Women of Steel – United Steelworkers


The following history of Women of Steel is taken from the  USW Canada website and appears here with permission.

A Brief History of “Women of Steel”

Since the early days of our union in 1936, there have been women Steelworkers. But the work world wasn’t a friendly place for women. Many jobs—usually the better-paid ones—were closed to us. When women did make it into “non-traditional” jobs, we faced sexual harassment and bullying.

There were barriers inside the union, too. Plants with mostly female workforces had only men on the local executives. Bargaining and job-evaluation systems left women at the bottom end of the pay scale. And not all fellow union members were “open-minded.” Some refused to mentor women apprentices, or harassed women co-workers.

But women stuck with it. On our own, or with the support of other sisters, progressive staff reps and local leaders, women kept demanding decent work and a place in the union. The first USW local women’s committee was created in 1981 in USW 2900 in Toronto. Its objectives included encouraging women to take an active role in the union by attending meetings and running for union office, mobilizing to get women to schools and conferences, and providing a secure place where women could come with complaints of harassment.

Origins of Women of Steel

By the 1980s, the world was changing. Women were fighting back. Feminists campaigned for women’s legal rights; for abortion access; for protection from violence and harassment; for workplace rights, including maternity leave and equal pay. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms became law in 1982, giving a powerful tool to change discriminatory legislation.

Inside the union, women in USW 1005 at Stelco in Hamilton fought for (and won) better paying production jobs in a campaign called “Women Back into Stelco”. Out of a workforce of over 12,000, only twenty-eight women worked at Stelco in 1981, and not a single woman had been hired since 1961.

By this time, Steelworkers were attending a course “Changing Faces of Unionism”, developed by USW national representative Deirdre Gallagher. Its objective was to break down workplace barriers to women, encouraging them not only to participate in union activities, but to become leaders.

And in 1982, Gallagher, Staff Representative Leo Gerard, and others helped form a Women’s Action Committee of the Steelworkers’ Toronto Area Council, which began offering women’s-only courses on harassment and pay equity, as a way of developing leadership and pushing to embed them in the formal USW education program.

In this context and with more women entering the workforce and the union, District 6 Director Leo Gerard was caught by the feminist wave.  Strikes at female-dominated USW locals at Radio Shack and Fotomat brought women’s leadership to the forefront.  In 1985, a high-profile sexual harassment complaint at the steel mill in Hamilton led the district, and then the national union, to develop a policy against harassment. And in 1986, Gerard hired Michael Lewis to take on a new portfolio, including human rights and women’s programs.

Lewis set up a District 6 women’s committee in 1987 and secured government funding for a skilled course designer to work with the committee and create the first Women of Steel leadership development course. It was designed by women, facilitated by women, for only women participants. The goal: “Women will leave this course with a better understanding of the union and the situations women face.”

It was piloted in Toronto, Sudbury, and Winnipeg in 1990-91. Over the years, it has been responsible for linking hundreds of individual Women of Steel with leadership roles inside the union and beyond.

Change spreads

The Women of Steel’s leadership-development course spread to the U.S. in 1992, with powerful results. Resources were devoted to create the union’s own gender-neutral job evaluation system, to help end wage discrimination.

By 2005, the USW Constitution was changed to require that women’s committees be set up in all Steelworker locals.

And at the 2008 International Convention, the International Executive Board was enlarged to include its first woman member, Carol Landry, a former local president, staff representative, and then assistant to the director of District 3.

The Women of Steel program has helped change the face of leadership and activism within our union. Women are local presidents, unit chairs, stewards, and health and safety activists. We chair committees, sit at the bargaining table, lobby for gender justice, and help elect labour-friendly politicians.

Let’s keep adding to this proud history! We know that woman make USW strong, so let’s continue working hard to make sure that women get opportunities to grow within our Union.”