Transcript: The Story of Two Industrial Women Workers

Introduction: Cathy Mulroy was born in Sudbury into a working class mining family; the daughter of a miner. Cathy was married at the age of 16 and by 19, she was one of the first women hired back into mining giant Inco. She was one of the first women to work there in a non-traditional job since World War II. She continued to work there for 30 years.
Debbie Field also sought work in a non-traditional sphere. At the suggestion of one of the union leaders, Debbie and four others applied for jobs in the smelting area of the steel giant, Stelco. Debbie was one of the founding members of the Women Back into Stelco Campaign.
In this interview, both Cathy and Debbie discuss their experiences working in these roles, in these companies, with their respective unions and the impact that this work had on each of their lives.
Sue: I’m Sue Colley with Rise Up Feminist Digital Archive and we’re collecting loads of materials on the history of the women’s movement from 1970 to 1990s, and this year we’re doing interviews with activists about their experiences. And I’d like to welcome today Debbie Field and Cathy Mulroy, both of whom were very brave and went into very non-traditional jobs as women; Debbie into Stelco, and Cathy into INCO, and they’re going to tell us about that today.
Okay, Cathy, would you like to introduce yourself?
Cathy: My name is Cathy Mulroy and I worked at INCO, which is a mining company in Sudbury, Ontario – Northern Ontario. I worked there for thirty years. We were the first group of women to go into INCO since the war years. They would not let us work together, similar to the stuff that had happened at Stelco, where they separated the women.
The men didn’t want us there, their wives didn’t want us there, and the reason I wanted to work there, I was in a bad marriage, I wanted to get out of it. I’d been married since I was sixteen, and this was my ticket out. So that’s the reason I went.
Sue: Can you introduce yourself, Debbie?
Debbie: Pleasure. So Cathy, that is great, you were the pioneers. I came quite a few years later, in 1979, and I only worked in the coke ovens for a year. And I went for union and political reasons, to see if I could open up a component of the workforce. I had been working as the first equal opportunities coordinator for a union in Canada, for OPSEU, which was a white collar, mostly, union.
I had a very unfortunate and incorrect romantic idea that somehow the problem was that women needed to make a transition from where we were to somewhere else, rather than let working class women like yourself, Cathy, do what needed to be done. So there were some real problems in my whole approach.
And it had to do with the fact that I was also a member of a far-left group that had this bizarre idea that we would actually make the revolution by going into hard industry and selling our newspaper to people.
And my partner had moved to Hamilton and we were in a tough moment in our relationship, and I realised that if we didn’t live in the same city, we might not make it. So there were a lot of reasons why I did it, none of which, I think, were good reasons, actually. So it was an interesting process.
I think the men were more welcoming by the time I got there, so that’ll be interesting, Cathy, for us to talk about that.
Sue: Thank you. And maybe you can tell us a bit more about each of your stories as we go along with the story, I’m sure you’ll give us more details.
Okay, so let’s start with Cathy and hear about your experience of how you got the job at INCO, Cathy.
Cathy: Well, like we talked about just prior to opening up this conference, I was nineteen years old and I was in a very nasty marriage. I was wallpapering the walls of my apartment, which was geared-to-income – a brand new place, beautiful place – but it was geared-to-income. But they said we could wallpaper.
And while I was wallpapering, Trudeau came on and said INCO would be hiring in a non-traditional role as workers, for women. So I called my girlfriend right away and we both went down and applied, and I was second in line. We were there really early. And they hired the first ten that were in that line.
So I was 105 pounds, I was really tiny, I had no work experience, I had no money, I had no skills, I had nothing. And that’s probably why I was hired. And I had a child at home, so -.
Debbie: How old was your child?
Cathy: He was born in ’71, so he would be three.
Debbie: Wow, incredible. And who looked after him when you went to work?
Cathy: I moved to Copper Cliff, which is a little town just outside of Sudbury, and there was this wonderful Italian lady that lived next door, and she babysat for me, so that was really good.
And then of course, when I moved back to Sudbury, my mum. Of course, my mum.
Debbie: Fantastic. My story is a bit similar and a bit not similar. So in Hamilton at that time, there was a very strong union inside Stelco – USW – United Steelworkers of America 1005. And Cec Taylor was a really kickass militant leader of that union.
And by 1978, a lot of things were happening in the union movement around women, and certainly, I guess, maybe even Cec knew of your experience.
But he mostly saw it as an opportunity to build his own coalition within the progressives within his union. So he did an interview in the local newspaper, in the Hamilton Spectator, and it said, Cec Taylor: my mum worked in the coke ovens when I was a little kid growing up in England, and I encourage people – women – who would like to work, to come down to the union hall and we’ll talk about it.
And in fact, five of us came down and we met with Cec Taylor and the executive, and then we launched a case, with their blessing. Which is again, I think, a different part of the story, right. Certainly the leadership of the union was behind us.
