Franca Iacovetta: OK, thank you for agreeing to participate in the Rise Up Oral History project, which is on Toronto feminist activism, 1970s to 1990s.
We chose the Fleck strike as a moment because we thought that OWW’s early successes around solidarity work, where Fleck played an important role, helped to define OWW as successful and as an influential. And so we thought this would be a good moment. My name is Franca – can you hear me? My name is Franca Iacovetta and I am the interviewer for this interview, and I was not a member of OWW, though I had friends who were former members, and I learned a lot about OWW, reading through the Rise Up website, and I want to thank all of you for participating in this interview, and also for helping to structure and shape the interview and the questions. We’ve chosen, for another moment in the history of OWW, the Fleck Strike of 1978, in the context of OWW’s early strike support work.
Franca Iacovetta: before getting into the conversation I’d like to ask all of us to briefly introduce ourselves. So if I could start with Holly, please.
Holly Kirkconnell: My name’s Holly Kirkconnell. I was involved in OWW since the beginning and through to the end, and I’ve been active in the labour movement from, really, age 21 until now I’m now 66 years old, and I’ve spent most of my life in Toronto.
Franca Iacovetta: Barbara?
Barbara Cameron: I’m Barbara Cameron. I was involved with OWW, really, right from the beginning and I was most active up until, I guess, the first number of years, and then I ended up teaching fulltime but I continued to be involved through the 80s.
Franca Iacovetta: Margaret?
Margaret McPhail: I was involved with OWW from the beginning, for the first few years, and then I left the organisation. And following that I became involved in the International Women’s Day Committee, and then later in my own union, OSSTF [Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation].
Technician: What’s your name?
Margaret McPhail: My name is Margaret McPhail.
Franca Iacovetta: Wendy?
Wendy Cuthbertson: My name is Wendy Cuthbertson and I was involved in the OWW in the late 70s, when I was a staff person, with the then United Auto Workers Union, and we were – had a strike at Fleck Manufacturing, and that’s when I became, active, active in OWW.
OWW support work for women on strike for first contracts, for pay increases, for improvement in working conditions was truly remarkable.
There’s a long list of strikes and the – you know, the records in the Rise Up archive really helped to document the tremendous amount of work that was being done. We chose, and by we, I mean, Margaret McPhail, partly the two of us talking about some of the questions early on, we chose the Fleck Strike as a moment because we thought that the OWW’s solidarity work, you know, early on, particularly with the early strikes, like Fleck, played a role in helping to define OWW’s success, early on. You know, that – it was meeting its objectives. That so much is going on, shortly after the founding of OWW. We thought that Fleck was an important moment in that regard. And, of course, the Fleck Strike was a dramatic strike and, in many respects, a landmark strike as well.
So, Fleck is – to use shorthand – Fleck is another moment in OWW’s history. So I would like to start by asking each of you to talk about your involvement in the Fleck Strike. We realise people were involved, you know, in different ways, or came at it through different routes. So if we could have people talk about your involvement in Fleck Strike, what was – you know, why this involvement was important, that would be great; and perhaps we should start with Wendy on this.
Wendy Cuthbertson: March of 1978 and I had been hired by the Auto Workers, in the communications department. I was the second person, in September 1977. And so I was still finding my way around my new job and loved every minute of it; very excited about, you know, the people I was meeting in the cause of trade unionism, and doing the union’s newspaper and helping out local union editors and so on. And there was – and I didn’t know about the Fleck Strike until my boss came roaring into my office and said that Dennis McDermott [UAW Director] had made a very, very major public relations mistake on the radio that morning, that there had been a – there was the strike going on in Centralia, Ontario and that the OPP had responded in force, that women were being – the strikers are women.
They were being tossed into snow banks. That our representative, Al Seymour, who was servicing that local and, you know, took over from the [UAW union] organiser, Lorna Moses, had been thrown in jail and could not – had to sign a peace bond that he couldn’t come back into the county. And this was just an astonishing turn of events. And my boss, Doug [Glynn, UAW Communication Director], was extremely concerned that this would make the union look like a hooligan. And then Dennis said, on the radio: “Well, they’re throwing women around. I think what I can do is unleash the Young Turks at Ford, Talbotville, down the road, and we’ll see how the cops react to that.” And so Doug and I didn’t completely agree with him and thought this was a catastrophe.
