Early in its history, during the fiercely fought battles for union recognition in the 1930s and 1940s, the United Auto Workers (UAW) in Canada (the predecessor of the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) and today’s Unifor) reached out to women for their support and aid. UAW organizers encouraged the union’s newly-fledged locals to form women’s auxiliaries that brought both family and community support to workers striking to win a union in their workplace.
UAW women’s auxiliaries came out in strength at General Motors Oshawa in 1937 — and later in other auto locations — feeding and billeting strikers, raising money, rallying community help, and walking picket lines.
Later, during the Second World War, hundreds of thousands of women streamed into Canada’s war plants. Aided by wartime labour shortages that boosted workers’ bargaining power, UAW organizing efforts went into high gear, and union organizers recognized the union needed to attract women workers.
At the time, employers were all paying women a fraction of male wages for doing exactly the same job. UAW appeals to women workers centred on the issue of equal pay for equal work, and women eagerly signed union cards and went on strike when necessary. As a result, the union and its women members were able to win equal wages for women workers in many locations.
Notably, during a war fought against a racist, misogynist, and tyrannical enemy, unions such as the UAW based their arguments for equal pay, not on the age-old argument that equal pay discouraged employers from replacing male labour with cheaper female labour, but on women’s basic human rights.
The 1944 UAW’s triennial constitutional convention passed a constitutional amendment mandating the creation of a Women’s Department in its Detroit headquarters, the formation of a Women’s Council in every region of the UAW, including Canada, and the striking of a women’s committee in every local union with women members.
After the war, however, despite protests from the UAW, most women were sent back home or to traditionally female jobs. Until a new wave of feminism gathered steam in the 1970s, the UAW made little progress for women.
However, the infrastructure created during the war did not perish. Women’s committees were formed, annual women’s conferences were held, the Women’s Department in Detroit survived, and local union women’s auxiliaries continued to thrive. Thanks to this infrastructure and the remarkable leadership showed by many UAW women leaders, there was a constant reminder to male leaders that women were a constitutionally integral part of the union. Combined with the union’s pride in its history of bargaining breakthroughs and support for civil rights, when feminism did reach a critical mass, the UAW’s decades-old infrastructure helped speed progress for women workers.
Perhaps the first indication of feminism influencing the union was the 1973 creation of a Canadian Women’s Advisory Council, appointed by the UAW’s Canadian director to advise him on women’s issues. A further sign occurred in 1976. Owing to pressure brought by UAW women activists inspired by the growing feminist movement, the Canadian UAW finally hired women on staff. Many more women were also elected to local union offices as shop stewards, union executive members, and delegates to local labour councils, union councils and conventions. UAW women served in the newly-formed Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL), on the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) women’s committees, and on the executive of Organized Working Women (OWW).
In 1979, UAW women organized UAW members, both male and female, to march in the annual International Women’s Day (IWD) March in Toronto for the first time and represented union women on the IWD’s steering committee, helping make the alliance between Canadian union feminists and other feminist activists one of the strongest in the world.
Nonetheless, even as late as 1979, there were no provisions in the union’s collective bargaining program for women. However, by 1982 the union’s collective bargaining convention in Canada ratified a new collective bargaining program that included an array of issues directly affecting women. In the meantime, in 1981, the union’s Women’s Advisory Council had been disbanded, to be replaced by a Canadian UAW Council Women’s Committee. This committee, unlike the appointed advisory council, comprised women delegates who had been elected to the Canadian UAW Council, often called the union’s “mini-parliament”. As a committee of women elected by their local union members to the union’s most powerful deliberative and policy-making body, the committee had the power to force the union’s leader to address women’s issues.
The catalyst for the progress made in those years was the 1978 Fleck strike, a first-contract fight for the Rand Formula at a small auto parts plant in Centralia, Ontario. The vast majority of workers at Fleck were women, and the UAW made the decision to run the strike specifically as a women’s strike. Fleck changed the union’s commitment to women’s equality from sympathetic, but fairly passive, support to active struggle.
It wasn’t always easy. Many male UAW members at both the national and local level were reluctant. Bob White, the union’s legendary leader during these years, took the lead, saying, “Change hurts. It hurts for me to change. But we have to change.” With more women in key positions in the union, with supportive male leaders such as White and Bob Nickerson, chair of the first OFL women’s committee, (There were no women OFL vice-presidents, so the committee was initially chaired by a man!), and with the vocal encouragement of the IWD Coalition and New Democratic Party (NDP) women, women’s equality as a right came to dominate the councils of the UAW.
Over these years, the union made significant gains for women: childcare; employment equity and local union equity representatives; a national employment equity coordinator; anti-harassment policies and contract protections including the right to refuse work if harassment persisted; local union women’s advocates; and human rights training for union members on company time.
The UAW also supported women’s rights in the community, arguing for reproductive choice at UAW, OFL, CLC, and NDP conventions. It gave full public support to the then-controversial Morgentaler abortion clinics. It argued successfully for laws guaranteeing paid parental leave. It also lobbied successfully for employment and pay equity legislation. It was a co-founder of such organizations as the Ontario Coalition for Better Childcare. It was an active supporter of Ontario’s Equal Pay Coalition.
More and more women were also appointed to the union’s staff and leadership positions. By 1993, Peggy Nash, later an NDP MPP, was promoted to the second highest office in the union, next to the national union’s elected president, when she assumed chief responsibility for negotiating with such companies as Ford of Canada.
At times, for women workers, progress within their union was glacial in pace or “two steps forward and one step back.” But armed with the power of worker solidarity through their union and the protection offered by working under a well-defended collective agreement, union women were able to win better wages and working conditions —and advance toward the twin goals of full equality in the workplace and in the community.
In 1978 Wendy was the Communications Director for the United Auto Workers in Canada, later Canadian Auto Workers, and a member of the Ontario Federation of Labour Women’s Committee and Organized Working Women
Wendy is the author of Labour Goes to War: The People’s War, the CIO, and the Construction of a New Social Order (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2012)