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. The interview today is going to be about Organized Working Women. But 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.
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 full time but I continued to be involved through the ‘80s.
Marg McPhail: I was involved with OWW from the beginning for the first few years and then I left the organization. And following that I became involved in the International Women’s Day Committee and then later in my own union, OSSTF [Ontario Secondary Teachers’ Federation].
Marg McPhail: My name is Margaret McPhail.
Wendy Cuthbertson: My name is Wendy Cuthbertson and I was involved in the OWW in the late ‘70s when I was a staff person at the then United Auto Workers Union and we had a strike at Fleck Manufacturing. And that’s when I became active in OWW.
Franca Iacovetta: 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.
OK, so the Rise Up project organizes interviews around moments, and the moment that we want to talk about now is in fact the formation of OWW in 1976. And the larger question that is informing this is why was OWW so essential and what did it do? So, our first question then is could you recount the founding of OWW, as in who were the key activists? Who were the key unions? What were some of the key strategies? And what were some of the key objectives?
Holly Kirkconnell: Why a Trade Union Women’s Organization, it was a contentious proposal and resolution (or motion) that did get passed. But there was a tension between, well, what about all other women or other working women, why just union. But it did pass and then a steering committee that I believe Barbara was on – I wasn’t – organized the founding convention of OWW the following year. And maybe Barb could talk a little bit more about that because she was on the steering committee for the founding convention.
Barbara Cameron: OK, I have to admit to not having a very great memory and the 1970s are a bit of a blur for me because I was basically a political activist and involved in a lot of things. The impetus for Organized Working Women did come from the Labour Council and in particular Evelyn Armstrong was the driving force behind it.
Evelyn was on the staff of the United Electrical Workers and newly came back into the labour movement in ’73. During the Cold War they had not been allowed in and had been kicked out. And Evelyn broke the slate for members of the board at the Labour Council, I think it was in ’74, and so was on the executive. And it really was a core of women on that executive who was the driving force under Evelyn’s leadership of setting it up.
As I thought about this, I was reminded of what the climate was like in the labour movement. It was overwhelmingly male, the culture of it. And when we think of, we hear about what goes on in the military today and the problems with sexual harassment and the reaction to women coming into the RCMP and the military, it’s not all that different than what the climate was within the labour movement. There was a defensiveness about women coming into what had been a male reserve. The public sector unions were just coming in, and there was a real policing of women’s participation.
My husband had a tape years ago of an OFL [Ontario Federation of Labour] convention, an early OFL convention when Evelyn Armstrong was giving a speech and was heckled. And you know, you had to have a lot of confidence to get up and speak. You were actively prevented from playing a role. And so it was women who’d had some experience in the labour movement who were really the driving force. And those of us who came at it out of the New Left and the feminist movement, I think we learned a lot from them.
So the first organizing meeting. When I looked at the – reviewed the material that was on Rise Up – and I have to thank the archives for the incredible collection that’s there – there were all these papers that were written as background to the founding meeting. It was really, really impressive. And it was a delegated meeting with women had the approval of their unions to go there. And as I recall – I don’t recall a lot of dissention in the organizing but I may just not be remembering that properly – I think we had a sense that we were doing something historic, so.
Marg McPhail: So yes, so for me at that time, I was just entering the workforce myself and starting to be involved in Toronto with the feminist movement, to the extent that it existed, and the demonstrations and actions that took place around 1975. And also, I was involved in several socialist left groups at the time. So, OWW for me personally was a very exciting development because it brought together my interest in being involved in a labour movement and the initial steps I was taking towards that, as well as my involvement with feminism and women’s equality.
Like [correction: Unlike] Holly, I wasn’t at the actual conference in 1975, but I was at the founding convention. And I think the biggest thing that I remember about that were the sheer numbers of people who were there – I think there were several hundred people – and the excitement, you know the buzzing of everybody talking about what was going on and the interest in getting this organization off the ground.
My recollection of course is that the biggest debate was over who could be a member of OWW and whether you had to be – you know you could just be a woman who was in the workforce, whether you needed to be part of a trade union, and then whether that trade union had to be allied with one of the houses of labour, like the OFL or CLC [Canadian Labour Congress]. And for myself, because I was just transitioning into teaching, I was very much interested in being a member of a trade union but not necessarily one that would be allied with the House of Labour because OSSTF, which was my union, was not allied at that point.
And I actually think when we made that decision it was the right decision to make, because so many of us as women were coming into the workforce in places that were either not yet unionized or were in the public sector areas like nursing, like teaching, those kinds of things that were not necessarily, they might have been unionized but they weren’t necessarily allied with houses of labour. So it meant that so many more people could be involved in and supportive of OWW. So it was very exciting. And you know I didn’t join the executive itself until the following year in 1977.
Holly Kirkconnell: I connected, I was a delegate to Labour Council so I was working as a clerk in the tax department, so I was a member of the Public Service Alliance of Canada and a delegate to Labour Council starting in 1976. And that’s where I met Evelyn Armstrong, Dorothy MacKinnon from CUPE [Canadian Union of Public Employees], Joyce Rosenthal from the Rubber Workers, who else, April Coulton with the Garment Workers. There was a core of experienced union women. And I was 21 years old so it was, the whole thing was new to me.
And walking into my first meeting of the Labour Council it was like a sea of male heads. And the same with going to my first OFL convention in ’76; it was a sea of male heads. And with Barbara talking about … There was sexism. Now the Labour Council’s a little different though because the Labour Council was really quite an ally of the women in the Labour Council wanting to start this organization and gave us our first thousand dollars and were generally, throughout the period, supportive of OWW. And that was very helpful and important politically within the labour movement.
What else was I wanting to say that people were touching on? I guess a little more, Barb talked about the experience of Evelyn getting heckled. I remember being in my first OFL convention. David Archer was the president at that time and he was chairing. And a woman, I don’t remember who it was but she got up and she was wanting a point of privilege. And he just tore it’s “Sit down sister. Sit down, shut up. You’re out of order.” And I thought, “Oh my God, am I going to be feeling comfortable to get up to a mic?” It was a hostile environment really for women.