So anyway, he said: “What do we do? What do we do?” And I said: “Why don’t we fight this as a women’s strike? These are all women and we should fight this as a women’s strike.” And it was, in all honesty, just a communication saying I was a feminist, a middle-class feminist. You know, fought the good fight inside publishing companies and TV, but it never really – never really engaged my politics the way that other issues had. So we went to see Dennis and he thought this is terrific, go. And, of course, it’s one way – one thing to say, let’s do this, and then operationalise it.
So I had only met a very few people after four months, but I phoned them and they said: “Of course these are women I’d met.. Of course I’ll try to get a car together and whatnot.” So we were kind of limping along and we got up to about 6 cars and 17 people, and then the phone rang one morning.
The phone rang and it was Deirdre, and she said: “Hi, I’m Deirdre Gallagher. I’m with Organized Working Women. I understand that you’re trying to pull a women’s picket together.” Because, of course, the strike was being scabbed; and so closing the plant and stopping the scabs from going in was the key battle. Well, it was like the heavens had opened up, because I had no idea what I was doing. So she said: “This is what we’ll do. We’ll do this and we’ll do this and we’ll do this and we’ll do this.” And I was just, like, agog, right.
Anyway, she knew exactly what to do. She’s a very effective organiser and knew her way around, and that gave me some lessons about what to do inside the UAW. So we came up with the slogan: “Fleck, it’s everyone’s fight.” That was because it was over the Rand Formula, which I don’t know if we want to go into it, but it was critical for the survival of that unit and indeed of the labour movement. But the women’s angle was, at that point, a little inchoate. We hadn’t really defined what that was. And so it was the exposure to the IWD [International Women’s Day], through Deirdre and the OWW, where I realised what patriarchy was doing here in this plant.
And, by the way, all the other subsequent Rand Formula strikes – Irwin Toy, Radio Shack, Blue Cross – were all over the same issue, the Rand Formula, because employers thought we can beat these women. They won’t stand up to us. If we can get rid of the Rand Formula, have strikes over it, then we’re off and running. We can just do what’s happening in the States in the right-to-work states.
So, anyway, we had the honour of being able to rent school busses. I mean, the guys got, like huge, great big buses of bathrooms. We got school buses and we all had to pay – all the people who signed up had to pay four bucks for the honour. And it was May, and so it was chilly. With, you know, May 19th, it was still chilly at night, so we gathered – Deirdre and I are smoking like crazy, and my little sister Sheila, 19, wondering if anybody would show up at 03:30 in the morning. You know, you wake up and you look, it’s cold and it’s dark and I have to get on the subway.
You know, would anybody show up? So, around 03:15, 03:30, I guess it was the last subway, people just came streaming out of those subway stations, in their hundreds. And it was, like one of my life’s highlights. It was just incredible. And we piled on these buses and off we went, and got to the picket line, which didn’t exist because I guess the Toronto Police, who were orbiting around Yonge and Bloor, had phoned ahead and told the OPP, I mean, forget it. You’re just – these are hundreds of women. You might as well close the plant. So there’s a few cops stationed on the roof, but it was just – but that was it. We had, sort of, the run of the field, if you will.
And all ages and stages – like, people had come in from not just Toronto, but driven down from Windsor and London and Sarnia and other places. And women with strollers and elderly women and, you know, people in their 30s, like myself, all ages and stages. It was absolutely a phenomenal turnout. And, of course, when I came home, you know, and we had triumphed, the Auto Workers, the leadership in the Autoworkers is, like, “A good job done!” It made quite an impression, that we had been – the women had been able to organise this, including, with all due respect, which they gave to the organisational efforts of the OWW. And so it started off as kind of a reaction to, you know, something that we didn’t – weren’t supposed to like in the media— ended up this formative moment in the history of the union.
Franca Iacovetta: Thank you Wendy for that. Could I please ask a quick follow-up question, which is, again, for current activists and for researchers from this period, merely briefly about why Rand is so important? I mean, you know, Rand equals union security. We could say it that way. But do you want to speak to that a little bit before we go to the others?
