Who was Regina Polk?

As a young woman, Regina V. Polk was fired for trying to organize her co-workers at the Red Star Inn with the support of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT) Local 743 in Chicago. Local 743’s leadership was so impressed with her fiery energy and people skills that they hired her as a staff organizer.

Regina Polk

Six years later in 1976, Polk, now an organizer with Chicago’s largest Teamster local, introduced a resolution on behalf of the Teamsters Women’s Council to the 21st Constitutional Convention of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT). The resolution called on the international union to “launch an intensive organizing campaign directed at those areas of the labor force in which women are concentrated.” The resolution went on to point out that increasing membership was not the only goal, but also promoting “…greater participation of women members at every level of the [IBT].” The resolution was adopted.

Regina belied strongly in building union density among women workers and helping them to become leaders within their unions. On October 12, 1983, Polk boarded a commuter plane to attend a meeting of the Illinois Jobs Coordination Council which was addressing new ways to fund retraining programs for workers who lost their jobs due to plant closings and layoffs, which crashed outside of Carbondale, Illinois killing all ten people aboard the plane.

Shortly after her death, Tom Heagy, Polk’s husband, and a wealthy banking executive, founded the “Regina V. Polk Fund for Labor Leadership.” Using the settlement from the wrongful death suit filed against the airline and donations from friends and colleagues, Heagy assembled a board of trustees to oversee the fund. It was comprised of representatives of IBT labor Local 743, Joel D’Alba, Polk’s good friend and well-regarded Chicago labor lawyer, Illinois labor leaders, and friends of Polk’s. The fund was established to educate women union members on the basics of union leadership and to educate students interested in working in the labor movement. They chose the Labor Education Program at the School of Labor and Employment Relations to run an annual women’s leadership conference.

For more on Regina’s life and the program, please see: Emily E. LB. Twarog, “The Polk School: Intersections of Women’s Labor Leadership Education and the Public Sphere,” Dennis Deslippe, Eric Fore-Slocum, and John McKerley (eds.), Civic Labors: Scholars, Teachers, Activists, and Working-Class History (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2016).

Regina V. Polk Women’s Labor Leadership Programs

The women of the 2023 Polk School

The Polk School

Since 1988, the Regina V. Polk Women’s Labor Leadership Conference (or Polk School, as it is fondly called) has educated over 1,000 rank and file women union members and organizers.

Over the past 35 years, classes have covered important topics such as:

  • Labor history
  • Collective bargaining
  • Grievance handling
  • Public speaking
  • Understanding the political economy
  • Steward’s training
  • Labor law
  • Robert’s Rules of Order

Demographics of attendees:

  • Racially diverse women, with the largest percentage being African American
  • Ages span from 20’s to 70’s
  • Union membership tenure ranges from less than one year to more than 35 years.
  • The overwhelming majority are from Illinois and Indiana but participants hail from California, Massachusetts, New York, Oregon, and Turkey.
  • All industries – public and private, manufacturing, building trades, education, and service sectors

Participants have come from virtually every union but unions with the highest participation rates include:

  • United Steelworkers of America
  • Service Employees International Union
  • International Brotherhood of Teamsters
  • National Association of Letter Carriers
  • American Postal Workers Union
  • Amalgamated Transit Workers Union
  • United Auto Workers
  • American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees
  • International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers

Women and Power: Building a Toolbox for Leadership

In 2018, with a grant from the Illinois Women’s Institute for Leadership (IWIL) an advanced program for alumni of The Polk School was created.

While a non-credit extension course, this session mimics the rigor of a college level course. Participants are chosen after a rigorous application process. They engage in 56 hours of class in a hybrid setting, allowing them to focus on skill-building and development of their leadership path.

The course is limited to 8-10 students so that participants can build a supportive cohort that will be an enduring network post-completion. It runs annually from September to April.

Follow The Polk School on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/ThePolkSchool

For more information, contact Emily E. LB. Twarog, PhD, etwarog@illinois.edu or Stephanie Fortado, PhD, seawell2@illinois.edu.