And the other part of the story, which I think I’ve only realised recently, which I didn’t even realise in those earlier interviews was, a new generation of bureaucrats were working with the Human Rights Commission, and so the person who actually heard our case was a young, progressive lawyer working for the Human Rights Commission of Ontario. So she would have ruled differently than another generation of people might have.
We never actually thought that our human rights case would win. When we went down to apply for our jobs, you would fill your application in and there was a different drawer – they actually put it in a different drawer if you were a man or a woman – so we would go down and fill out our application and they put it in the bottom drawer.
And when we did the human rights case, they were able to subpoena that, all of that , all of that in the drawers, and they were able to prove that in one month – I don’t know, November 1979, I guess, that they hired twenty guys straight out of high school, without looking at my application. Though I did not have any industrial experience, I did have work experience, and so therefore they discriminated against me.
And Stelco received this ruling from the Human Rights Commission, and they hired a hundred and eighty of us, including all five of us troublemakers, and they split us up and put us on different shifts, and that was how I got into Stelco.
Sue: Hmm, great, thank you. Why don’t you talk next, each of you, about your experiences working – you know, the difficulties you faced working in those particular jobs. Do you want to start, Cathy?
Cathy: Sure. Well, it didn’t start off real well for me, because I was pregnant and I didn’t know I was pregnant, I was only two weeks pregnant. But you would think that they would have taken a pregnancy test for the first group of women, but they didn’t.
I was hit with a sixteen hundred pound hoist in the stomach and that’s how I found out I was pregnant. And then that was my first time that I was going to meet the company and the union and the power that each of them had. Because being really young, and young-minded, I thought the union was the credit union, and that’s where my money was going. I went, oh, they’ve taken money off my cheque, it must be going to a credit union savings account, right.
Yes, I was really green. When I walked into that room, a man – all white men in suits – talked in front of me as if I wasn’t there. You know, they referred to me as she – she! So when I walked into the room of all those men in suits and they were talking about me as if I wasn’t there, they said they didn’t want to set a precedent, which I had no idea what a precedent was. I thought it was, like, the United States president or something.
So anyways, they told me to go home and they put me on something called compensation. Well, I was at home, getting money and I didn’t have to pay taxes. Oh, good for me, right. But, when I got back to work six weeks after the baby was born, I was put back in the anode, which is similar to the casting areas in Stelco. It was very difficult. I’ve never forgotten that, because I was pregnant and so I already was, you know, labelled something, before I even had a chance to start working, really.
Debbie: So my story with the union, as I said, was a little different than Cathy’s, in the sense that they really helped. I don’t know how Cathy felt about it, but for me, for sure, there was a really big difference between the leadership of the union and then, of course, the guys, the rank and file members.
And part of what I think went wrong in my story was, again, that the bureaucracy of the union leadership really was very disconnected from the membership. And in our situation – and I’m sure in yours at INCO too, I mean, they were talking about thousands of people. I think there were thirteen thousand people at Stelco when I went.
So you know, it was one thing for Cec Taylor to think it was a really great idea. It was another thing for the hundreds of men that I worked with in the coke oven, who actually hated the union and didn’t trust the union, and would have felt that the union was –
You know, they had a really great game around trying to figure out who – they knew I was somehow a spy for somebody, but they couldn’t figure out for who, and of course, they could never have visualised that I was there as a plant for a tiny little far-left group.
So they’d spent a lot of time trying to figure out why I was there. So the guys would say to me, you’re writing a book, you’re a journalist. And then, once they said, you’re a spy for the union. So that was the level at which they mistrusted that I was somehow all these alien forces, whether it was the newspaper or the union. These were outside forces, very far away.
So what never happened was, Cec Taylor reaching out to the union steward, reaching out to me – I mean, I can visualise again how it would have gone 100% differently if the union steward, who was one of the few people who was really, really good to me the whole time – if we had a strategy to work it through.
Because what I think we were so naïve about, Cathy, and I don’t know if you agree, having worked there for so long, is that I have a very different take now on politics in general, how you change people’s minds. You know, when I think about what it would be like to change the minds of people who voted for Trump, let’s say, I have a very different strategy now than I had when I was twenty eight, right, where I thought it wasjust be a question of putting my demands out there, and now I see that differently.
So what never happened was any conversation with the men about the significance of this massive hurdle for me and this one other woman. And in our case, what Stelco did was very smart: they refused to give us a washroom. They refused to give us private washrooms. I don’t know where you went to?
We had a trailer, so we had a change room that was a trailer, rather than [unintelligible words].