And the public sector as well, being part of the public sector which was fairly newly organized on the whole through the ‘60s and ‘70s, I think there was a bit of a concern by the rest of the labour movement when we came in that we would, both as public sector workers, who sometimes might have not been seen as real workers, and as women, that we might weaken the labour movement, that we wouldn’t be strong enough in the fights.
Marg McPhail: So I just want to echo what Holly was just saying about the role that the experienced union women played in getting OWW off the ground and their presence in the organization, their grounding in the organization. Certainly, I remember all the people that Holly mentioned – and in particular Evelyn Armstrong – and the meetings that we used to have at the UE [United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America] headquarters on Clendenon Avenue there as the executive and so on and being really interested to hear some of their history.
And at the same time, while acknowledging the importance of their role, I think it was also the case that there were many of us, like myself, who were active in a range of other political areas and also in the feminist movement more widely speaking, and we were just coming into the labour force. And I think we brought maybe a different perspective than the women who’d had this long history. I don’t think we were always very understanding of the experiences that they had and the kind of road that they’d had to walk in order to get to the positions that they were in.
And I do think there was, in good times, a creative tension between that sort of mass activist perspective versus a history of women who’d operated with a small number of them being able to work together. And I think that played out in the founding convention in OWW and the differences in what perspective, you know, who could be a member and so on.
And I do think it played out as well over the first few years, not that there was necessarily disagreement about whether we should be training women to be more effective participants in the labour movement or whether we should be doing … I don’t know that it was so much disagreement about the kinds of work we should be doing but, you know, I guess that tension maybe that we even feel now today with younger feminist activists coming along saying, you know, having a sense that maybe those of us who came before just weren’t pushy enough or whatever.
Franca Iacovetta: Thank you, Marg. I did have a question about the broader historical context in which all this organizing was taking place. And I know that you’ve already commented on some of the context in responding to the earlier questions, but I’d like to give you an opportunity to say more if you wish. So, could we say something more about what is going on in the mid 1970s in relation to working women, the labour movement, the women’s movement and so forth that provided kind of a critical context for, what, the founding of OWW? Can I ask Barbara, would you like to speak to that?
Barbara Cameron: Yes, and I also wanted to say something about the objectives of OWW at the time, that was one of your questions. So, looking back at Union Woman and what was going on in the labour movement at the time in a broader society, this is really the beginning of the shift to what we know now as neoliberalism. Because there was wage and price controls, there were all kinds of cutbacks that the Ontario Conservative government had brought in to childcare and education and public health, and the Days of Action where the CLC organized what was a political strike, which was very unusual in the Canadian labour movement.
So it was a period of really the beginning of the pushback of corporations and governments against really the gains that had been made and the militancy that existed in the labour movement in the late 1960s and into the 1970s. So, that was the context. And really, looking at Union Woman you see increasingly that it is a pushback and attempt to join the broader struggles that are going on against all the cutbacks that were taking place.
So the women’s movement, feminist movement is on the rise just as all this rollback is taking place, so there was a huge amount that was actually going on. When OWW was originally formed, the whole notion of training really was so that you would have women … I was in the Graduate Assistants’ Association; I’d been one of the original organizers of it. And it’s now the TA locals and it’s now part of CUPE.
So I wasn’t part of the broader labour movement, but for me it was a way to actually – I was a socialist and sympathetic to unions, but to really learn about labour I’d been involved in the Women’s Liberation Group in Toronto and found it quite frustrating. I wanted to be part of an organization that actually accomplished things. And you know this training to allow – and also the organizing at the OFL conventions so that …
And another thing OWW did right from the beginning as part of the training was to decide on certain key resolutions that members of OWW would then take to their locals to be passed and sent forward for debate at the OFL convention. So it was very practical training and this is how you move a resolution forward in your local, and it then goes forward and it’s printed in the OFL resolutions book, and then you get to the convention and you organize around it. And then they need to have that kind of solidarity and support at a convention when you have agreed to be one of the people who’s going to go up and speak in the kind of climate that Holly was describing. So that I think was a really important part of the original vision, to teach women how to do this, how to survive and how to move forward the concerns of women.
And I was looking at the editorial in the first issue of Union Woman that Evelyn Armstrong had written, and her vision and the vision of the organization was really to get the union to take up women’s issues at the bargaining table but also politically. And so that was the original intention. And as things got more and more polarized with all the cutbacks and everything, I think OWW and, you know, women’s movement generally got involved increasingly in the fight backs against that.
Franca Iacovetta: Margaret, do you want to speak more to …
Marg McPhail: Just a little bit, just adding to what Barbara has said.I also want to highlight that, in the same way as this action was starting to take place in the labour movement, and certainly not just in Ontario but across Canada, so around this time you also have the Vancouver Women’s Caucus and their Working Women’s project and the emergence of the Women Only Union with SORWUC [Service Office Retail Workers Union Canada] in organizing bank workers and retail workers in British Columbia. You have the Saskatchewan Working Women. So this was certainly not limited to Toronto or even Ontario; it was something that was happening in lots of different places.
But in Ontario we also had the foundation, I think it was 1975, ’76, of the Equal Pay Coalition. So, you know, those kinds of issues were being organized around by a whole group of activists at that time. And you know we had continuing action around reproductive choice too of course during that time. So, I think, you know it was a real hotbed of activism both within the labour movement – as Barbara was referring to – and socially more generally, and certainly around women’s equality. And of course, you know I mean the previous years with the Royal Commission and all that kind of thing, it kind of set a framework for that.
The other thing I did want to mention which I think was really useful with OWW in those years was that it brought women together across unions. So, while there had been women who had been operating – and some of them operating very effectively within their own unions – up to that point, they were still quite isolated both in terms of the overall numbers of women who were members of their unions – they were still heavily male in particularly some unions – but definitely as women who were moving into activist or leadership roles.
So, much – this is my take on it anyway – much like consciousness raising earlier on, bringing women together to talk about certain problems helped people sort of grasp that it wasn’t just their personal situation or whatever, these kinds of organizations meant people realized it wasn’t just their union but this was a more systemic problem and that there were strategies and supports in ways that we could organize together to give help, to help move things forward.