Wendy Cuthbertson: [Audio cuts off] is that for people who don’t want to belong to the union, that’s OK, but you are required to pay dues to the union. Once you’re certified you have to pay dues to the union. And this was – it’s a life and death issue for the labour movement. One of the fiercest strikes was fought by the UAW [United Auto Workers] in 1945, when the employers just assumed after the war was over they could get rid of all these unions. That once the labour market was back and there was unemployment they could hire people and not have to worry about it. And to this day there’s a debate about whether or not having stewards going around to collect money is a good idea, but whatever the notion of that debate, workers have struck for this, because they know that if you – you can’t forever meet in someone’s living room or store the boxes in a basement; that you have to rent places for meetings; that sooner or later you’re going to have to hire professional people to, you know, do the research, crunching numbers, etc., etc.
That without the due structure it is a tremendous threat to the survival of the union. And, in fact, in the auto work in the United States, where the Rand Formula, or at least the automatic dues checkoff has been destroyed by right-to-work laws, the unionisation rate in the United States is at 7%. And there’s a lot of fancy language around the right-to-work stuff, but it’s all about not having people pay their dues. So you go to a place like Fleck and these women have no – they probably had less trade union exposure than I did, but as soon as the rep explains to them why this is important workers understand this.
They know that money is hard to come by. There’s lots of people in society for whom money is not hard to come by, but for the people making the minimum wage money is hard to come by. So to hear that that’s a necessity, and for them to strike, and lose their wages for weeks shows that it’s important to workers as well, and they’re willing to fight for it.
Franca Iacovetta: OK, thank you. I don’t know if you can see this, but I did print, off the website, the Women’s Solidarity Day Fleck Strike solidarity poster, in which some of the things that Wendy said are there and, you know, the grim details, the 03:30 buses and so forth. And so, again, I’d like to ask each of you about your involvement or what you want to say about OWW organising around the solidarity work in the Fleck Strike. So I’ll just go around what’s my circle or my square on the screen, beginning with Holly.
Holly Kirkconnell: Yeah, so I was on one of those school buses, going on a long trip, in the night-time, to get to the picket line, and I remember learning about how the cops were really being very tough on the women on the picket lines. And for me – like, Fleck being – was the first time that OWW got involved in strike solidarity work, and it was then, as Wendy said, one of then a series of different strikes. And I think the importance of having that strike support is to give the support and solidarity to women, especially if it’s a first contract, and sometimes the unions are not so great at – or weren’t so great at educating women and getting women involved. So that type of solidarity, I think, was very helpful with all those strikes.
And I think it also garnered more support. It wasn’t just us women. Then, you know, there’d be others coming out. There’d be a focus, a spotlight on that strike, and the importance of making donations through our locals or getting out, if you can, to the picket line. That wasn’t so easy. You know, that was a long trek. But there were others closer to home that were much easier to get to.
Franca Iacovetta: So were you singing songs on the buses or sleeping?
Holly Kirkconnell: I can’t remember.
Franca Iacovetta: Barbara, can I ask you about your involvement and OWW strategies?
Barbara Cameron: I don’t think I was on the buses. I think with most of the strike support work, except around Eaton’s, where I chaired the strike support committee, I think I was occasionally a warm body, and I don’t remember being, kind of, a main organiser of it. But with Fleck, I wasn’t on that initial mobilisation, so I – sorry, I missed getting up at 03:30 in the morning to climb on the school bus. But it’s very interesting for me to hear from Wendy, sort of how it came about and kind of what the impact had been inside the Auto Workers. We could say, maybe a little later – I don’t, we don’t have much time – something about the Eaton’s strike support, because the genesis of it was a little bit different inside. It was a couple of women organisers who didn’t feel the union was supporting them. You know, it was a different kind of a set up.
Franca Iacovetta: Thank you. And, actually, there’s a lot of thinking about – the Eaton’s Strike can be its own moment at some point, and I hope we will be able to do that. But Marg., would you like to speak to you and Fleck and OWW?
