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Women Share Working Woes on U.N. Day

October 26, 1987|KATHLEEN HENDRIX | Times Staff Writer

"When did I start working?"

Sylvia Salley, a San Francisco member of Black Women for Wages for Housework, recounted her life's resume:

"We lived in Seattle. My father developed black lung. We had no money. My mother started working in the sweatshops. So I had to care for my brothers and sisters, and by the time I was 8, I was doing it for women in the neighborhood. Once when I was 10, I had 13 kids, one just two years younger than myself, and I had them all night long.

"When I grew older," she continued, "I worked at McDonald's, slaving my guts out just to earn money for a dress. Then I went to work at a bag (handbag) factory. I was in school from 9 to 2:30 and I worked from 3:30 (p.m.) to 12:30 (a.m.). I tried to do my homework. Some of the women in the sweatshop tried to help me along.

"When I moved to San Francisco, I tried a non-traditional job and went to work for the phone company, as a splicer climbing the poles, going down the manholes. A Native American woman. I fit right in to their affirmative action plan. The pay was great but the work was unreal. The safety hazards the men put up with. . . . I started facing some sexual harassment. The unions were no help. Finally, I got offered a management job. . . . I convinced my boss to let me work four 10-hour days so I could spend a little more time with my child and community organizing."

Today, she added, "I try to get up at 5, work from 6 to 4:30, get my kid, put some food together, help her with her homework, organize in the evening, try to get six hours sleep.

"It's not working," she concluded. "I've got gray hair. I look 40 and I'm 30."

Wide Range of Speakers

Salley spoke Saturday in a circle of women gathered in the community room of the Stella Maris Center, a downtown residence for students and working women run by the Sisters of Social Service.

The topic was waged and unwaged work, and the working women who spoke ranged from a nurse to a prostitute.

Considering the setting, the decorations were startling: banners proclaiming "Whores Against Wars," "Wages Due Lesbians," "Paguen a Las Mujeres--No a Las Contras," "Black Women for Wages for Housework," "Women count. Count women's work," and "U.N. Day--International Time Off for Women."

The informal speak-out came on United Nations Day and resulted from the final resolution of the United Nations Decade on Women's conference in Nairobi in 1985, which urged nations to start counting all of women's waged and unwaged work in their gross national products. The resolution itself was, in part, a product of a now-famous statistic released by the U.N. during that decade: "While women represent 50% of the world population and one-third of the official labor force, they perform nearly two-thirds of all working hours, receive only one-tenth of the world income and own less than 1% of world property."

Margaret Prescod, the campaign coordinator of International Wages for Housework Campaign, the group that led the battle for the U.N. resolution, introduced Saturday's speakers by saying, "It's important for us to start to list just what that two-thirds of the work is that we do."

And so they went around the room, using their time off to speak out, while the results were tallied on large white posters. By the end, the list numbered more than 80.

Rachel Ayala, Pomona: "I'm a welfare mother. I'm an undergraduate and, finally, I've been accepted into law school. My fear is that I won't accomplish my goals. My days end at 1:30 a.m. and I have to get started at 5:30. I have two kids. I have to get them off to school, do the housekeeping, try to line up financial aid for school--after I pay the rent there's $85 mad money for the month.

"I'm trying to use welfare as a stepping stone. But more than anything, I'm scared. I'm 28 and I'm exhausted."

Jeanette Ellis, Pomona: "I'm a burnout. I taught elementary school for 11 years. I've got a B. A. in early childhood. I schemed . . . did everything to get that B. A. I was trying to stay off welfare. I was raised on it. I got so manipulative with the system--the mental stress you go through, but eventually you break down. There are no more loopholes.

"Teaching is what I really enjoy doing, but when my daughter graduated from high school and wanted to go to college, I could not help her. I was not married then, and I still owed the school for my college. So I quit my job so she'd be allowed to receive grant money. I cut myself short.

"Now I'm selling encyclopedias. I'm president of the National Council of Negro Women in Pomona. At least that gives me some outlet to socialize and share experiences."

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