From the beginning, many members of Vancouver Women’s Caucus thought the organization of working women should be a major long-term task of the women’s liberation movement. Those of us who saw ourselves as Marxists were convinced that the organization of working women was a critical part of building a revolutionary working class movement.
In the summer of 1969, Women’s Caucus moved off the Simon Fraser University campus to an office downtown to facilitate reaching out to Vancouver women workers. Initially, we moved into a tiny, windowless office in the basement of the Labour Temple; then later we moved into a large storefront space on Carrall Street.
In January 1970, we formed the Working Women’s Workshop as part of Vancouver Women’s Caucus. Most of us worked in unorganized workplaces, but a few were members of established unions. We determined our tasks were research, publications, and education of ourselves and women workers.
At the time, the workplace was even more a tyranny than it is today. We were outraged at the discrimination and humiliation that women faced every day at work. There was no human rights legislation, very little labour standards legislation, and no accountability for the Labour Relations Board. In unorganized workplaces, workers could be fired for any reason or no reason at all. Advertisements for jobs were divided between “Help Wanted Male” and “Help Wanted Female.” Sexual harassment was everywhere and seemed to be an acceptable perk for men who worked in areas where women were a majority. We were treated as part of the décor. There were arbitrary management-imposed dress codes. Women were required to wear skirts or dresses or, in a big breakthrough, “pantsuits” so long as the top and the pants were made of the same fabric and the jacket was long enough to cover our butts. We were treated like children.
All of this was discouraging. But at the same time, we saw the enormous potential power of working women. Our employers were among the most profitable corporations in the country, and their profits depended on our labour. We believed we could change the world if the power of women in the work force could be brought to bear on the problems faced by all women – discrimination in all aspects of social life, denial of our rights to abortion and birth control, lack of quality child care, and of course, equal pay and opportunity at work.
We knew that in order to win our demands, we needed economic power. We needed the right to strike. But when we met with union representatives to talk about organizing our workplaces, they looked and acted a lot like our bosses. They were patronizing, disrespectful, and seemed more interested in flirting with us than listening to us. The union reps talked about how women were hard to organize because we were only working for pin money and only working until we found a husband. When we researched these unions that had the “jurisdiction” to organize women workers, we found that they were “international” unions. The office workers’, restaurant workers,’ and retail workers’ unions were all headquartered in U.S. cities. We were shocked at the powers of the “international” Presidents and the provisions that allowed them to replace local officers and override the votes of local memberships.
At this time in B.C., there was a new movement within the established trade unions known as the independent Canadian trade union movement. New “breakaway” unions were being formed. Union members in the steel, forest, automobile, pulp and paper, and electric industries, tired of the lack of democracy, sweetheart contracts, and in some cases, corruption, within their so called international unions, left their existing unions to join newly formed, locally controlled, Canadian unions affiliated to the Confederation of Canadian Unions (CCU). They inspired us and made us think about the possibility and potential of an independent feminist union. Through our strategy discussions, some of us saw the CCU as our way forward, while others looked toward an independent feminist union.
The message of the women’s movement was that “nobody could do it for us”; that we had the skills, passion, competence, and ability to organize and fight our own oppression. We determined that we needed a democratic, feminist, militant union, a union that would develop new organizing strategies and new demands never yet fought for. We thought it would spark a new working class movement, something like the effect the CIO had in the organization of industrial workers.
In the summer of 1971, the Working Women’s Workshop began planning for the formation of a women’s union. We announced the founding convention for Oct 30, 1971. But there weren’t enough people ready to form a new union. Instead of a new union, we formed the Working Women’s Association, hoping we could transform it into an actual union. Initially, the aims of the new group were basically the same as the Working Women’s Workshop: public educationals, publications about the problems faced by women workers, providing information about unions, and support for the struggles of organized and unorganized workers.
Over the next year, we leafletted hospitals in support of hospital workers’ fight for equal pay, we picketed Medieval Inn with the striking waitresses, we helped the union members at Smitty’s Pancake House and Pizza Patio, we held public meetings at the downtown library on unemployment insurance, lack of job security, and lack of quality daycare. We wrote and distributed booklets about women’s work and organized educationals on the history of women workers in BC.
As well, we met with clerical workers at the University of B.C. After two failed attempts at organizing with existing unions, they had decided to from their own union. Their first attempt with their own union also failed.
In August 1972, the Working Women’s Association left the Women’s Centre on Carrall Street and opened our own office. We paid the office rent by members’ pledges since most of us were working, and those who weren’t working staffed the new office.
By the fall, the WWA had a mailing list of about 150, and there were about 30 activists. Three committees had been set up: department store workers, office workers, and restaurant workers. The committees had begun to meet separately from the regular WWA meetings to discuss the specific problems of organizing in each industry.
We held more strategy discussions. These were difficult meetings. We were sick and tired of talking about the same things over and over. Did we plan on being an information group forever? One thing that came out of these meetings was the realization that we still needed to know more about unions: the history of the trade union movement, the differences in unions, the process of unionizing, contract negotiations, the labour laws, etc. In the fall of 1972, we held a series of seminars at which trade unionists, most of whom were from the new independent Canadian unions, spoke on various topics.
After the seminars we had plenty of data on how to form a union, how to organize our workplace, and of course, we knew why we needed one. It was time to put up or shut up.
In September 1972, clerical and library workers met and formed the Association of University and College Employees at the University of B.C.
In October 1972, members of the WWA met and formed the Service, Office, and Retail Workers Union of Canada.
Both SORWUC and AUCE would go on to organize previously unorganized women workers, lead high profile strikes, win wage increases that set records in their respective industries, and sign union contracts that included unprecedented new rights for women workers.