Unions as Sites of Feminist Activism

“No sick leave, no maternity leave, no holiday pay.  They made less than minimum wage. The vast majority of them were women.”
 ~Justice and Dignity for All

Justice and Dignity for All is a documentary by the Canadian Union of Postal Workers about the workers, mostly women, who deliver the mail in rural and suburban Canada. The film traces their decades-long struggle, starting in 1981, to become unionized and to win basic job security, pay equity, and benefits.

A decade earlier, the Vancouver Women’s Caucus had organized to address the lack of job security and benefits, as well as the low wages typical of most jobs held by women workers. Rejecting the prevailing belief that women were not interested in being union members, in 1971, it launched the Working Women’s Workshop to build an independent feminist and militant union with organizing strategies that reached out directly to women.

By 1972, the newly created Service, Office and Retail Workers Union of Canada (SORWUC) and the Association of University and College Employees (AUCE) was working to  organize women workers and bargaining for wage increases and new rights.

An image calling for “better wages and better working conditions” from a flyer (.pdf) urging bank workers to join the SORWUC.

The dramatic increase in women workers and union members from the late 1960s into the 1990s created a powerful force for change within the labour movement itself. As women trailblazed new paths with organizing drives and strike actions, unions were increasingly pushed to take up women’s equality issues at the bargaining table and within their own ranks. There are many stories to tell. At the same time, newly formed coalitions of unions and feminist groups began working together on issues such as childcare, equal pay, affirmative action, and strike support.  

Photo taken at the 1980 Ontario Federation of Labour daycare conference “Sharing the Caring” and attended by 130 delegates. Speakers are (l to r) Cliff Pilkey,President of the Ontario Federation, Pat Schulz, childcare and feminist activist and Shelley Acheson, OFL Human Rights director. Other speakers included Michael Cassidy, leader of the Ontario NDP; Mary Eady, CLC Women's Bureau; Julie Mathien, Toronto Board of Education daycare consultant; Larry Katz, CUPE Research Department; and Bob Nickerson, co-chairperson of OFL women's committee.

This photo was taken at the 1980 Ontario Federation of Labour daycare conference. Shown (left to right) are Cliff Pilkey, OFL President; Pat Schulz, childcare and feminist activist; and Shelley Acheson, OFL Human Rights director. 

Workplace equality gains achieved at the bargaining table or through legal action often became the foundation for legislative change that extended newly won benefits to others.  For example, the 1980 strike by members of the Public Service Alliance of Canada and the 1981 strike by the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (as chronicled in the film A Struggle to Remember) identifies how these strikes worked to make maternity leave and other family benefits more widely available. The Supreme Court’s findings in the 1987 Bonnie Robichaud case on allegations of workplace sexual harassment established that sexual harassment is a form of discrimination against women and therefore prohibited under the Canadian Human Rights Act. It also determined that employers are responsible for maintaining a harassment-free work environment.

“I believe that the alliance between the women’s movement and the labour movement is the most powerful force for social change we have ever seen in history.”
 ~Judy Rebick, President of NAC
(in the March 1991 issue of Our Times, p. 29 of .pdf)

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, it is clear that the gains hard won over fifty years of activism remain fragile. Women are at “the forefront of this crisis” as essential frontline workers in our primary and long-term care systems, as well as in the retail sector, in jobs that are “historically and systematically offloaded to women, particularly immigrant and racialized women”. Longstanding inequalities persist, including those experienced by countless women still working in low-wage precarious positions with no job security or benefits, compounded for those already living on low incomes and facing intersecting inequalities as racialized and immigrant workers.
There is hope, though, in recovery. A return to “normal” is simply not going to be good enough, and it is worth reminding ourselves of the key role that the labour movement has already played and must play again in the fight for equality rights. The percentage of unionized employees across Canada has been rising in the pandemic, both as non-unionized employees have been losing their jobs but also as new successful union drives occur. The historic power of unions to address the gendered, racialized experiences of undervalued workers looms large as we reimagine the future of work in a post-pandemic world.

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