Debbie: So you know, when you work in an industrial situation, your shower room, your change room, your bathroom, these are all huge, important issues. And so they did bring in a trailer and they made that the women’s trailer, and that’s where we would go. We’d walk in, I mean, Stelco – I mean, I don’t know, again, Cathy, if it was the same thing, at INCO. So you’d walk in and you’d go to your trailer, and that’s where all the hundred and eighty women went at one point during our three shifts. Did you have three shifts, Cathy?
Cathy: Yes.
Debbie: Yeah, so that was the other thing, you know, very complicated shift work. So we would go there. We would change and then we would walk, many of us, a great distance to the coke oven, the blast furnace or the various mills that we were going to.
And then, when we were there, we did not have a private washroom, so we would go into the men’s washroom – and they put up one tiny little partition so that the guys could still use the urinals. But you know, I’d go in the bathroom and I’d walk out, and there would be –
I remember this one day, this what seemed to me like an guy, Italian background, who didn’t speak English, and he’s washing his hands. He’s just peed and there I come out, and we’re having to share the same washroom.
So for sure, the company set us up. They really saw this as, they would put up with this for a very short period of time. And nobody really problem-solved any of the complexities for us, as if we were staying, from conversations with the men, to washrooms.
Sue: Okay, so you were going to talk, I think, a bit about what it was like in your workplace with your fellow workers.
Cathy: It was really awful, okay; it was really awful. I remember when I put my first grievance in. That’s when I met my best friend at work, Bruce McGiggen, and Bruce had just become a steward. So for thirty years, he was always my steward, and the company did not like us, because we became really good friends along the way. I got on with the union, they sent us to Hamilton to learn the right to refuse unsafe work. And we were the first to use it at INCO, so INCO did not like us then either.
Now, throughout the years, it was horrible. The men treated us badly, the bosses treated us badly – me. They would make these jobs where I’d go underneath the furnaces and clean – which probably hadn’t been cleaned in a hundred years – and it was never good enough. So they would send me back under there again. And you’re hoping that there aren’t any rats, because the rats at INCO were gigantic. They were huge animals. So I was kind of nervous about that.
I had men write on the walls, same as at Stelco. Cathy is a slut, Cathy is a pig. I had electrical staples in my driveway during snowfall – four flat tyres. Men would call my children, tell them that I was giving blow jobs on the catwalk.
And then, they would follow me, they – ugh – I was raped. There were so many things that had happened and I couldn’t tell anybody. Who was I going to tell?
So I started writing everything down. That was my outlet – everything, on scraps of paper, on cigarette packages, you name it. And then, when I retired, I got a young woman to gather up all that information and put it in files, and then I wrote my book. It took fifteen years, because I was very sick for fifteen years.
And little by little I got the book done, and that was my healing. I feel completely healed with all those things that happened. And people read the book. They come up to me at the grocery stores and, why didn’t you tell us? Why didn’t you tell us? Who was I going to tell?
We did have Dave Patterson, who was a friend of Cec. We became progressive and then we ran Dave Patterson for the District 6 office, which was a big mistake on our part, because they buried him – the Steelworkers buried him – and we were left with the right wing of the union.
And then it got really bad. I couldn’t even go in the union hall without my brothers calling me a whore. Or you know, you’ve got to get up to the mic and they all boo you. And you know, I still went to my meetings and I sat on the left, right beside the microphone and I always said something, whether it was just a little complaint, I always said something at a union meeting.
But it was never in the minutes.
Sue: So why did you stay?
Cathy: The money. I had children. I mean, money, benefits. I have a house, my husband worked at INCO, that’s where I met him. We have a house, paid for, we have a car in the driveway, paid for. Why? Because Merv’s kids all went to college, paid for. Those are my reasons.
: My dad was a miner – he was a hard-rock miner – forty three years. He was also a paratrooper during World War II. My mother was a WAP during World War II. I come from a good stock of people. MY dad had worked in the anode when he first started working at INCO, before he went underground. He knew how dangerous it was. He knew that I should be really careful.
But he also knew my personality, that I would just keep doing it, no matter what. So they were quite proud of me. Unfortunately I lost my mum early, but my husband that I was married to at the first, he was not happy with me being there. But then, that’s the reason I stayed, was to get away from him.
I stayed single for a long time. I dated a guy from Hamilton for two years, Val Patrick, great friend still. and he told me about you, Debbie, back in the day.
So that’s the reason I stayed, and my family was very supportive over it. So that was my stepping stone – was my family, you know.
Sue: That’s good to know. What about you, Debbie, how did your friends and family feel about you taking on this huge job?
Debbie: I think people were very proud of me. It was a very transformative experience. It changed me – I got tremendous good stuff from it. I mean, listening to Cathy – and I’ve talked to quite a few women who were like Cathy; quite a few of the women who were part of my team, our team.
In the same book – in Jennifer’s book there’s that – I haven’t seen that in so long – there is this great picture of myself and Jeannette Eason and Joanne Santucci. And Joanne Santucci would be, Cathy, a bit like your story, in the sense that her dad worked at Stelco, all her brothers worked at Stelco.
