Barbara Byers retires as secretary-treasurer of the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) this year after three years in the role. This comes after a career in union activism that began in 1979 when she was a social worker in Saskatchewan. In 1984, Byers was elected president of what is now the Saskatchewan Government and General Employees' Union, the first woman president of a provincial government employees' union. She was president of the Saskatchewan Federation of Labour from 1988 to 2002 before moving to the CLC.
To celebrate May Day, rabble wanted to focus on the accomplishments of women in the workplace. Byers spoke to rabble about how she got started in the union movement, struggles she and other women have faced and what she'd like to see happen in the future.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
What first got you involved in unions?
I got involved by accident. I discovered that many of the things the union could do were also things that I was fighting for as a social worker... The union became a vehicle to also do that.
You were the first female president of a provincial government employees' union. What was people's response?
I don't remember a lot of pushback about me being a woman, more me being evaluated on my skills. I don't remember a lot of that, but I certainly know that it was there for some people in all of the positions I've run for, and it continues to be there for women. We've made huge strides, but women's voices are still heard differently. They are still not as valued as they need to be.
Can you give some examples of ways that women's voices are still heard differently today?
The labour movement is not unlike society generally that when a woman speaks in a meeting, she's not necessarily listened to. If she offers ideas, and a man comes along later and offers the same idea, just in different words, oftentimes he doesn't acknowledge that his idea is building on hers, … Some of the raw sexism that was [present] in my early years is not there; some of it may have gone underground a bit. We should never take away from the incredible work and the incredible advancements that have been made in the last 30 years I've been involved. There have been incredible advances for women. And there have been incredible advances for equity-seeking groups. That doesn't mean that the job is finished yet.
What improvements have you seen?
Statements against harassment started out as statements against sexism. It was considered quite revolutionary in the mid-1980s. … It's almost now part of meeting agendas, so people don't realize there's an actual history there. The number of women in leadership roles has expanded in huge ways. We're not 50-50 yet, but we're very much making advancements.Advancements from women in equity-seeking groups have come along very quickly as well … Cumulatively this movement is a lot different than it was when I started out.
Why is it important to have women in positions of visible leadership?
We need to have women's voices there. Women have a different leadership style. They have a different way of doing things as long as they don't fall into the trap of doing things the way the male leadership has done ... forever. … We do tend to be more collaborative. We can get pretty tough, and we have to be ready to take on a lot of tough issues with governments, with employers and inside our own organizations. One of the things I have used as a bit of a motto is, "Never confuse decency with weakness." Women leaders are strong, they're smart, they're strategic. They have incredible spirit and strength and solidarity and we only get better when all of those skills and attributes are used.
Do you think it should be 50-50 (women's representation in leadership roles)?
I think that would be the goal.
People have said, "Is there major pieces of unfinished business that you're looking back over the 30 years?" In small ways I wanted to make the labour movement … more flexible and family-friendly, life-friendly, but I didn't do the systematic change that needed to be done in terms of the structural change that needed to happen.
Do you have any accomplishments that really stand out to you?
Making sure women's voices were heard, making sure that when one of us went through a door, if I can put it that way, we left the door open for those that are coming behind.
What are the struggles that women need to take on today?
There's still the question of women's voices being heard and respected…and ensuring that the labour movement in general is "life-friendly." You can be an activist, you can be true to the union movement, and you don't have to hand over your life to the movement.
Are there any women throughout history that you've turned to for inspiration?
Every woman I've come into contact with I've learned something from … That's the strength and the beauty of women and feminists and the trade labour movement is that we hear each other and we learn from each other, and we honour that. I certainly do.
What would you say to the young aspiring women activists who are coming up?
Never be afraid to question, but always have sisters around you that can help you with support if you don't get the response that you need. Have that group of women around you that's from diverse communities … Don't give up. Women who went before us didn't give up on equal pay for equal work and then the ones that came after them didn't give up on equal pay for similar work. Women for many, many years are still fighting for equal pay for equal value. That's not one that we're going to give up on, because we're fighting for gender-wage justice.
Meagan Gillmore is rabble's labour reporter.
Photo: UN Women/flickr