Organized Working Women (OWW)

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OWW-1985-10thAnniversaryPosterOrganized Working Women (OWW) brought together unionized women who sought to bring the resources of the organized labour movement to bear on promoting equality for women at work, within the labour movement, and in the broader world.

Inspired by the United Nations International Year of Women in 1975, a small group of women delegates to the Labour Council of Metropolitan Toronto joined forces to organize and empower unionized women. OWW came about in response to a resolution passed at a conference “Women in the Workforce: It’s About Time!” co-sponsored by the Labour Council and Humber College Women’s Centre in May of 1975. The resolution envisaged an ongoing organization similar to the Coalition of Labour Union Women (CLUW) in the United States. Few women at that time held leadership positions at any level of the union movement in Canada even though, outside the construction trades, a substantial and growing proportion of union members were women.

Following a vigorous debate, it was decided that OWW membership would be open to any woman who was a member of a bona fide collective bargaining unit, including factory workers, academics and school teachers, clerical and retail workers, civil servants and journalists. This meant there were OWW members whose unions, although recognized collective bargaining units in law, did not belong to the “house of labour” (i.e. the Canadian Labour Congress or the Ontario Federation of Labour). This caused some political tension between these bodies and OWW at times.

The founding conference of Organized Working Women took place on March 28, 1976 and was attended by over 200 union women. Organizers dreamed of a national organization, but started by building a core group in Toronto. After a decade, a second chapter of OWW was formed in Ottawa.

The purpose of OWW was to bring more women into active involvement and leadership in their unions, to help establish and co-ordinate women’s committees within unions, and to act as a resource group for women seeking to organize at their workplaces and push forward women’s equality demands within their unions and at the bargaining table. OWW would also develop positions on the problems facing working women and lobby on those issues with government and within the labour movement.

At the November 1977 Ontario Federation of Labour Convention, OWW organized the first “Women’s Caucus” in the history of the OFL. In 1978, it decided to fight for an OFL Women’s Committee. In spite of support for the resolution, the issue was not won at the Convention itself because the Resolutions Committee refused to put it on the floor. It was later adopted at an Executive Meeting of the OFL following the Convention.

The first OWW newsletter was distributed at the October 14, 1975 Day of Protest against Wage Controls (Bill 73). Union Woman was launched as a regular publication in November 1977.

OWW quickly became active on many picket lines where women marched. In 1978, OWW organized the Solidarity Demonstration on the picket line at Fleck Industries where women workers with the United Auto Workers (UAW) were involved in a bitter strike for their first contract. Other solidarity organizing included support for the work of the Wives Supporting the Strike Committee during the USWA 6500 strike against INCO in 1978, and alongside strikers at York University, Puretex, Radio Shack, Blue Cross, Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW), Bell Canada, Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU), Canadian Air Line Employees Associations (CALEA), Irwin Toys and Mini-Skools. In 1985, OWW co-founded the Women’s Strike Support Coalition.

During the winter of 1984-85 OWW took up the call to support the mostly female members of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) who had gone out on strike against Eaton’s. In February, it organized a successful mass women’s support demonstration that was able to shut down the Eaton’s store at the Yonge Eglinton Centre. Other actions included rallies, candlelight vigils, marches and a concert at Massey Hall.

Over the years, OWW participated in numerous other coalitions, including the National Action Committee on the Status of Women (NAC), Equal Pay Coalition, and Ontario Coalition for Better Child Care. It also helped found the International Women’s Day Organizing Committee in Toronto. As an organization, it contributed numerous briefs on issues of women’s equality and members regularly carried the OWW banner at demonstrations for equal pay, abortion rights, child care and maternity leave.

OWW held its own annual conferences on topics such as daycare, equal pay and occupational health and safety issues for women. The format of these conferences was always “what is the issue?”, “what do we want?”, and “how do we get it?” Regular workshop also provided training in public speaking, convention resolution preparation, collective bargaining and rules of order to help women become more confident and effective in their unions. Occasionally these workshop were taken “on the road” to other cities in Ontario such as Ottawa, Sudbury and Peterborough.

Administratively OWW had a constitution, an Executive Council which was elected annually, regular Executive and membership meetings, and a committee structure. At the beginning it worked out of the United Electrical Workers office on Clendenan Avenue since the first President, Evelyn Armstrong, was from that union. Later, space was rented in the Ontario Federation of Labour building (15 Gervais Drive) and then at various locations in downtown Toronto, concluding with 555 Bloor St. West.

OWW’s work in highlighting issues of equality for working women and bringing together activists from across unions to advocate for solidarity and change had a major impact on the labour movement in Toronto and beyond. Increasing numbers of women began to move into leadership positions in their unions and federations, including Linda Torney, the first woman president of the Labour Council of Metropolitan Toronto. Unions also started to establish Women’s Committees, provide childcare at conventions and conferences, press for equal pay, and negotiate for maternity and parental leave clauses in collective agreements.

Two women who played a pivotal role in the founding and beginning years of OWW were its first President Evelyn Armstrong (UEW) and Dorothy MacKinnon (CUPE 79). Another important leader in shaping the early direction of OWW was Deirdre Gallagher who was hired as the first Executive Secretary in 1977.

OWW continued as an organization into the early 1990s.

Holly Kirkconnell, Sue Craig, Pat McDermott, Ester Reiter, Margaret McPhail