Union women work to shatter labour's glass ceiling

| December 4, 2013
Photo: flickr/Ian Sane

The labour movement’s female ranks are growing, but women are still struggling to have their voices heard and to fill executive positions.

"Sadly, I still find myself in the trenches," said Yolanda McClean, the Diversity Vice-President of CUPE, speaking at the microphones during the women’s forum at the Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL) convention.

Women, even in unionized workplaces, face workplace harassment and income inequality.

For those that might consider leadership positions, there are still barriers in the way of taking executive roles at the local or national levels -- including a lack of available childcare and mentoring -- despite the fact that there are more women unionized than ever before.

A recent Globe and Mail article found that the rate of men who are unionized is dropping while rates for women have held steady. The losses for men is found in the declining manufacturing sector while unionization rates in health care, education and public administration -- industries largely dominated by women -- have grown.

Men still take up many of the top positions in labour unions and councils, a situation that has certainly not gone unnoticed by union sisters. At the Unifor founding convention in August, Lindsay Hinshelwood, a member of the former CAW local 707 in Oakville, Ontario, ran against Jerry Dias to challenge what she called the "old boys club" of leadership.

"Traditional power structures still exist within the labour movement which is really unfortunate," said Nicole Wall, a Toronto based regional representative of the Public Service Alliance of Canada.

She, along with her mother, labour activist Carol Wall, sat on a panel about the challenges women face in the labour movement last Tuesday at the OFL convention.

They were joined by Katie Arnup, a national representative for communications at Unifor, Sue Genge, who was formerly with the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) and the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) and Michele Landsberg, a journalist who has written extensively on labour issues.

Landsberg recounted that when she attempted to write a story about maternity leaves many years ago, she was laughed off the phone by many of the union leaders when she asked if they would include leave provisions in collective agreements.

"I've heard a woman say that she ran for an elected position and she was told she’d get in trouble with her union supervisor because they didn't want a woman running," she said.

If there is anyone who knows the challenges of becoming not only active in labour, but a leader, it would be Nancy Hutchison. The secretary-treasurer of the OFL was the first woman to work in the gold mine in the Campbell Red Lake Mine in 1977. Hutchison became the president of her union local, and eventually rose through the ranks of the United Steelworkers to take a place on their national executive as the Canadian National Health, Safety and Environment Department Leader.

"Very rarely will a sister come up and say, 'it’s my first year working here and I want to be involved in the union,'" she said. "It’s up to us to look for [leadership] qualities."

Mentorship opportunities and access to childcare were two of the key barriers she identified for women who may consider running for leadership positions.

At the OFL convention, there were several impassioned speeches in support of a universal childcare system. Others also advocated for maternity leaves to be included in collective agreements -- a situation that they argue benefits families overall, not just women.

But according to Landsberg, union culture has to become more inclusive -- or risk disappearing altogether.

"The union movement has done amazing things for changing the scene for women externally," she said, noting that unions supported Charter challenges that helped secure the right to choice.

"But internally, they haven't done as much and they have to because that is the future of unionizing --they need the women or they are gone."

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