Through the 1970s to the 1990s, the labour movement in Canada became a significant ally in the struggle for women’s equality.
As more and more women steadily moved into the paid workforce, many also became union members. Feminists active in the labour movement worked with other union women to put pressure on their unions and central labour bodies to take up issues such as affirmative action/employment equity, childcare, equal pay for work of equal value, maternity leave, and sexual harassment. Unions started bringing these issues to the collective bargaining table, fighting against discrimination in the workplace, and adding labour’s organizing power to the political battles of the women’s movement. Their victories provided a springboard for winning bigger gains and extending these rights to all women, often through legislative change such as with maternity leave and equal pay.
The structures and face of unions themselves also began to change as women fought for greater equality inside these organizations. During these years, sisters organized union women’s committees, conferences, and caucuses; gained better representation at conventions and on leadership bodies; and won union support for women’s equality campaigns in the larger society.
In some provinces, independent organizations such as Saskatchewan Working Women and Organized Working Women were built outside union structures. These groups brought union women together with working women who were not unionized, and they became strong and effective advocates on women’s equality issues both inside and alongside the labour movement.
At the same time, women’s movement activists and groups also provided significant support to women in the labour force who were struggling to organise unions and win first contracts, or striking for better pay and working conditions. Such alliances brought union women into the women’s movement, encouraged feminists to work in their unions, and taught others about workplace and union issues.
In Ontario alone, there were a number of strikes in the late 1970s and early 1980s, in which women workers and women’s issues were central: Fleck 1978, Radio Shack 1979, Lancia-Bravo 1979, Puretex 1978, Bell Canada 1978-79, Blue Cross 1979, Fotomat 1980-81, Irwin Toy 1981, and Eaton’s 1984-85. Autonomous feminist organizations such as the International Women’s Day Committee played a strong role in building women’s solidarity actions.
During the 1978-79 Inco Miners’ Strike (USWA), a group of miners’ wives formed a Wives support committee which then sent representatives to march in the Toronto International Women’s Day March of 1980.
Also in 1978-1979, the ad hoc Women Back Into Stelco Committee launched a campaign to force Stelco management in Hamilton, Ontario, to end twenty years of sexist hiring practices. The campaign succeeded in winning public and legal recognition that Stelco had practiced discriminatory hiring, and it forced Stelco to begin hiring women. This campaign had the strong backing of USW Local 1005 activist and leader Cec Taylor and is one example of campaigns to open the doors for women in non-traditional jobs.
In British Columbia, SORWUC (the Service, Office and Retail Workers’ Union of Canada) took a different path to addressing women’s equality and the labour movement. SORWUC came out of the Vancouver Working Women’s Association, and its purpose was to organize workers in predominantly female job sectors, especially the retail, bank, and service industries, traditionally ignored by unions.
During this period of renewed feminist activism, labour campaigns for women’s equality in the workplace included the following issues:
• sexual harassment
• maternity/parental leave
• equal pay
• reproductive rights
• affirmative action/employment equity
Many labour bodies also adopted policies and gave support to other women’s equality campaigns, such as abortion rights, childcare, and ending violence against women.
This section includes a variety of materials produced by unions and women’s equality groups for which there is not yet a separate presence. Many additional materials can be found using the links to related organizations and events shown on this page. Over time, it is anticipated that more of these links will be created.