In the increasingly unequal society we are living in, people who are marginalized and muzzled already need strong and united organizations that will stand up with them. At a time when those very organizations are under attack it’s important that people understand the joint history of trade unionism and feminism.
Women benefit from the work of trade unions. The benefits are many and substantive. In Canada women who belong to unions earn on average $6.89 more an hour. The wage gap between unionized women and men , while still bad at 84%, is considerably better than the 70 % for those without a union. Many union collective agreements contain health plans and pensions. With the highest number of seniors living in poverty being women, these benefits could mean the difference between getting a prescription filled or getting enough to eat. A lot of unions have fought for and won sexual harassment language in their contracts. The Canadian Labour Congress currently has a major campaign against violence against women in the workplace. My union, the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW), for the past 20 years has had a staff person to develop child care projects for our members and has a child care fund to provide the bucks for the projects. There are many other issues where unions have been active but space doesn’t permit an in depth accounting of them.
One example of unions fighting for women’s equality is the Konderat arbitration. In many jobs, including the federal public service, before the Konderat case, if a woman got married she would have to resign her position. In the airline industry flight attendants were barred not only from being married but were fired once they were 32 years old. In 1965 the Canadian Airline Flight Attendants Association (CALFAA) filed a grievance on behalf of Dianne Konderat , a Pacific Western Airlines employee, against this sexist policy. The arbitration board ruled for the company stating “that a woman’s proper social role was to be home with her husband “. The CALFAA didn’t stop there. It began a public campaign with the help of the BC Fed and the CLC, putting pressure on both the airlines and on politicians. Air Canada dropped the marriage bar in 1966 and the other airlines soon followed suit. This case demonstrates how a union’s use of the grievance procedure and its ability to carry out public campaigns can help women fight common and, at the time, accepted discriminatory practices.
Maternity leave became a big issue in the CUPW strike of 1981. Topping up the E.I. maternity leave benefits was one of the last issues settled at the end of six weeks on the picket line. During that time there was some backlash even among our own members. Comments included, “Women will get pregnant just to collect the maternity leave monies.” However we solicited support from women’s groups in the community. They came out to the picket line and also used their channels to pressure the government to agree with this demand. We were the first national union to achieve this measure of fairness.
Unions are nothing if not persistent. It took almost 30 years for the Public Service Alliance to win its pay equity case with the federal government. Back in 1983 pay clerks at Canada Post were paid considerably less than other workers at Canada Post. Since this was not only discriminatory but was also contrary to the Feds own Pay Equity Guidelines regarding equal pay for work of equal value, PSAC filed a complaint with the Human Rights Tribunal. It took 22 years for the Tribunal to deliver their ruling which was in support of the Union. Canada Post then appealed it and it wasn’t till 2011 when the Supreme Court of Canada upheld the decision. It took another two years before the pay clerks got a cheque.
This is not to say unions have always been free of sexism. Back in the late 1960s most of the part time workers in the Post Office were women and my union would not allow them to become members, fearing since they were paid less, they would soon replace the full timers who were all men. It was only through the tireless efforts of a Vancouver postal worker, Joan Jones, that the union relented and started fighting for equal pay instead of exclusion. There are many other examples of male unionists blocking progress instead of embracing it.
Unions benefit from women’s participation. In the US the number of women in unions has grown and now 46 % of union members are women. The numbers for Canada are similar. More women in the union reflect more accurately our society; any organization that doesn’t do that is doomed to fail. Historically some of the strongest labour activists have been women from Mother Jones to Helena Gutteridge to Grace Hartman. Presently Irene Lanzinger is President of the BC Federation of Labour and Joey Hartman holds a similar position with the Vancouver and District Labour Council. Before we get too congratulatory, Irene and Joey are the first women in the 100 year history of those two bodies to fill those positions.
Although this is a generalization, it has been borne out in my experience that is that women are more cooperative in a group and this is vital for unions to function. As more women became active in their unions the culture has changed in two ways. Now the process of how you arrive at a result is just as important as the result. People are as important as ideas. Secondly the internal union culture of putting in long hours to demonstrate one’s commitment is slowly changing. Women with more child and homecare responsibilities are not willing to sacrifice themselves or their families in this manner.
We still have a way to go though. Women are underrepresented in leadership positions. Women still do not get enough recognition for their contributions. Unions must find ways of opening up “non-traditional” jobs in the building trades etc. to young women. I could go on. However, when all is said and done, unions have been and will continue to be a force for justice.