Holly Kirkconnell: OK. So in addition to the skills building workshops that we did, so it was parliamentary procedure, public speaking, resolution development, we also held annual conferences on different issues, so the daycare in the union movement, equal pay, occupational health and safety. Every year it was pretty well a different topic, and they were really interesting conferences.
The formula we used for developing this would be: we have what was the issue, and we explored the issues, had speakers, workshops; then what do we want; and then how do we get it. So it was a very useful formula to adopt in terms of educating and learning about the issues and strategies about what we then take back to our unions to try to broaden that knowledge of other people and get things done. And certainly some things around collective bargaining, ideas about what to try to propose to get on to the bargaining table and the process of how to get that through and get involved in that in the local.
So really, overall, being an organization of trade union women, we had the structures. We had our organizations that had a certain amount of power and that we would then learn how to use that power or how to get involved and shift and change things, because I think we actually, ultimately, did change the culture of the labour movement in many ways.
Barbara Cameron: Just part of the overall context, we forget that women were just coming into the workforce in huge numbers in that period. So there still was a debate about whether or not really married women ought to be in the workforce, and it’s incredible to think of that today. You know we think about the influence of feminism on the labour movement, but there also was an influence the other way which I think OWW helped contribute to because there was some anti-union sentiment in the feminist movement. There was a group of us who at one point wrote a letter resigning from the Toronto Women’s Liberation Group over a whole bunch of issues.
But there were differences among the feminist activists at the time as well around a number of issues. But a lot of it had to do with basically how you were organized and what is effective organizing. And from my perspective, being connected to the labour movement was being connected to – as Holly said – somewhere where there was organization and power if you could, we could win something.
Marg McPhail: Absolutely Barbara, I think one of the key things coming out of the late ‘70s and the early ‘80s was the interaction between the labour movement and at least some parts of the feminist movement. Because, I mean you see this again and again and again where once women started to be able to move things effectively onto the collective bargaining table, you know a few years later it would become legislation or it would become a social program, so all women whether or not they were organized in unions, you know, had the advantage of this.
And similarly, you saw the labour movement I think taking up issues of so-called women’s issues that it previously would not have addressed. And certainly choice would be one of those examples, but I think childcare would also be one. So, I think that that relationship, while it certainly had its trying times, was a very significant one in the history of women’s equality rights in Ontario and in Canada more generally speaking.
And I just wanted to flag also, and I don’t know if it was a unique union or not, but certainly NAC and around some of the issues like maternity leave and so on was the Federation of Women Teachers of Ontario, and of course it was an all-women’s organization. So I think it’s really fascinating. I don’t know a whole lot about their history because my background is OSSTF, but I think it’s fascinating to look at the role that they played as a union in putting certain things. or trying to put certain things on the collective bargaining table, including – and this is why it came to my mind – the issue of whether women teachers had to retire, not retire, resign when they became pregnant, which of course they did at one point. So, you know I think that was an important thing for them obviously because it affected their whole membership.
Franca Iacovetta: So I’d like to ask a question about a topic that I became really interested in as I was reading through the materials on the Rise Up website, and that is this important alliance that clearly came together in OWW between older or veteran trade union women and these younger union women who were influenced by the women’s movement, by the New Left and other social justice movements. And I’m very interested in understanding that alliance and do we see it as a generational alliance. How did these groups of women come together? How did people handle it?
And I also, a related question is I’m interested as an historian also to what extent the younger women had an historical consciousness about the fact that there was this much longer history of women who in trade unions, had participated in trade unions to improve their working conditions and also had sought equal status with their male coworkers.
Barbara Cameron: I don’t remember there being that much difficulty. I was more aware of sort of political divisions rather than anything having to do with the length of time that somebody had been in the labour movement. For myself, I learned something about the history of women in the labour movement just from being involved in OWW and being around those women.
But you know when I looked at early issues of Union Woman, what really struck me was how broad the content was, you know. And somebody like Evelyn Armstrong was totally on side with abortion rights. I mean these were progressive women. You know, Dorothy MacKinnon, they were left women in the labour movement. And there was an article on decriminalizing prostitution. I mean there was a real range of issues that got taken up. I was surprised just because, I guess, we just took it for granted at the time.
I think the older women, you know, leaving aside any differences over political orientation, I think they were thrilled to have the support of younger women. That was my impression. They were like, “Great, finally we found some kind of energy here.” So, I didn’t have a sense really that that wasn’t important. I mean there were different experiences, but I think some of it was political. I mean there were ways.
I wrote an article for the first publication of Women’s Press criticizing the notion that we could expand childcare based on parent-run childcare centres. I didn’t think that was the way to go. I thought we needed a public system of childcare. So, there were debates about strategy within the Women’s Liberation Group as well, so I saw the differences more along those lines than along an age line.
Wendy Cuthbertson: Good. Yes, I just wanted to jump in here for a second. I joined the Auto Workers in 1977 and a number of the women who had been hired during the war were still active in the workforce, and a number of them of course were active in the UAW Women’s Committees and the UAW Annual Women’s Conference. And it set me to thinking about the generational connection.
And so, when I went to the OFL Women’s Committee, I remember going around the table one day and realized that all – except for a few handful, two or three women – all of us had either lived through the war, like Edith Johnston and other women, or were the daughters of women whose lives had been turned upside down by the war. Deirdre Gallagher’s mother married an Irishman who was active in the labour movement and ended up immigrating to Canada. My mother had been a housemaid and ended up in the air force and met my father and was forever angry that she was forced to leave the air force after the war whereas my father was allowed to stay…
And when I went back to university, I was trying to establish a connection between the women during the war and their daughters. And the only thing I could find that was a direct link between those two generations was in fact through the labour movement. Betty Friedan, who we all know wrote The Feminine Mystique, was in fact a labour journalist with the United Electrical Workers during the war. And she wrote the pamphlet called Why We Fight for Women Workers, and it could easily have passed muster probably today in fact.
And she felt the need to suppress that history when she wrote The Feminine Mystique. There’s only one paragraph in the book that deals with these vast economic forces that determine our lives, I guess on her publisher’s advice. So she made it about unhappy middle-class women who had university educations and nothing much to do with their lives, at least they thought, when in fact the driving force I think for her was her experience during the war and what women’s due is.