Margaret McPhail: Yes, I too was on that bus, leaving from Toronto. At the time I was involved still in OWW and I was also involved with the International Women’s Day Committee, which was also mobilising for this Women’s Solidarity picket, and it was very excited. Although, I have to say that I had just started teaching and, of course, as a teacher I couldn’t take off just any day I wanted to, and it was a firing offence to claim that you were off on a sick day, which I was, in order to go to this solidarity picket. So I was kind of concerned about not being caught on camera, and not talking about it a whole lot. But, anyway, it was one of the few sick days I used during my first year of teaching.
Anyway, so I think that – but I – you know, listening to Wendy talk just brings back really important memories, for me, of – two things; one, for the women themselves on the picket lines; so the women, themselves, who worked at Fleck. So, I mean, I didn’t know them individually, although clearly they were quite excited by the fact that this picket line had showed up and so on. All these women had shown up. And we were really excited that we had shown up as well. But if you look on the website you might want to take a look at a film that was made at the time, by a Cablevision person. Her name is Kem Murch. And she did some interviews with the Fleck women.
And it is really fascinating, listening to these women talk about the strike and what happened and the OPP episode and, you know, that sort of thing. But also to talk about themselves as growing in strength, as union members, and it – so it was a really fascinating, sort of, moment, as people have talked about, bringing together, you know, women’s consciousness, but also class consciousness. And, you know, so I hope people will take a look at it. Maybe a year or so ago, one of the leaders of the strike actually passed away, and her granddaughter contacted us, at Rise Up, talking about her grandmother and how excited she was to see this film and the reference to her on the website, in referring to her as a kickass feminist.
You know, coming out of those Fleck years. So I thought that was really interesting. But it also heralded, I think, the beginning of a whole – a flurry of solidarity work, in addition to all the other things that OWW was doing with the workshops and conferences and organising at the OFL [Ontario Federation of Labour] and so on and so forth. You know, so we have Radio Shack. We have – you know, I think Minischools was in there. Irwin Toy, for sure. We also did work with the women supporting Inco, and that was a very interesting support work as well, because we were working not only with the – you know, at the time Sudbury was very much a company town, so it was very much a company – a community strike.
So we were working to support the women who had just recently gone into Inco, as workers, trying to break down into non-traditional work, but we were – and who were on strike. And we were also working with women in the community who were wives and family of the strikers, as well as community members who understood how devastating this strike would be to the community. So, you know, I just remember those years, and continuing, really, right up to the Eaton Strike, which was certainly another big mobilising moment of flurry, of what I’m going to call women’s strikes, that OWW played a big role in helping to organise solidarity around. And I – you know, I’ve said this before, but I think that this work was – played a very important role in the – I don’t know about forcing, but creating a – you know, commanding the labour movement to pay attention to the fact that all these women were entering the workforce.
All these women were going on strike to get first contracts or early contracts, that the women’s movement and women more generally were prepared to step-up and support these women, and I think it made a big difference in terms of the support that the bigger labour movement ended up getting to women’s equality issues, over time.
Franca Iacovetta: OK, thank you. I wanted to ask a follow-up question about the women, about the strikers themselves. And, you know, I was struck by – the website has the article by Michele Landsberg, about the women strikers and, you know, it’s interesting. Because on the one hand she’s calling them spunky, ribald, salt of the earth, but also, you know, riding high on a wave of feminism as unaffect – they are as unaffected as their bright green eye shadow and double negatives. The title of the article: “Fleck women put fire back into feminism.” They can teach you more about feminism in one morning than an entire year’s subscription to Ms. Magazine.
So it’s an interesting – you know, the tone and both, you know, describing them as feminists. Also, she talks about them making fun of themselves, as country bumpkins and so forth. And so, you know, they’re very – they’re complicated and complex women. And I didn’t want us to get hung up on the category of, were they feminists or weren’t they feminists, but I think the Landsberg article does, you know, create this space for talking about what that meant. You know, like you talked about – Wendy, you talked about their race [correction: class] consciousness, class, and the gender consciousness were coming together in that strike. But in light of Landsberg’s, you know, own use of the language feminist, I’d like to ask about whether the women thought of themselves as feminists, or whether feminism came up, or when they talked about the OWW women coming in, were they being described as the feminists coming in or – I’m just interested in that dynamic.
