In 1968, the Canadian Labour Congress submission to the Royal Commission on the Status of Women stated “One of the fundamental principles of the trade union movement has always been equality and we would like to state at the outset that we believe, without qualification, in the absolute equality of women and men.” It goes on to address issues of discrimination and barriers to equality facing women in the workforce, including the questions of equal pay, maternity leave, child care, and access to education. By 1974, the CLC had adopted a statement on women’s rights. In 1977, Mary Eady became the first head of the Canadian Labour Congress Women’s Bureau.
Through the late 1970s and 1980s, the CLC Women’s Bureau played an active role in highlighting and mobilizing support on matters of women’s equality. This included workplace issues such as paid maternity and family leave, sexual harassment and violence in the workplace, workplace safety, pensions, affirmative action/employment equity, equal pay for work of equal value, the impact of micro-technology, and the need for childcare. It also involved taking stands on questions such as reproductive rights, family violence, cuts to social services, and the impact of free-trade deals.
At the same time, union women also stepped up to challenge the labour movement to address discrimination and inequality within its own ranks, organizing on the convention floor, through conferences, and at caucuses. It wasn’t easy, but over time, these challenges brought more women into activist and leadership roles in the labour movement and won recognition of the need for affirmative action initiatives with unions themselves. In 1986, Shirley Carr was elected as the first woman president of the CLC.
The 1990 CLC Women’s Conference “Empower Woman Towards the Year 2000” drew over 600 delegates. Keynote speaker Judy Rebick, then President of the National Action Coalition on the Status of Women, reflected on the coalition that had been developed between labour and the women’s movement:
“It was tough to build… Labour women being called bureaucrats inside the women’s movement. And they [women unionists] never wanted to go back again to those horrible meetings where there wasn’t any order and everything was completely disorganized and, you know, touchy-feely… It was awful. But we persevered. There were some of us in the women’s community and some of us in the labour movement who understood the importance of that alliance. We persevered and that’s how we got the solidarity in the Eaton’s strike, and the solidarity of the labour movement speaking out for choice… I believe that the alliance between the women’s movement and the labour movement is the most powerful force for social change we have ever seen in history. That’s my view.”