Regina Polk and Women’s Rights
This is the legacy of a young woman who joined the labor movement at a precarious time in American history and fought hard to bridge the vast disparities between the power of owners and the dignity of workers. As a Teamster organizer and business agent in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, Regina was one of the first females on the professional staff of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and among the first to organize the neglected yet beleaguered so-called white-collar workers.
Regina Polk cared about individual rights. She particularly cared about women struggling silently in the workplace and fought to give them a voice as well as better pay, better benefits, and a modicum of respect through membership in the most powerful union in America.
For his part, (Don) Peters already had a sense of who Regina was. He had her impressive resume and a recommendation from Bob Simpson. Furthermore, he had seen Regina leafletting workers at the Sears Roebuck catalog house, where the passion of her performance and the response of the workers caught his interest. He knew that when there were problems on a picket line, people would fall into two categories: the ones who disappear and the stand-up guys like Simpson. Peters had every reason to believe that Regina would be in Simpson’s category.
In the end, it wasn’t the dress, her beauty or her bearing that impressed Peters. “It was her strong interest in organizing the unorganized and her fervent belief in the union cause,” Peters recalled later. “She had intelligence, passion, commitment, empathy, and a fierce desire to right the wrongs she came across.”
A Marriage of Equal Opposites
Thomas Heagy and Regina Polk stood side by side in a small Swedenborgian church in San Francisco. They had found each other and their callings in life. Regina was a Teamster star by then and Tom was a very young chairman and CEO of the reform-renowned South Shore Bank. In addition to promising to love, honor and cherish each other, they had a solid understanding. Tom would help and support his new wife in whatever way he could (including phone calls, picket line activity, and her frequent trips to shoe stores). In return, she would keep the union away from his bank.
After a honeymoon spent cruising the Mediterranean, Tom kept his word and continued to hand out leaflets while advising Regina on how to convince arbitrators and management during negotiations. Acknowledging his unique privilege of being married to a union organizer and business agent, Tom developed an appreciation of cooperation between labor and management.
“She had as much power as Tom,” says Amy Burack, who attended the wedding with her future husband, Tom’s friend Michael. “It was an equal relationship but no based on money. She was committed to the cause and he loved that side of her.”
In May of 1981, Regina was selected to deliver the keynote speech at Local 743’s annual Stewards’ Seminar, affectionately called Teamster Prom. It was a huge honor. She was only 31 years old and very excited about the prospect of thanking the stewards who she felt were the most important and most put-upon members of the union, and for the opportunity to educate and inspire them. Regina believed that the stewards were the face of the union in the workplace and, as a result, the most important people in the union. She was aware of the problems they faced on a daily basis, appreciated their efforts and understood their need for renewal and inspiration.
At that time, Local 743, with more than 30,000 members, was the largest Teamster local in the country. The “man-age-ment” of unions was guarded by men of a certain age who meant to keep control. But they were struggling.
A woman had never before had the opportunity to be as influential or unforgettable as Regina would be in her speech to the stewards. She had long since proven her value, her passion, and her ability. There wasn’t a doubt in anyone’s mind as to who would lead them next.
“I Am a Teamster: a short, fiery story of Regina v. Polk, her hats, her pets, sweet love and the modern day labor movement” by Terry Spencer Hesser was written for working women as an inspirational story. Regina lived and worked passionately and fought for the rights of female workers. She was on a rise to fame within the American Labor Movement when she was tragically killed in a plane crash at the age of 33. This book honors her memory and allows her to continue to inspire.