Holly Kirkconnell: I won’t even call it a gap because people worked together really well. And we were having our annual meeting, the OWW Annual Meeting; it was at, I think it was at the UE office. There was a piano in the room. And as our cultural aspect we had Rita MacNeil play the piano and sing. She was a single mom in Toronto at that time and sort of trying to become a musician.
But at that meeting, and I believe it was Dorothy MacKinnon, stood up and she said, “I’m so happy to see these younger women here. I’m just so happy.”
And I remember putting up my hand and saying, “Well I’m just so happy to see all these older women here.”
And so you know I don’t think we knew then, us younger ones didn’t know the history. We learned little by little the history of what the older sisters had gone through. But I think we worked very well together. There was a real focus on accomplishing things and getting stuff done. And so that certainly was not an issue in terms of age.
Marg McPhail: Yes, so that’s very interesting what people are saying, certainly about the connections of women generationally. And you know I think that Barbara in particular is correct in that certainly some of the differences were perhaps less generational and more political or differences in approach and viewpoints. You know that makes sense to me. I mean certainly I was part of the labour movement at that point, and then I left being active in the labour movement in a wider scale for about a decade, maybe a bit more. And when I came back I appreciated the long continued history of people, women being able to work together both in the kind of ongoing educational training, mutual support work, as well as the prodding into action work that women activists in the labour movement were continuing to do around women’s equality.
If I can just say myself, I was one of the people who left OWW early. I resigned my executive position. And I have to say that I honestly don’t remember the nuances of why I did that, which tells me that they had more to do with other political, so-called political differences than a deep heartfelt understanding of what it was that I was doing at the time. I know that I have subsequently said that I think now that deciding to leave at that time was probably not the right thing to do. So, sometimes it’s hard as I get older to remember how significant these decisions were, these differences were, although I certainly very much remember that they were present and had an effect on the discussions and, you know, the people who were involved.
Franca Iacovetta: Well I do have some questions about debates and political differences, and again, to some extent you’ve touched on some of them already but to give you an opportunity to say more. It seems to me that the OWW entry on the Rise Up website is frank about debates. It’s frank about debates over organizing strategies, beginning with the issue of membership right off the bat. You’ve already touched on that, but I wonder if someone might be interested, or all of you interested in talking about some issues around that debate.
And I’m thinking now in listening to you talking about whether you want to comment on organizations, similar organizations that went a different route, like Saskatchewan Working Women, for example. Is there any, some comments that you might want to make about debates over that issue?
And then I also wondered about debates over the political strategy around do we work within unions and the labour movement to address women’s issues? Or do, right, we pressure the labour movement from outside through the women’s movement, again, a kind of fundamental strategic decision that I don’t know whether or not political differences would play out around that. But that would be another issue that is to the points that you’ve been making.
And then the other was about OWW being unionist with different political affiliations. So there were social democrats, there were communists, there were people who belonged to various Trotskyist groups. And I wondered about what you would like to say about those differences. To what extent did they influence perceptions of OWW? How did the executive deal with that in order to get on with the important work you were doing?
Because, what I’m really struck by is how much OWW did in its early years already. So that’s a big question but it’s related to the issue that’s been coming up about political differences and what that entailed. So, can I start with Barbara?
Barbara Cameron: Like Marg, I’m unclear about most of the substance of what these differences were other than the original difference around whether or not it ought to be all women or to just be union women. But I was really trying to – maybe all of you have a better memory than I do; can remember some of the substance. But one of the things that struck me when I had been active in the left in Ottawa, which was a very ecumenical left, you know we had people from all different political persuasions because we were very small. And Holly was in Ottawa a bit later than I was.
And when I came to Toronto we had to pick a side. You know the Toronto left was very sectarian. So you know, I was involved in women’s liberation – I was hired to be the first women’s organizer for the Ontario Union of Students and I got involved in the Women’s Liberation Group. And the person who made most sense to me was Charnie Guettel and Leslie Towers, and they were both in the Communist party. And everybody started to assume I was in the Communist party so I, “OK, well I might as well be in the Communist party” you know, but you had to pick a side in everything and it was sort of part of the culture of the left.
And then there are the issues, the traditions within the labour movement and the historic conflict that played itself out around the unions that were expelled which were, had Communist influence in them. All the leadership wasn’t Communist but they were left unions. And when they came in – and I think that was a very important dynamic around OWW and a sense I think on the part of a lot of people that it was a heavily Communist influenced organization and that it shouldn’t be. And actually, the Communist party leadership opposed Organized Working Women. They thought it was dual unionism and that we ought to be organizing housewives around rising prices or something. But it worked so well in the 1930s.
So, I think a lot of it was this larger context of the sectarianism of the Toronto left and then the historic conflicts in the labour movement. I think Holly described this to me as the Hatfields and the McCoys or something; that these were going on for generations, all these conflicts. But in terms of the substance – and maybe Marg and Wendy can say more about this but I don’t recall on things like abortion rights, and you know I don’t remember a lot of real substantive differences.
Holly Kirkconnell: – One was that any woman from any bonafide collective bargaining unit could become a member. And that was something that the big house of labour was not thrilled about and that did get us in trouble at times. The other was that we were a non-partisan organization, with the broader labour movement, or the bigger part that we were with, being officially affiliated to the NDP. So, that was also something that was not appreciated by let’s say the OFL and CLC or certain people in other unions.
And I do remember, actually, my recollection of that time that Marg referred to when there was quite a number of women left the OWW executive. I remember that there was a proposal that OWW become part of the ONDP [Ontario New Democratic Party] Women’s Committee and that was a big discussion. And I was one of the people that felt that was not something that would be useful for OWW to do. So again, that’s that political tension between the official NDP labour movement connection.
Also, we would get in trouble when we – I remember having Laurel Richie and Madeleine Parent come as a speaker or a workshop leader. And because they were CCU [Confederation of Canadian Unions], there were, we got some backlash about that too. But those two principles I think were the really bedrock of OWW was that any woman who’s a member of a bonafide collective bargaining unit and being non-partisan that actually I think were really helpful in being able to have an influence within the labour movement and beyond.