Her brother, Angelo Santucci, played for the Edmonton Eskimos, and she was just not going to take it that she couldn’t do what everybody else in her family –
Jeannette Eason was a bit also like your story, in the sense that she was a single mum, and she was one of our first five. And the other woman with myself in the coke ovens, was very much – she was a mum, had a three-year-old as well – that was so interesting when you said that – and a husband. And she was, you know, double what she could make in any job.
So the vast majority of women who went into industrial jobs, did them for the economic reasons that Cathy describes, and they were, you know, really the heroines of this movement, and broke into that industrial space.
And I guess what I feel terrible listening to your story, Cathy, is that almost everyone I’ve met, had so much damage done to them by the experience. And that’s what makes me furious about our naivety, again, in the women’s movement, about some of the stuff.
Like, again, not protecting us at all. Not me, not Cathy, not Jeannette, not Joanne. You know, I mean, it was, like, sacrificial lambs, all of us, in a really horrible way.
In my story, what happened was far from very positive – so when you go into the coke ovens, your first couple of months, you just shovel coke. And you know, I would push this wheelbarrow full of coke and guys would wave to me from the bridge and everybody was, like, a real honeymoon for the first four or five months.
And there was no harassment and everybody was pretty happy about the whole situation. I could go back to pee in my own trailer, because I was outside the coke ovens, and there were two of us on different shifts. We never saw each other, she was the woman who had the three-year-old, and everything was kind of okay for the first few months.
And then the summer came and some summer students came. And some of the summer students were women. And by that time I had already worked my way through seniority of being there for a few months, to the privilege of going up to the ovens.
And the ovens – I don’t know what they were like in the seventies at INCO 0- but at Stelco; it’s why Stelco went broke, because they refused to automate the way – I mean, we even knew in 1979 that the Japanese and German steel industries had automated, and of course you, Cathy, or I, or anybody could have driven the machines that opened up the ovens.
But in those days we had to crack open – we had to jump on this thing and crack open the coke oven, the lid, and it was all gummy. And you know, in my first month up there, a guy died – two guys died, one of lung cancer, one of stomach cancer, within that month, right.
So the guys who worked in the coke ovens, all of them did not have grade twelve education. They were people who could not have gotten jobs at Stelco or anywhere else. I mean, they were totally exploited, it was very much, as Cathy said, the time of the health and safety – I tried to organise a stoppage.
Of course, nobody followed me anywhere, right? It was this completely insane thing, like, I was going to organise a work stoppage?
And one of the guys, Robinson, began writing really horrible graffiti about one of the young women, and of course, in my total stupidity, I got into a graffiti war with him, so he would write terrible things about her, and I would write things. You know, I carried my big black magic marker.
This is what I looked like. I guess you guys can see that, hey?
Sue: Oh, wow, can we have a copy of that picture?
Debbie: Yeah, I’ve got a few things for you that we can get copies of. I mean, this was on my last day, and I think Sue knows for sure, and I think even Tara knows Brett Smiley. So Brett took this picture on my last day. He was another guy in our far-left group. And Brett, by the way, could lead the guys anywhere.
Brett was a big guy and he was charismatic in all of our work, but in there – if he had stayed for a couple of decades, those guys would have followed him anywhere. They saw him as the natural leader, in a way, that they just weren’t interested in hearing what I had to say about anything.
But I had a whole system, I put Nivea all over my face, and you know, I wore a sweatshirt underneath everything. And my mother was driving me crazy, because she kept saying, you’re never going to get pregnant. This was a couple of years before I got pregnant, and so there was all that fear, in terms of family stuff.
But mostly people, of course, were – you know, Cathy, it was just so pathetic in terms of, again, class privilege of the way in which a university-educated woman like myself can just sail through this experience, pretty well unscathed. I mean, not completely unscathed, because I had to quit, because the harassment was too much. So one of the great things was this guy Robinson wrote, “a woman’s place is in the home, unless it is here, with legs spread”. So I got my little magic marker and I wrote, a woman’s place is anywhere she wants it to be. So we were off to the races then.
And then I came in a couple of days later, and Robinson had taken centre spreads of girly magazines and put it absolutely everywhere. You couldn’t see – it was a very creative graffiti thing he did. He completely filled the walls with beaver shots everywhere, like, the ceiling, the walls, the bathroom. All these older immigrant men, they were all, like, eating their lunch.
Because I learned to play Euchre from the guys – and me and the older immigrant guys – we played Euchre. We had a great time. And I was thinking, Cathy, when you were talking about your notes, I have my notes, which I should have brought, but I can bring them out later when Sue or Tara come by.
Did you have paper towel? You have rolls of paper towels, right?
Cathy: No, we had the hand towels, just the ordinary paper hand towels.
