejected
on a disorderly conduct charge. The charge didn't stick.
But her biggest test of will came after she became president, and a
group of the "old guards" used legal maneuvers to call in the
International Steelworkers Union and have her ousted from office. Peggy
took the group to court and in 1987 was reinstated to office by the U.S.
Department of labor. Later a federal court, stating that the
international union had deprived her of her rights to free speech and
denied her a fair hearing, awarded her $5,000 in damagers. In 1988 her
fellow union members demonstrated their continuing faith in her when the
reelected her to the presidency.
Peggy also found support along the way from other young labor leaders
within the International Union who, like her, wanted to represent their
members more honorably and upgrade the image of the unions. These
self-proclaimed "dissidents" criticize what they see as inflated
corporate salaries and frequent corporate claims that American companies
need to cut labor costs and move factories to cheaper labor markets to
But like-minded supporters and a court ruling didn't entirely settle
the dispute over Peggy's reinstatement. "I was threatened on a regular
basis," she says. "One 'old guard' supporter or another was always
going to beat me up. Someone would come up and say, 'If you were a man,
I'd have knocked you down by now.' Then somebody else would say, 'Don't
do it. That's what she wants you to do.'"
Peggy's family life suffered. Her husband, believing he had job
security as a mechanical engineer at t cable TV company, had little
sympathy for unions. After getting rooughed up by one of Peggy's union
opponents -- and watching the frightened reaction of daughter Marcy to
all the talk of threats -- he finally pressured his wife to quit the
Peggy was worried for her family, but in all conscience felt she
couldn't give up. Instead she sat her daughter down and tried to
explain why she felt she had to be involved. "I wanted my kids to see
their mom as a fighter," she says. "I told Marcy that self-respect
comes from standing up for what you believe in."
She and George separated for a brief time. Ironically, shortly after-
ward, George was fired from the cable company. "It was purely
political," he says, "and I finally realized that there really was a
point to what Peggy was doing. I'd had absolutely no job protection
after all." To Peggy's great job, the couple reconciled.
Not long after that, George opened his own antenaa service. Three
weeks later, a 95-foot tower had was wroking on fell over. His
skull was partially crushed, his eye gouged, one arm broken. Peggy
rushed to his side at the hospital and from that moment on has been
devoted to caring for her disabled husband. Today he is blind in one
eye and although medicated, still suffers from extreme emotional stress.
Peggy is now the sole support of her family.
"George has been tough as nails, the strongest man I've ever seen," she
says proudly. After the accident she seriously considered giving up her
union work, but her husband now didn't want her to. "I admire Peggy
too much for what she'd doing," he says. "She has a real strong heart
She needs George's support -- as well as that of other dissidents -- now
more than ever because she has become a controversial figure in
Galesburg. A working-class heroine to many co-workers, she is
criticized by others who claim she is too hard-headed and demanding in
her efforts to uncover what she regards as unfair practices of both
management and labor. "If working to make life better for yourself and
others is 'hard-headed,' then so be it," counters Peggy.
Whether or not she and other leaders succeed in making the changes they
want, she is committed to trying her best. "I'm not a quitter," she
says. "My parents influenced me not to be a quitter. I had to take
piano lessons for 10 years because I started them.
"The old assembly-line mentality is out of date -- it's demeaning for
workers to be treated like numbers. People want an active role in
their work. They're fighting for RESPECT. If I had a million dollars,"
says the woman whose idol is 1890s labor leader Mother Jones, "I'd
still be proud to be part of the working class."
Marcia Cohen contributes to many magazines and is the author of _The
Sisterhood_, a history of the women's movement.