Marg McPhail: I’m not sure I would have agreed at the time. But I think one of the real values of Organized Working Women and one of the reasons why it was able to accomplish what it did from early on and for the history of its lifetime is it managed to straddle a place, sometimes more successfully sometimes less successfully, between what I might call the independent women’s movement in all its diverse forms at that point, whether it was childcare advocacy… in Toronto or whatever and, on the other hand, the organized labour movement.
So even after the OFL Women’s Committee was formed, it didn’t subsume itself into the OFL Women’s Committee; it continued to play an independent role. It worked in alliance with organizations like the Equal Pay Coalition and International Women’s Day Coalition and so on in a variety of things; solidarity work particularly. And I think that was really an important foundation to the successful work that it did.
The other thing that I do want to mention is that fairly early on, because of the women’s program that was set up in Secretary of State I guess in connection with the International Women’s Year in 1975, I think that’s when it was established, the OWW was able to get money. And I think our ability to hire someone, in this case Deirdre Gallagher, who was a long-time activist, but certainly to have someone on, working for the organization, I think at least some points full time but certainly part time, made a big difference in our effectiveness rather than having to rely entirely on volunteer labour.
Franca Iacovetta: Thank you. Wendy?
Wendy Cuthbertson: Like others, my memories of this are very, very murky. And the irony of course is I went back to freelance work for the Auto Workers one summer 20 years later and there was Laurel Richie on staff with UAW. And I don’t even remember the resolution at the NDP. So I’m inclined to side with Barbara. I think there was a kind of sectarianism that I guess we just couldn’t overcome. And I agree with Margaret, I’m not sure it was the wisest decision in.
On the other hand, the one benefit that came out of that I think mistake was that it really provided new energy to the OFL Women’s Committee, which had just been founded itself and had been pretty quiet. And then, when you get the kind of people that the OWW had attracted to move over there and give all the … because we also had jobs. I mean there was my job at the Auto Workers in addition to sort of women’s issues if you will. It just energized that body, the OFL Women’s Committee.
And that was not a bad thing. I think the OFL Women’s Committee did a lot of good. And if we had not moved over there with the kind of time that – the amount of time that we had, I’m not sure that would have happened. I mean there’s no way we can establish this for sure, but it’s a thought.
Franca Iacovetta: OK, thank you. I have some questions that relate to one of the central objectives about training, mobilizing, supporting women to pressure their unions using the internal democratic processes of their unions to take up these women’s equality issues which are equity issues in terms of equal pay of work of equal value, daycare, affirmative action, free abortion on demand.
I wonder too about the strategies around women’s caucuses and women’s committees and women’s conferences, which has come up a number of times including most recently with Wendy’s comments. And I wonder, since part of this oral history project is about, you know, what do you think would be valuable for current day activists and current day researchers who are really engaged by these issues? What do they need to know about these kinds of strategies?
I mean it might be self evident to some people, for example, that well, yes of course you should have a women’s caucus and well yeah of course you should have a women’s committee. But we’re talking about this in a context in which these things are being pioneered, and so I wonder if you want to say more about why was it so important to have the women’s caucuses, to get the OFL to set up a women’s committee, to get other unions – as Wendy talked about – to get a women’s committee and also to keep it energetic and going. So I throw that out for another round of discussion. OK, Wendy’s put up her hand first so I’ll go with Wendy.
Wendy Cuthbertson: Well one of the things that I was delighted to learn about when I joined the Auto Workers is that Edith Johnston – we became very good friends – was in fact the staff rep heading up something called the Women’s Department. And so, there was the UAW’s constitution: in 1944 [it] was amended to mandate a women’s committee in each local union. There had to be an annual women’s conference. And the Women’s Department had been erected and the union during the war was established permanently. And these were fairly quiet entities: some magnificent people, don’t get me wrong. There’s Melanie Jeffries and Dorothy Haner were just, like, amazing people.
But it was postwar. Women had been sent back to their, quote, kitchens for the most part, and the ‘50s was a very, very heavy patriarchal period but they kind of kept the flame alive. And so, when second-wave feminism came to the Auto Workers, belatedly, there was this infrastructure in place already. There was a conference that we could hold annually which was no longer about just the embarrassment of having quote/unquote girlie pictures in the Oshawa GM plant. We could talk about larger issues; childcare and maternity leave and yes choice and all the so-called feminist issues.
Women’s committees started springing up. I mean, when the union was only 10% male [correction: female] you often didn’t have any women in a workplace. But as women were coming into them all of a sudden there was this constitutional mandate that required a women’s committee. And of course there was Edith, she was: half of her job was retirees and the other half was working with UAW women.
And generationally of course it was marvellous because I was as green as grass. The Fleck strike happened four months after I got on staff and I’d come out of the NDP; I didn’t have a trade union background, whereas she had been a recording secretary at a major, major, very progressive local in London. Still, I mean this woman [Edith Johnston] won the Order of Canada based on the work she did after she retired. She was astonishingly effective.
And I think we made a good team that way. She had the skills and the passion and I had my youth and the connection with, so the younger folk through the IWD [International Women’s Day]. But I do want to emphasize that this infrastructure that was there allowed the UAW to kind of be there. When it had to change there was something, a vehicle to change.
And the other thing I wanted to say is that – this is before I came on board in the labour movement – my understanding of the 1976 OFL convention when the women’s committee was mandated was there was a ferocious debate. It was not an easy accomplishment at all. Some people that became my friends were in fact on the other side of the debate. I think Barbara’s “dual unionism” [point] may have been part of it; I wasn’t there.
And so it wasn’t a slam dunk; it was absolutely a debate that had to be won and it was very fierce. And in fact, I think Cliff Pilkey [OFL president] pulled the original resolution because he knew it was going to lose, and then brought it back the next year when people had gotten their ducks lined up. So the fact that the UAW had this in place already made it so much easier for us to do that.
Now, I’m sort of going on and on but the original strategy of the women’s committee and the UAW was – the training programming basically – is to encourage women to take union office, to go to union conferences and conventions and have their voices heard. And then when second-wave feminism came along, of course that changed dramatically into political pressure and let’s get stuff on the bargaining table and let’s build some power of our own.