Wendy Cuthbertson: Yeah. Certainly, initially, they wouldn’t have described themselves as feminists, and this was the interesting thing that happens with, well, any strike, is you organise people, then you unionise them. And, you know, a sharp strike will teach people a lot about their new union. In this case, because it was being explicitly fought as a women’s strike, and supported by their union brothers, if you will, this notion that this was a women’s strike was very powerful for them. The guys who made more money than they did, where they called them “twist tie”, they’re just – they had “twist ties,” you know, guys fixing a machine, or – whereas they saw themselves as doing the real work inside that plant, in horrendous working conditions.
And as they were honoured as women workers and other women came out to support them, from all ages and stages, they started owning their position in womanhood, if you will, and being strong, and being doing things that men couldn’t do because they’re not as tough as we are. They were, initially, not very comfortable with – for example, they came down and led the – they led the IWD parade in 1979, and I was – obviously spent the day with them, and they were really nervous about – the lesbians were there and – and then I just kind of reminded them that lesbians had turned out for the picket line. That ended that conversation.
Sheila [Charlton] went right over and shook hands and said: “Happy to meet you. I’m so glad.” It just ended it. So there was this solidarity amongst women that was – that they now own. That they’d always experienced all their lives, the way we all do, but now it had a name and an analysis. There was a vocabulary around it and they embraced it fully. So I wouldn’t – obviously by the time Sheila, whom I adored, was talking to her granddaughter, she was calling herself a feminist. She must have been using the word for her granddaughter to pick this up, and I’m not surprised.
Franca Iacovetta: Does anyone else want to respond to that question? We’ll move on. Again, one of the things we were trying to do with this oral history project was to remember – to recover, to remember, reflect on stories. And so I’ve got to ask about some picket line stories that when I – one could imagine the tremendous morale, the booster, right, that all the support pickets were for these women. But there’s also, we know, a culture that develops on picket lines as well, so I’m wondering if you could speak – whoever wishes to speak to the issue of the women themselves, the culture of the picket lines, stories that come from that strike. You’ve already told really important stories, but are there other stories you might share with us? Can I ask Holly first?
Holly Kirkconnell: I think Wendy would have that information. I was there as a supporter for one picket line, and we also, in Union Woman, we covered the strike, but I think Wendy would have those stories.
Franca Iacovetta: Wendy?
Wendy Cuthbertson: It was an extraordinarily violent picket line. At one point the OPP sent 500 officers down, 23 cruisers, 3 prisoner support paddy wagons – sorry, that’s not the right word, prisoner support transport. They were spending, in today’s dollars, $10 million every month to fight the strike. And the object of the strike is to, when it’s being scabbed, is to close the plant, and the plant was closed, in 163 days only 12 days and the Women’s Day was one of them. That’s how tough this line was. And so some of the strike breakers were workers inside Fleck and others were hired especially on. And the connection with the government was very strong. The Fleck – James Fleck was the Deputy Minister of Industry in Ontario and his family owned half the company.
So it’s, like, what was going on inside the Tory cabinet, right; because Bette Stephenson, who was the Minister of Labour, supported the strikers. She thought this was crazy: that to get – to win the Rand Formula, which had been in place in Ontario since 1945, all of a sudden people are being thrown around like, you know, dolls, toys, into the snow bank. She thought this was crazy. So there must have been some interesting cabinet meetings.
But the UAW and not – you know, this is not a – has been through some tough times, as a union, over the years. They were just flabbergasted by the degree of oppression, the police interference. The police invaded the local media outlets. Confiscated video tapes; tore up reporters’ stories.
The Liberal MP went out, and before this the cops went into the plant before and told people how they could end up in jail if they were on a picket line and didn’t behave themselves. This was pretty unprecedented. I mean, there’s, you know – you don’t organise, you know, a gentlemen’s club when you organise auto plants and auto parts plants, let alone, you know, some other things – other places we organised. But this was unprecedented.
And, so, in addition to the women’s element here, in women’s support pickets, and the ongoing – the cultural community, the Theatre Passe Muraille phoned me and said: “Can we do a play?”
