The Polk Women’s Labor Leadership Conference, named in honor of Regina V. Polk, has been held annually since 1988. It is a small, intensive, four-day residential conference that focuses on developing women’s knowledge, activism and leadership skills. It is coordinated by the Labor Education Program of the University of Illinois School of Labor and Employment Relations.
Over the years, at least 750 women from Chicago and the Midwest have attended this conference and an additional 50 to 100 have participated as teachers, coaches, performers or presenters.
The Polk Conference is funded by the Regina V. Polk Fund Scholarship for Women’s Labor Leadership, which has provided substantial ($50,000 or more per year) support for this conference as well as for other women’s labor education projects. The Polk Fund honors the life work of Gina Polk who, as a young graduate student at the University of Chicago, worked part-time as a waitress and was fired for leading protests against working conditions for food service workers. She sought help from Teamsters Local 743 in Chicago, won a grievance against the restaurant, and decided to make the labor movement her life. As a Business Agent for IBT 743 she returned to the University of Chicago to help organize cLERical workers. She also represented workers at Governors State and Chicago State Universities. On October 11, 1983, Gina was on her way to an Illinois Jobs Coordination Council in Carbondale when the plane in which she was flying crashed.
Friends and relatives of Regina Polk established the Fund in her memory to continue her work of developing women labor leaders through education. The names of many women who are now familiar public figures in the midwest labor movement appear on the list of past Polk Conference participants. For example, on the list of participants from 1988 the following names appear: Cassandra Davis (IBT), Helen Ramirez (CTU), Wanda Black (ATU), Rosetta Daylie (AFSCME), Jerre McPartlin (HERE), Alicia Padilla (IBT), Melva Meacham (BTCWU), Muriel Tuteur (ACTWU, now UNITE HERE), and Jacqueline Vaughn (CTU).