Marg McPhail: So, Wendy’s led into this I think. I think OWW played an incredibly important role in terms of opening the door to or helping to organize much more effectively the idea of a women’s caucus at the OFL convention and presumably at individual union conventions as well. And so, I guess the first years after the founding of OWW, you know we did have a women’s caucus. We had a meeting outside the main hall that we had speakers come to to talk to us about things. We did put forward the motions about the OFL Women’s Committee which was supported, and other people who were actually on the floor can talk about the history of that.
But again, I was in a union that wasn’t part of the OFL so I wasn’t a delegate to the OFL Convention, but I was definitely there at the evening meetings and those organizing sessions as a member of OWW. And they were incredibly powerful in terms of showing women, helping women feel the power of what it meant to work together and to organize together. So I think there is a very important history there that then went on to be played by various women’s caucuses and groups as well other equity-seeking groups within the labour movement.
In terms of lessons today, I think that – and I alluded to this before – I have found some people talking about how we’re past that, that we don’t need these equity caucuses, we don’t need these committees within the unions. I think to some extent that reflects financial issues and membership issues. I think it may also reflect the fact that there’s been an all out assault on working people in labour unions and people’s attention gets very centrally focused in those kinds of moments.
But I think it’s clear to me that we still need these kinds of equity-seeking groups still, and interestingly, for the same kinds of reasons that we needed it then. People are reluctant to step up to the microphone if they need some supports around learning how to speak, how to craft resolutions. They need to feel the support of others in terms of stepping into the limelight. They need the support of others to be able to organize effectively to make things happen over time. So anyway, I think the lessons of OWW and some of the history of that time, as well as the OFL Women’s Committee and women’s committees of different unions, are very instructive for people today about what some of the fundamentals still are.
Holly Kirkconnell: It’s a big question. I think the way that we worked by having women go, you know, come to OWW, learn things, get support and then go back into their locals. And that’s really was where the work was done, was in their own union locals, and so we were pushing the labour movement and unions from within. It’s not like OWW had any particular power to influence the labour movement but it was our members who would be working in that way. And I think that is a pretty effective general strategy to get things done.
And some people would say, “Well why can’t OWW send delegates to the OFL?” Well we’re not a union. We were an independent body for education and development and pressure, and so that concept of working from within where you are at that worked in many more ways.
Franca Iacovetta: Barbara, did you want to speak to that?
Barbara Cameron: I had some thoughts that were kind of spiralling off what people were saying. One thing about when Wendy, I think the Auto Workers were a bit unusual in that history around the women’s committees and the women’s conferences, so that was interesting. I also want to thank you for the historical lesson about Betty Friedan. I had no idea of her history. That was very interesting.
But the Canadian labour movement has been, through its federations – and somebody suggested to me this might be on the way out – but has had a very democratic structure. You know if you think of the organization of labour federations in other countries where a leadership comes and they get to commit, you know, these thousands and thousands of votes. In Canada there has been the opening for locals to be very active in it, and I think that structure was very helpful, you know, to get things turned back that the leadership was trying to get through. So that’s not really an answer to your question about women’s committees but …
And there also was a tradition of caucuses. It wasn’t just women’s caucuses but you know unions have their own caucuses and others, So it wasn’t so unusual to have a caucus, so I mean those were …
Oh, I guess the other point which is different than having the committees within unions; I’ve been struck recently about the importance of autonomous feminist movement and the notion of autonomy. I’ve been involved recently, you know the liberal government, federally, has some more openings and I work with a national women’s organization around international human rights. And the extent to which women’s organizations are positioning themselves, first of all as subcontractors for government, you know, they’re good feminists involved in this, but also as an interest group.
You know, like the notion that we had a vision for society, you know. We weren’t just this little sectoral group; we were the future. And I hope that comes back, you know, that – it’s really … You know even the language that’s used, it’s the women’s sector, it drives me crazy. We’re a movement to transform society. And I think we had that sense in that period.
I mean, we went through, the left and feminism, went through a huge defeat after the Free Trade Agreement. I mean we went on the defensive and just trying to survive, but you know, we could recapture that. And one thing OWW could do, you know I was on the OFL Women’s Committee in the late ‘80s when I was working for UE, and they did and I presume still do a lot of good forums and educational work.
But the women’s committee within the OFL couldn’t send out resolutions for individual union women to take to their organizations to shake through an OFL convention. I think that probably would have been a bit much. So having an autonomous group was quite good. I don’t know if that ever happened in the women’s committees. I’ve never been involved in a women’s committee within a union. I don’t know if they were able to have that kind of autonomy from the leadership.
Marg McPhail: So, I think the point that Barb just made is really important. The OFL committee still can’t submit its own resolutions. What it does do of course is talk about resolutions within the committee meetings that various unions may want to sponsor to the OFL convention. And I think the practice is probably different in different unions in that regard.
But one of the things that was very important about OWW – which I was trying to say earlier as well – is, because it was kind of straddling a line between the labour movement and the independent women’s movement, it had its independence. So you didn’t have to be delegated; you could be an individual member and be part of OWW. Unlike the women’s committees, where you often, mostly, I don’t think there is a union where you’re not sent by your union, so there’s already some control over who gets to go, you know. So I think that that role of OWW was really important to allow women who might not have been able to step up to the plate within their own union to still become active in other ways, or to go to training or whatever.
Franca Iacovetta: Thank you. So we’ll continue along the theme of strategies and lessons learned and things that people today might also want to take up. I want to turn to another organizing tool which was the newspaper Union Woman. And I did do a kind of quick reading of various issues throughout and it really is a great research tool. I mean I think there is such a wide number of issues that come up, I mean the kinds of things that Barbara said earlier, and so it was fascinating.
What I thought – rather than try to cover all those issues – what I thought, Holly, you could speak to as editor of Union Woman is really the work that went into producing it. I mean there’s so much going on. There are debates going on. There are activities going, activism going on, organizing going on. And so I wondered about the sheer labour of producing that newspaper and if you could speak to that and how members were involved, how members responded to the newspaper, you know, what role it’s playing, but also the sheer work that went into it.