Debbie: Yeah, but I guess they were nicer to us. They put out these big rolls of paper towels.
Cathy: No, no. Too expensive for us.
Debbie: Yeah, this was luxury, we had luxury in Hamilton. So I would take – and you know, the guys would do it, they were very clean, the guys, they would put – especially the older guys – they would put it down – their wives – they would open the lunch, and that was our placemats.
So that was my stationery that I wrote on, so I have some of the great graffiti on some of that.
So it got pretty intense in terms of, you know, very much, Cathy, like your experience – they would speak on the microphone, because there are these, of course, trains going throughout the whole system. And they would go, you know, Field’s a lesbian, or Field sucks cock, or whatever it was that they were going to do.
And so we did begin to worry that I would not be safe. And then in a classic Debbie moment, I had a media disaster. I went to a meeting at McMaster, that was the first meeting on sexual harassment at a university, I think. We were just beginning to even use those words, sexual harassment in the workplace.
And Harrison Jane who teaches at McMaster, was writing a book and was an expert, so-called, on sexual harassment. And he was describing it as if it was all blue-collar, working class men.
And I knew that wasn’t true, because at my previous job at OPSEU, when I was the first equal opportunity rep for a union, my brothers in the union had put a pinup on my door on my first day at work. They had welcomed me to my job at OPSEU with a Sun pinup.
So I told that story and I said, look, it’s not working class men and it’s not blue collar men, it’s white collar men, it’s all men. This is the way it is and we have a problem in the workplace.
So the next day, page three of the Hamilton Spectator, the big picture of me –and it said, you know, ex-community college teacher says sexual harassment at Stelco is rampant.
And so then what happened is, everybody’s girlfriends and wives and mothers started hassling the men. They would say to the guys, what are you doing to them? You know, what’s going on, are you raping them? I was so sad to hear that, Cathy, you know, that you had that experience.
Cathy: Yeah, I was even sadder.
Debbie: I can imagine. Terrible. But throughout, the violence was there, and so we decided that I should leave, because I couldn’t get any support from the guys to help me with this. Even that shop steward, who was my one friend, basically took their side. And I couldn’t get the union to help me, as you couldn’t, right, and we had no ability.
There was a women’s committee, I was in the women’s committee, both my own local, and of course, by that time I was even going to conventions and stuff. But again, in retrospect, it cannot be the way it was, that we would be so isolated and that we would have to do these things on our own and face what you faced.
And again, over the decades, I’ve met women from all across North America, who’ve had the kind of terrible experiences, Cathy, that you had.
Cathy: I slept with a shotgun. I slept with a shotgun under my bed.
Debbie: Oh, Cathy, terrible.
Cathy: And I think it was about one o’clock in the morning, this man from our shift shows up, banging on my front door, saying, open up this door, you fucking union bitch. So I got my gun, but I couldn’t find the bullets, because I took a safety course that said, don’t put them together. Couldn’t find them in the dark.
I called the police, and the police came. The guy was the guy from my shift, with his wife. They were both drunk out of their minds, had come from a party, but just figured that he could show up at my place, a single mother with two children in bed, in the middle of the night. No.
So the police officer said, “Is that gun loaded?” I said, “No, I couldn’t find the bullets”. He said, “What were you going to do with it?” and I said, “I was hoping to scare him away. What else are you going to do with an empty gun?” But I figured, you know, it would scare him away.
When I got back to work, he was furious. He came to the table – and he was working on the furnace, so he had a lot of burn holes on his clothing, because copper splashes and it burns. So I said, if I would have shot you with my shotgun, it would have made the same pattern. Do not show up at my place ever again. So he was really mad, but he didn’t show up there anymore. And what gave him that right? Why did he think he had that right to come to my place?
A lot of things like that have happened over the years, where men thought, well, I can show up with a bottle of beer or a bottle of wine. No, you can’t be coming to my place, this is my place.
But like I said, the electrical staples, my cat was killed, my hose was busted and cut into little pieces. Now, that’s scary, that means somebody was in my backyard with a knife and he cut my hose. What [unintelligible words]
How is that kind of hate towards somebody? And then the thing with the pictures. The Hustler magazine came out and they were really gross. I’d never even seen a Playboy magazine, let alone a Hustler.
And they did the same, they posted them all over the walls and that. But – whoever is up there had an eye on me, because I took my mum to the second hand store to get some books, and on the floor were a bunch of magazines. So when I started thumbing through them, they were of naked men, all at the ready, like this, absolutely wonderful.
I bought them all. My mum said, Cathy, don’t do this, you’re going to get in trouble. I said, Mum, the boss told me it’s part of the culture. So I am just going along with that.