They sent actresses down and actors down to the picket line and spent four days with our strikers and came back and gave a boffo performance for two nights at Theatre Passe Muraille. Sold out, well reviewed by both the Globe and the Star. But there was, also, these court fights that the UAW was fighting, with people being thrown in jail; and there’s 23 criminal charges. And then the work of the NDP inside the legislature, challenging the Conservative government about the involvement of this family and its plant. So it was getting national coverage. It led the national news several times and was often a story maybe a little bit lower down. So, here, these women were in this enormous profile of national publicity, and the entire labour movement looking at them to save the day, and they were amazing.
One reporter said to me: “You know that the OPP has deployed women police officers down in the picket line, and they’re hearing all this foul language.” I thought, what, really? I mean, we have to protect women police officers from bad language? So I said: “Did they issue them earplugs?” So there was, like – it was like spy versus spy in that sense. And so they could give as they got and, of course, the confidence that they got from having a voice, finally, and having each other, and having the support of the labour movement and the women’s movement gave them this – you know, they started strong because it was a bad place to work. Only this, only – and they just owned all of that. And they were ferocious. But they also – people had their back as well. I mean, it was a sterling example of the best kind of solidarity.
Franca Iacovetta: Thank you. I do have to ask about the knitted doll that strikers made for the fundraising. So we do have a great photo of that knitted doll, and I wonder whether they are around. Are there any dolls out there, from the strike, Wendy?
Wendy Cuthbertson: … basement, all wrapped up in a – I have a – I have a trunk of memories and the doll is wrapped up in a lovely towel to keep her clean. She’s now 42 years old. She was circulated around the province as part of the Working Women’s [exhibit], and I guess it’s about time I gave it to the Workers Heritage Centre in Hamilton. It’s overdue.
Franca Iacovetta: A group of [unintelligible]. That’s great, having been part of the founding group of the Workers Arts & Heritage Centre, that could be a wonderful addition to the collection, thank you. We don’t have time to talk in detail about the Eaton Strike, but I do think that Barbara, if I could ask you to talk a little bit about it, in the context of the sort of OWW solidarity support. I’ll mention that for me your solidarity work was really important, because as a grad student I went to the big demonstration. I went to the unbelievable concert, you know, that you organised. So it was a, you know, significant moment for me too. Do you want to draw some parallels, similarities, differences? As I said, we would love to do an entire moment on Eaton’s at some point, but perhaps you might say a few things.
Barbara Cameron: Yeah, I think it would be worth getting – Barbara Linds, who was one of the big organisers of the – but I think it – you know, the groundwork was laid by something like Fleck. And the Eaton’s grew out of – the actual proposal was Laurel Richie’s, that there’d be a strike support committee for Eaton’s. But there were two speakers who were at an OWW annual meeting, who were from a Retail Wholesale [Retail, Wholesale & Department Store Union], and they were not happy with the support they were getting from their union. And so they worked, I guess, kind of quietly to get the support through OWW to create an alliance, which turned out to be a very broad alliance, because it brought in musicians and artists and novelists. And it turned out – I think it was a Massey Hall event – all these novelists have passages in their novels about Eaton’s and their – you know, like Margaret Atwood, to read her..
So, it was, I think, the same idea, that it was through Organised Working Women and union women and a feminist movement. And then I think it was very broad, because it brought in cultural people as well, so it was the same idea. And the big moment for me, in that, was, you know, when we went through Eaton’s and put stickers on the mannequins. That was quite fun. But it was the same thing, which was showing that you could bring in the, you know, broader society. And I think, you know, that was really important with the alliance between feminism and the labour movement. Certainly around the free-trade fight, that feminism [correction: alliance] allowed this broader reach into society for support for labour, and I think that came out of all this – it was part of all this.
Franca Iacovetta: Thank you. Holly, do you want to comment on Eaton’s in particular?