Holly: I just want to point out that I was not the only editor of Union Woman. The way we operated, we had a newspaper committee and whoever was the chair was then called the editor on the masthead. And we actually, in committees it was like musical chairs literally. Like, the chair of committees would rotate. On the executive, we all took turns being president, being treasurer. You know there was a lot of movement and so there was …
But with Union Woman: so the committee would get together and we would discuss what was going on and decide what articles would be helpful for that issue, and then think of who might be good to write those articles and contact them and get them to write them. And sometimes they were people beyond OWW. Often it was people within our own membership. And we’d write them, we’d proof them, we’d … Gosh, this was really low technology days. So we would then cut and I think we had to splice them and take them to the printers – it was actually printed in a real print shop – and get the photos and do all of the layout. And so we learned a lot of skills by the seats of our pants to do that.
And I remember our very first issue, we were enamoured by all these different fonts that were possible. And so, our first issue has different fonts in every article for the heading, for the body. Then we learned that that really wasn’t the way to do it. So we’ve learned a lot.
Union Woman was a good information tool, a good organizing tool. We had a big mailing list, across the country and into the States. We would hand it out at labour council meetings, at union meetings, at conventions. Whenever we had a table we would have that there. So, as I look back on the past issues, it really is a very good history of what was happening, a blow-by-blow throughout those years within the labour movement and the women’s movement.
So, it was a lot of work and a huge learning curve. And today it would be much easier to produce. And really, [unintelligible 01:40:23] we had the telephone with no voicemail, we had typewriters, we used to have to type and cut stencils. When I learned that there was such a thing as a Gestafax I thought that was like the best thing ever. We used the Gestetner too – not for the newspaper but for any handouts. It was very, very low-tech and time-consuming.
Barbara Cameron: It is astounding the amount of work and time that people put in. And I think this was true of the feminist movement generally in that period. We did have, Marg mentioned Deirdre, who was on staff I think for about a year and a half. We had somebody else, we had Ruth Harrington was her name for I think a longer period. We had Joyce Rosenthal did a lot of work for us that was volunteer; I think maybe she was paid for a short period. So it is amazing how much was really accomplished.
But I was recalling that when we began Union Woman we had no idea how to do this. And we, our little committee, had a lesson from – and other people will remember her last name, she was the food critic for the Star I think, and she came and told us how you write articles for a newspaper. People will know her last name, it just escapes me. But anyway, she came and she gave us a little workshop for our committee to teach us how to write a newspaper article.
Franca Iacovetta: That’s great, thank you. Wendy, you’ve got your hand up. Oh, Joanne Kates, is that who we’re talking about?
Barbara Cameron: [Muted: Yes, Joanne Kates]
Wendy Cuthbertson: So then I’ll move on to the next question which continues along the theme of strategies, this time coalition building around the equity issues, of which there were many. But to choose one, daycare, I wanted to ask about how, more specifically how OWW helped to bring this issue into the union movement and key moments of mobilization.
And I was struck by learning about Barbara’s pamphlet on daycare which, by reading Ester Reiter’s paper. I did then later read an issue in Union Woman about the NDP social services critic who I gather now voiced that memorable line but that you used effectively in the pamphlet about for-profit mini schools being so much like producing Kentucky fried children. So I thought perhaps you could speak to the writing of the pamphlet and also to some of the specific organizing around the daycare issue.
Barbara Cameron: So, childcare was always my issue. I always thought that was absolutely fundamental – still do – more broadly, anything to do with care these days. So I had written a pamphlet in the early 1970s, before OWW, on a case for universal childcare, which was really inspired by the Royal Commission that had argued we needed a national childcare act and we needed to take childcare out of the welfare context.
So, I had been kind of working away at that pamphlet, which I co-authored with Leslie Towers, was published by the Ontario Anti-Poverty Coalition. And CUPE at one point did pick it up and publish it with permission that they had been – and I think that was probably before OWW was established; I don’t recall the timing of all that. At the initial convention, Ginny Thomson, who was a childcare worker, did prepare something and did speak on it. But it was an issue that we talked about.
And then we had a conference and there were some things leading up to it. I think I wrote a background paper or something. I know I wrote a background paper for the conference. The importance I think of the position was that it first of all was universal childcare, and there was some debate at that point about whether unions should negotiate for workplace childcare and that sort of thing, and raised it as a political issue and something that ought to be a public service.
But I think the dynamic around this fits in with the tensions within OWW around that period. So, my sense of when Marg resigned and Wendy resigned, I had the impression that their view was that the OFL Women’s Committee was going to be able to take on most of what OWW had been doing. So we planned a conference on childcare and we had announced it and it did go forward, but the resignations took place around that. And then, sort of in creative tension and competition, the OFL took up their own – had their own conference on it, and maybe Wendy knows what happened around that.
But I think the real coalition around childcare – like the creation of the Ontario Coalition for Childcare – I think it took place through the OFL Women’s Committee and feminists who had been working around childcare. That’s more my impression of how that all happened, rather than – you know OWW pushed the issue and we raised it at the OFL convention, and I think the OFL maybe took it up because OWW had been pushing it, but the coalition I think at the Ontario level with the OFL and various feminist organizations. But Wendy may know something about what happened in that period.
But it’s something that OWW had taken up and had taken up as something that should be a publicly-funded universal service. And I think our conference, which I think was very successful, and that position really that we developed and that I had developed earlier, I mean it still is basically the framework for federal-provincial relations around childcare. I mean that still stands and it was inspired by the Royal Commission. But I think, you know, it was the whole dynamic of that period explains the coalition. And Holly may have something to add to that.
Wendy Cuthbertson: I know that we did a paper on childcare which went to the OFL convention and was very well received, and I suspect that the OWW’s work beforehand was enormously helpful in getting that passed so successfully. And yes, the OFL Women’s Committee was certainly essential to the formation of the Ontario Coalition for Better Childcare, and I do remember one meeting where there was the beginning of a debate of whether we would, as a pressure group if you will, support for-profit childcare. And those of us in the labour movement said no, we could not possibly support that, and that became the ethos of the organization’s position on that.
So once again, I think the OWW’s tremendous work in sort of having women feeling confident to go to microphones and support this kind of – as well as working inside their own union, because I don’t remember there being a really ferocious debate on childcare. I think by the time it passed it passed quite well.
Franca Iacovetta: OK, thank you. Marg has let us know the year in question is 1980. I’m going to turn to Holly who wants to get in there.