So I had to hide them, because they had a key for my locker, right, so I couldn’t have them in my locker. We finally got a women’s washroom – five years – and it had those square tiles on the ceiling. So I climbed up onto the sink, removed it, stuck all my magazines up there with my scotch tape, and little by little, I’d take them out and I started posting them beside theirs, because I knew if I tore them down, I would get in trouble for touching somebody else’s property.
Well, after a few weeks of that – and the women, you know, I’d open up the fridge and a naked woman would roll out. Well, now a naked man rolled out. So they were not happy. I was called in the office, I was told that they didn’t like my attitude, that I had a bad attitude. And I said, I’ll make a deal with you; if they want to read these magazines, do it when you’re in the crane, do it when you’re in the bathroom, just don’t put them on the wall. Because what’s good for the goose is good for the gander, and I’m going to continue –
Then they wanted to know where my books were. I said, I don’t know, I don’t remember where I put them. So that worked, because now the magazines were not in the lunchroom anymore, and that’s all I really wanted.
Because as a young woman coming from a Roman Catholic background, never seen any kind of this stuff, and the comments of what they were going to do to these women –
And the other men, the Italian men that sat like that, staying quiet, they were just as much to blame for not saying anything. So I had to do it myself, I had to fight it myself.
Sue: So did you have a women’s committee at your place of work?
Cathy: We did later, yes, we did, and it was wonderful. We started seeing each other at Christmas parties. We’d invite the other women, so I’d say, maybe fifteen of us from all over, would show up at these Christmas parties.
Then we started a women’s committee, which was really good, and progressive. But that’s when we had a progressive union. Dave Patterson and the lefties of the group, that’s when it became the best. We had marches; we had things where people could learn how to do things, like, what a steward does. All those kinds of things were welcome.
When we lost – when Dave Patterson won and we lost him, then everything changed. The women’s committee was not the same, they were starting to do things, like, gathering purses for the poor, or something to that effect, which was not interesting to me. But they were progressive for quite a while.
Sue: Yeah, that’s great. Now, tell us a bit about the strike then.
Cathy: The big strike in ’78 and ’79?
Sue: And you’d had layoffs before that, right?
Cathy: Oh, ‘78-’79 was a big turning point in my life. I was really young. I was twenty three, about. And they asked us to get involved. And I was still with that other guy, and I knew that I didn’t want to rock the boat too much at home. But I did join the union, and of course, they made me make egg salad sandwiches for the striking guys that were on the picket line.
But I didn’t know I was allergic to eggs, so I was not feeling very good. Dave Patterson said, we’ll put you on the voucher committee, and that’s when my life changed. I learned about the splits of the union, the right and the left, the beliefs, the non-beliefs, and how the right side tried to set me up during the strike for different things that they did and how I fought back with them.
Debbie: Cathy, you know, such an honour and a privilege to be here with you, and I’ve always loved reading – I think you and I saw each other maybe just once at a conference.
Cathy: We did, we did, yeah. I have a really good memory for stuff like that.
Debbie: Yeah, I do too. It was good meeting you, it’s great.
Cathy: I wanted to show you my book.
Debbie: It’s great. Well, I’m definitely going to get it. So I’m very impressed you did it, and I think there’s a really important role, especially for you, Cathy. I wouldn’t presume – but I think they need to hear more and more from you still now, the younger women who are still doing this and still being set up.
And I loved the way your story worked itself out. I mean, in my own head, that’s what I figured out later, was, I needed humour and I needed to, within the culture of unity with the guys, figure it out a different way.
So what happened – and then I’ll just bridge it then to the strike – so what happened is, we knew a strike was coming. And I was, I think, shy a few days of my year of lasting, surviving. So we decided that it was probably just a good idea for me to leave, because –
And in fact, when I hear your story, I realise it’s true, I was at a threat, I was really at a threat physically, and emotionally too, and the damage. So I left, the strike happened. All hundred and eighty women were laid off, and there was only one woman who was called back, who was Bettina Clark, and I think, Sue, you might remember her name? She was a welder. So she was called back, but a hundred and seventy nine of us weren’t, right, so that was the end of women working in Stelco – literally in one year.
And again, the seniority thing, and that was one of our demands, that there be differential seniority rates, so that we would have stayed in – at least a hundred and eighty, you know, percentage-wise of us.
But was it a good thing? Maybe not. And I think there were some really important lessons there. You know, I’d be fascinated to find out what is going on for the Cathies and Debbies of this year, in terms of where we are on these issues.
But a big education there around understanding that – because it could have been so different, and as Cathy proved through her humour way, I think that the guys were not the barrier actually, if you had come with allies of a different kind, right.
And it did change quite a few things in terms of pay rates, I think. I think we did do that, I think that was an important piece to the puzzle, and part of the story of the equalisation of women’s wages over these thirty years. So I think Cathy and I did a good thing.
I’m certainly proud of it, it’s one of my proudest feelings and accomplishments. I wouldn’t have traded it for the world, because what I learned was that the men understood the system completely.