Holly Kirkconnell: The Women’s Strike Support Coalition that OWW was really a big part of really helped with the effective strike support. And it was even, like the artistic community, the Catholic bishops, like – there was all kinds of people that were – because everybody – I mean, whether – you know, had some kind of connection with Eaton’s, even if they were just shopping there. But a lot of people had Eaton’s in their past or in their families or whatever, had worked there and – I think it is worth a special moment, and there is a play that we developed, called: “Life on the Line: Women Strike at Eaton’s,” that had a bunch of us. We went through all the old documents and stuff and worked with ACT II Studio at Ryerson and created a play about it, which was a lot of fun.
Franca Iacovetta: And so do you think that this also helped to foster union receptiveness, right, towards the kinds of objectives, right, that OWW had about, right, addressing women’s issues, creating women’s committees, aligning with, right, organisations for daycare, equal pay and so forth, as well as the ones that were more explicitly feminist, like the IWD coalition? Now as I was asking the question I think Marg, you had your hand up, so do you want to start?
Margaret McPhail: So as I said earlier, I do think it made a big difference within the labour movement. Barbara referred to that to some extent too, just in terms of demonstrating to people in organised labour the way in which feminism, and I would say other issues of social equality and so on and social justice, expanded the reach of the labour movement and created partners, you know, for solidarity work around a whole range of issues, and specifically around women’s equality issues. I think that the solidarity work that OWW did, and others, was important in that, very important in that. And I also think that through this solidarity work and raising the profile, helping to raise the profile of some of these strikes by Fleck and Eaton’s and some of the other places that have been mentioned, that it created a place within those specific unions for the women in those unions to start stepping forward more strongly to take on activist roles, to animate women’s committees, to put issues on the bargaining table.
So whether it was things like – I mean, during the 1980s one of the – some of the big issues, of course, were equal pay, affirmative action. Sexual harassment was a huge issue that women were organising around in the workplace. And all of these, of course, related to all these strikes as well. So I think it showed the value of being involved in these – it showed the righteousness of being involved in these kinds of issues. But it also created openings for women who were organising around these issues to step forward into leadership roles that then, you know, strengthened the hand of people within organised labour. I think what is interesting is that, you know, there – I mentioned the women supporting Inco and, of course, we’ve talked about the Fleck Strike, and these were both largely industrial strikes, in which there were already fairly very strong unions and very male-dominated unions.
And I think it would be interesting to explore, you know, what happened in those unions, compared to ones like the Eaton’s Strike and so on, which were much more about the organising that was taking place in the service, commercial and retail sector. So I was interested in Barbara’s comment – sorry – yeah, Barbara’s comment about, you know, how some of the women helping to organise the Eaton’s Strike did not feel they were getting support from their unions. You know, so I think it would be interesting to look into some of the differences, both in the solidarity work and also the role that women’s leadership played from the get-go in those strikes.
Wendy Cuthbertson: I can absolutely corroborate Margaret’s contention that it changed the union. It transformed the UAW, just transformed it. And, you know, they’re women’s issues that had never been on the bargaining table. In 1979 we went into the Big Three and there was, you know, a book put together, with the Women’s Committee, at the national level, a four page list of demands. None of them – we didn’t get any of them but they were, you know, unanimously accepted by the Collective Bargaining Conference. Robert White, at that point, was the President of the union. He would, self-consciously, try to hire women into staff positions. The union passed affirmative action to make sure that a woman was on the Canadian Council executive, which is our very powerful mini-parliament, in those days, of the Auto Workers. And men were very – started watching their language. Not the foul language stuff, but they learned to say woman, instead of girls and whatnot.
And then there’s one little story I want to tell, just about the impact, is that when the OFL Women’s Committee was first formed, there was – we had two male vice-presidents as our chairs because there were no women vice-presidents, and one of them was a really good guy. And I saw – his wife was a trade union activist on her own, so I ran into her all the time at various conventions and whatnot – and about a year and a half, two years after her husband had been chairing our committee, she said that – she told me that it was the happiest years of her marriage. That her marriage had improved. And she said: “And it’s all due to the OFL Women’s Committee. I mean, the way we’ve dealt with issues right now, the way that I’m treated.” She said: “You know the sun is out.” And I thought talk about transformative, at a very finely textured level.
Franca Iacovetta: OK, well on that note I think we can conclude the OWW interview that’s structured around the moment of the Fleck Strike, and OWW early strike support work, thank you very much for this wonderful interview.