Holly Kirkconnell: Yes, just another aspect of daycare was having daycare provided for union conventions and union meetings so that women could participate. And those were resolutions that were put forward and passed, and that certainly made it easier for a lot of women, especially if they were going to be coming from out of town to a conference or convention, that they could know that their children were taken care of.
Franca Iacovetta: OK, thank you. I’ve got a question about why OWW disbanded in the 1990s. I had a sense of, you know, all this exciting and important autonomous organization that is created, a sense of real early influence, developing new allies, and then there’s disbanding in the early 1990s. So I wonder if people could speak to that.
Holly Kirkconnell: A recommended reading is the Why a Trade Union Women’s Organization, which was the statement of OWW which really is still a very good statement. And at the end it was talking about getting women more active in their unions etcetera, etcetera, and that the purpose of OWW was to hasten that process.
And so I think that we sort of saw ourselves as a catalyst and that we wouldn’t always be needed, hopefully, actually not always be needed, and that our job was to try to get some changes within our unions, within the labour movement. And once there was a critical mass of women active and in leadership positions, that we wouldn’t need OWW anymore. So, I think that that’s what happened. It sort of was over a bit of a period of time petering out, but we continued with conferences, but I guess sort of like our job was done.
Barbara Cameron: The National Action Committee on the Status of Women also kind of petered out in that period, so there was something larger going on. But I think Holly’s correct that a good deal of the agenda was achieved. There also were opportunities for women within the labour movement. I mean, when OWW began women weren’t being promoted into leadership positions and unions weren’t hiring people to organize women so much. And I think the kind of energy it took to run, volunteer energy to run an organization like Organized Working Women. And OWW nominated me for the NAC executive and I was involved in that to run childcare in the late ‘80s, and there was a huge amount of volunteer labour that went into NAC as well. And one of the things that did happen in the ‘90s, even though it’s a period of horrible neoliberal restructuring, was professional opening. I mean, second-wave feminism did win things, you know. And part of what was won was that some women – I mean it was uneven who benefited from the results of second-wave feminism – but there were openings within the labour movement.
So, as Holly said, some of what we were fighting for was actually won. Women who had, you know somebody like Marjorie Cohen or myself and others who’d put a huge amount of volunteer labour ended up getting professional jobs that took all our time to survive I think. We were moving into sexist organizations and we had to survive there.
But you know I think it’s a combination of the neoliberal attack but also second-wave … You know a part of the reason we were attacked is that we were making gains, you know, and some of those gains were real. So I think that was part of it. You know the kind of volunteer hours that it took to run OWW and all kinds of grassroots feminist activity is really amazing.
Franca Iacovetta: OK, we’ve come to the final two reflection questions, although I realize that people have been reflecting on issues and events all the way through which has been great. But the questions are, first, what do you think the impact of OWW was in relation to these founding objectives? And secondly, what do you think might be most interesting about OWW’s founding for activists and researchers in the current period? Again, I know we’ve been addressing that throughout the interview, but here’s a final opportunity to comment on that.
Holly Kirkconnell: I think it was a very effective organization and kind of unique in some ways because we were in a unique position being individually parts of the labour movement. When reading Why a Trade Union Women’s Organization, I think we did meet those objectives and usefulness sort of lived on through various means and various wins. And certainly, we know we had some wins and then we had some big losses as well into the ‘90s.
And personally, it was probably I’d say the most satisfying involvement that I’ve ever had in my life actually, and also in terms of my own growth and learning and development that it had. And the Labour Council, the other place I really found satisfying to be involved was as a delegate to Labour Council on committees and just doing that for about 25 years. And OWW was number one.
Marg McPhail: So, I was not involved with OWW throughout its history in the 1980s, but I also, like Holly, look back on the time that I was involved with it with great joy. I think that, as I said earlier, I made a decision to leave when I did and I think it was probably not the right move at the time.
But I think that the impact, both my memories of it at the time and also looking at what it accomplished after I was involved, directly involved, point to what Barb said, which is we did win victories. And you know, the work that was done in bringing a whole range of newer and experienced women in the trade union movement together to advocate on behalf of women’s equality rights, both within the unions themselves and in the workplace and in the larger society, was really quite important.
And you know, as Holly mentioned, it was sort of a product of its times. And certainly the blows that came towards the end of the ‘80s and into the early ‘90s had an impact on its life, but it is also the case that people were able to move on to other things and that was a good thing.
There was one … anyway, I’ll stop there.
Barbara Cameron: Yeah, I agree with everything that Holly and Margaret said. I think that OWW and women’s organizing generally in that period had a huge positive effect on the Canadian labour movement. And the Canadian labour movement by international standards is very advanced. You know I remember listening sometime later to debates at an OFL convention around violence. And some of the talks, speeches that men gave at the mic just blew me away, that there were spaces open to take up issues that I don’t think very many labour movements have taken up in quite the way.
So you like to think that it was only the thing you were involved with that made all the difference, but it took a lot of things happening at the time, but I think OWW played an important role in that. And you know as Holly said, for me it was – you know I have many years of education but I learned through being a political activist. You know I always think I learned to be a human being by being involved in all these things, to being an autonomous actor. And OWW and that whole period was really instrumental in my own life.
Franca Iacovetta: I truly think that the alliance between the autonomous women’s movement, the OWW, the trade union element of that, and labour movement of Canada, is as strong as any on the globe. I remember Deirdre and I went to a women’s conference of the International Metalworkers Federation in 1980 in Geneva, and there were women from all over the world except obviously the Eastern Block in those days, and the Asian countries, which might not have been represented.
But it became quite clear in the course of a day or so that, while Deirdre and I were fluent and up to speed on issues of reproductive freedom and gay and lesbian rights and domestic violence and the position of sex workers, that these women were sympathetic to our conversations but this was very new for them as trade unions to deal with it. And I think the OWW – and we’ll talk about it in the Fleck strike – was key to combining feminism with class issues. And I guess I can take more there, but that was our observation just as two delegates at an international conference.
Franca Iacovetta: OK. If there aren’t any last words, any hands raised then this brings us to the conclusion of this OWW founding moment. And I want to thank all of you for what has been an absolutely fantastic interview, thank you.