Cathy, if you can believe it, Sue and I were in a group that actually believed that the problem was, the working class didn’t understand Marxism or the labour theory of value, and then if somebody just whispered it in their ear, they’d kind of get it.
But what I learned from all the guys I worked with, they understood completely. And the reason they didn’t do the work stoppages, was they didn’t want to be victimised, or they didn’t think there was any point in this kind of action, because they saw it backfiring.
And so there are some very humbling and important things that many of us learned from being able to observe what people understood, so in that way I learned a lot.
Cathy: You know, one thing – I want to say something – is, I am talking to younger women. I’ve spoken four times at Laurentian University here in Sudbury. And Carlton bought ten books, they’re putting it in the curriculum – it’s so exciting – in January. And I’ve done an hour and a half presentation with slides, and they’re doing that as well.
And then, depending on COVID, they want me to go later, after they’ve read the book – the girls have read the book – and da-da-da-dah. Then we can chit chat. Oh, it’s just very exciting, it’s so exciting, you know.
All right, in ’78 we had a strike. The International Union had told us not to strike, but we had already agreed. We knew it was a setup. The company had a stockpile of nickel to last a year, so we were already screwed. They wanted us to do a year and then come back with a contract. But then, that was no good for us either, because then they’d have even more stock pile up.
So then we, the people, decided to go on strike. I joined the group, started off with sandwiches, then moved to the voucher committee. That’s when I learned about how the union has a split between the right side and the left side. I didn’t understand what that meant at the time.
But there were things that are in the book – they set me up many times, many times. But we started doing speeches in Toronto and in Hamilton. We went to Hamilton for a week and we raised – what did we raise? It was, like, forty thousand or something dollars, which went to the drug committee.
Because people didn’t have any money for life sustaining drugs, like, for your heart, insulin, all those kinds of things that are life-sustaining. They couldn’t afford it on thirty dollars a week.
So we went to different plants all over Southern Ontario, all over Northern Ontario, and stood there with our little pail, in thirty degrees below, collecting money. And that was a great experience for me.
Sue: How did it all end then?
Cathy: Well, the ending was wonderful, because the bargaining committee had come back with a plan that said, we want you to accept it. But we had been out for eight and a half months, right, about, at that time. And it wasn’t good enough for being out that long.
So the union said to accept it, the International said to accept it, the bargaining committee said to accept it, but the people said no. And the wives – something that happened in 1958 – that they were forcing the men back to work, which is false. And the truth of that came out.
Then we talked about the wives. The story goes that the wives had forced the men back to work, which is a total lie. And there’s a DVD – hang on a sec.
A bunch of film people – three of them – came from Montreal and they put this together, called A Wives’ Tale, and it’s in French and English. And it talks about the true story of what happened in 1958, that the wives did not push the men back.
So the wives had that over their head when we went into this big strike, because the men thought the wives were going to be a negative thing, which of course, they weren’t. They were the power behind the strike, believe it or not. And there were only a handful of them. I was an honorary member of the wives supporting the strike. My T-shirt said, “I support wives supporting the strike”.
Sue: And they did things like collect money, make food?
Cathy: Oh, they started off doing, as one woman puts it in the movie, womanly duties. But, as you watch the film, you see how people change and how the politics started to grow, and the realisation of their voices. And they weren’t sitting there knitting, they were on the picket line, they were helping us do what we had to do. So it was a great learning experience for all of us.
Sue: So you said you didn’t want to go back – you didn’t want to accept the contract, is that right?
Cathy: No, we didn’t, we turned the contract down and we won. So there was a big celebration. Two weeks later or three weeks later, the bargaining committee came back and we got thirty and out, which is so important; and that means thirty years of service, doesn’t matter your age, full pension. I was forty nine years old when I got my thirty years.
Sue: Wow.
Cathy: Yeah. I owed them a couple of months, so I turned 50 and then I retired.
Sue: Yeah, yeah, it is amazing when you think back now, because you were only earning about six dollars an hour, weren’t you?
Cathy: Six dollars an hour, yeah, yeah.
Sue: Which was a lot of money in those days.
Cathy: It was, yeah. I think the average wage was $1.60-something, like, at stores and that kind of stuff. So six bucks was a lot of money.
Sue: So you were there for thirty years, or more? Yeah, thirty.
Cathy: Thirty years, oh yeah. I retired as soon as I got my thirty, I was out of there. They forced me out, and that’s in this book – I’m not going to tell you that story, you’ll have to read the book.
Sue: I’ve got up to the wives in the book.
Cathy: Oh, good, oh, good.
Sue: It’s very good, yeah, it’s very good. Okay, so how did they force you out?
Cathy: Well, it was a setup. Because I ran against the union boys – you’ll see all that. I ran against the union boys, so they were mad at me, and then there were inconsistencies in how the votes were counted. Sort of like a Trump thing going on, you know.
So I was buried. I was buried, and I had a title, but I wasn’t allowed to do that job. So they buried me, gave me a nice little office, as long as I didn’t talk to anybody, any steelworkers. They put me in an engineer building, where everybody was staff.
But that’s where I – because I didn’t have a job description, nobody talked to me. I learned about computers. I learned how to surf on my computer, I started a library of safety and health, I did all that on my own. I had no boss over my head.
Sue: So how long did you do that for?
Cathy: I started that in ’94, I think it was, or ’93. I started teaching, I went back to school, I got a day shift job, so I went back to school, got my teaching certificate for teachers of adults. I got in and I did first aid and CPR, and then I moved on to safety and health and environment.
And at INCO it’s called safety, health and environment. But in all the other places, it’s health, safety and environment. But the steelworkers didn’t want to change that, so when I’d answer the phone, I’d say, She Training. That was my little joke, my little jam here.
Sue: Oh, that’s good. So you were elected to this? This was a position you were elected to, in the –
Cathy: No, not exactly. Because the company didn’t know what to do with me and the union didn’t know what to do with me. This job came up, because they were going to teach everything – everything from respirators to PPE to everything, right. And I wanted in, and so, because I was now an injured worker, because I hurt my shoulder, I got that job, because I was a PPD – partially permanently disabled.
Sue: Yeah.
Cathy: And so I got that job, and then the union guys didn’t want to work with me So I ended up running the whole show, my own safety and health courses. I loved it, I didn’t need them.
Sue: Yeah, yeah, that’s right. Okay, so if you were talking to your women today, who are thinking about going into a place like INCO or Stelco, or whatever, what lessons do you think you would tell them you learned?
Cathy: First of all I’d tell them to take the job, because it’s only thirty years of your life, first of all, which is not all your life. You do it because the money is great and the opportunities for women are still not that great. They’re just not that great.
So yes, do it. And if you learn a trade, whether it be a plumber or electrician, anything like that, you can go anywhere in the world. And that’s so important to know. You can be a hairdresser, sure, you can be a nurse, any kind of trade that you do, you can go anywhere you want to go.
And that’s the thing I would push young women nowadays, because they might not want to be a plumber. But they could try it out, they could become an electrician, they could become a welder, and you can have tig-welding and – I can’t think of the name of the different weldings right now, but there’s all kinds of welding, you know.
So there’s so much to do in these kinds of jobs, so much you could learn. So you get dirty, so you shower, it’s not a big deal.
How did it affect my politics?
Sue: Yeah, well, how did working at INCO affect your politics? You started off, you said, very naïve.
Cathy: Oh, I was really – oh, I learned a lot, and power is knowledge. My dad used to say that all the time to us – power is knowledge. And it’s true, it’s true. Once you learn your rights and you can use it against foremen that aren’t that bright, that have never understood, or taken the time to learn the laws, by being an employee, by learning your rights, it only can work on your behalf.
That’s what I would tell kids; learn your rights, learn how the law works.
Sue: We really want to acknowledge that you’ve written this fantastic book. Do you want to hold it up for us?
Cathy: If you can see the picture behind me, it was done by an artist here in Sudbury, her name is Janet Kobelka, she did that painting for me. I did the drawing and I asked her to do it. She added her own stuff, because she is an artist.
This is the book. It’s a big book, yes, it’s a big book. Okay, you must have read that at the beginning, because when INCO and the other mining companies came in, there was no respect for the land. They raped the land, they burnt the trees, the sulphur and stuff that they use in the open arc furnaces, the big roasting beds. That’s why they called it nickel, because the Germans called it nickel, meaning devil copper.
Because they were here for the copper, because it’s easy, it’s softest to work with, it’s a good material. It’s still hard, but easy to work with. So they just – and they came and they killed the animals. There were hundreds and thousands of animals – shooting them for sport, leaving their carcasses where they were. It was such a bad attitude.
But now Sudbury is green; the lakes are clean; there’s stock, there’s animals again, even in my backyard. So I think the world could look at Sudbury and say, well, you know what, if they could do that in this little part of Ontario, we can clean the earth.
And that’s another thing I always tell young girls when I go in to speak, it’s important to pick up your garbage. Don’t leave your popcorn when you’re in a show, go and put it in the garbage. Don’t leave it for somebody else, because it’s up to you. So I try to push that as well.
Sue: Yeah, just about, right, yeah. The book is called My View from the Blackened Rocks and it’s by Cathy Mulroy, and it tells the whole story of her experiences over thirty years in the INCO mine.
Cathy: A Woman’s Battle for Equality and Respect in Canada’s Mining Industry. All I wanted was respect from those people.
Sue: Yeah. Thank you so much Cathy.