CAW’s Women’s Advocate program presented at UN session

Growing initiative ‘creates sense of camaraderie, comfort’
By Sarah Dobson
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 04/11/2013

Tammy Moore is getting ready to board a plane to Toronto. Based in Saint John, N.B., she’s heading to an arbitration case involving a woman she’s been helping for several years.

Travelling and supporting others is just part of the job for Moore, who became the first women’s advocate at Air Canada about four years ago as part of the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW)’s Women’s Advocate program.

The advocates often support women who are suffering from abuse or hardship and are unwilling to speak to family or friends — and any discussions are confidential, said Moore, who is also a union officer for the Atlantic region of Local 2002 with CAW.

“They’re free to say whatever they want to say — they can cry, they can scream, whatever they need to do — and then it’s my job to figure out… where do we go from here, what do we do? I put a game plan together to figure out how we’re going to get the person back on track.”

The CAW Women’s Advocate program involves specially trained workplace representatives who assist women (and men) with a variety of issues such as workplace harassment, intimate partner violence or abuse by providing workplace supports and community resources.

There have been plenty of different situations, said Moore, such as ones involving domestic violence, people having problems with their kids and even men who are suicidal seeking assistance with gambling addictions. She has also helped people who have filed complaints with the human rights commission.

“You name it — it runs the gamut,” she said.

Montreal Massacre sparked program

The program was formed in the wake of the Montreal Massacre in 1989 in which 14 female engineering students at the École Polytechnique de Montréal were killed by a gunman. By 1993, the necessary language to support the program became a bargaining priority during the union’s negotiations with General Motors, Ford and Chrysler.

At that time, CAW had 88,000 members, of which 11 per cent were women. Today, union membership sits at more than 200,000 workers and women comprise nearly 34 per cent.

And the program has about 270 women’s advocates spread across the country, in a variety of sectors.

“With a lot of those new workplaces or new sectors that joined the union came a lot of women in health care, airlines, education, so there was a real interest in the Women’s Advocate program not only just by women in our union — both women and men in our staff understand the importance of the program and the value,” said Julie White, CAW’s women’s director in London, Ont.

Most recently, the program was presented by White at a side event looking at domestic violence in the workplace, as part of the United Nations’ 57th session of the Commission on the Status of Women in New York City in March.

“It was really well-received, there was lots of questions on it, so there’s a lot of pickup from a number of organizations in different countries who want to know a bit more,” she said.

Program ‘not quite as clinical as going to see HR person’

The employer-funded program makes sense for employers because, with the appropriate referrals, employees are able to remain at their workplaces and be productive rather than being off on sick leave or disability leave, said Moore.

“It’s not quite as clinical as going to see your HR person at work. It’s kind of like talking to one of your friends, but not.”

If people are experiencing abuse, they might not feel comfortable going to a traditional HR department that’s handling payroll and policies and is not necessarily seen as a support system, said Julia Woodhall, a PhD candidate in sociology at the University of Waterloo in Ontario who co-wrote a 2010 paper on the program.

It’s about women in similar positions helping other women, and it creates a sense of comfort and camaraderie, so it’s not a standardized model that you’d find in HR, she said.

“I would also argue they really serve as mentors too.”

The women’s advocates don’t replace the HR department, said Belinda Leach, professor and associate dean (research) at the College of Social and Applied Human Sciences at the University of Guelph in Ontario.

We’re talking about a unionized work environment, she said, so the women know this is somebody who’s explicitly on their side, who will also know the union agreement and will stand up for them in what can be a conflict relationship.

“In a non-union work environment, to have somebody who is in HR who is designated, who really understands those issues and is trained in the same sort of way that the CAW trains women’s advocates, would be great.”

Women experience the workplace differently than men, said Leach, who co-wrote the paper with Woodhall.

“They actually go into a different workplace, to use a psychological analogy, and that is even more pronounced when workplaces are more heavily dominated by men, as they tend to be in the auto industry, but not only — many other places as well.”

Many women are dealing with violence in their lives at home, which spills over to the workplace in different ways, whether through a partner or co-worker, she said.

“We haven’t dealt with violence against women in society well enough to be able to say this is not a big issue. It’s a huge issue and it affects their performance at work,” said Leach.

“That’s why I can see a tremendous value in having someone who is dedicated to understanding those issues, from the woman’s perspective, and being able to navigate the policies, represent and advocate as the word goes, for women who are experiencing those things with management.”

In-depth training includes annual 3-day program

Before starting her role, Moore took 40 hours of training through the CAW women’s department and she, along with other advocates, attends a three-day annual update training program at a CAW training facility in Port Elgin, Ont.

The basic training for new advocates covers a lot of different areas, including skills and tools building, communications and public speaking. The training also involves a tour of a nearby women’s shelter and a lawyer talking about the legalities of the advocates’ role, as the advocates do not have a duty to report abuse.

“They’re going to hear a lot of difficult stories so it’s about making them aware of their role,” said White.

“We really stress that they’re not a counsellor... there are trained people in our communities that deal with this issue — so we really send that message home that they’re for resources and support and to work with their management counterpart.”

CAW has also developed a management support guide, said White.

“We encourage the advocates to go back, develop relationships with their management counterparts, so when a woman approaches her advocate and she needs time off work, then that’s the role of the advocate to go and sit down with the management support group and they make those arrangements, so a woman’s not being disciplined because she’s going to be off work.”

The employers have really bought into this program and are incredibly supportive, she said.

“It’s really important we have that management support person to go through because, ultimately, if a woman needs time off work, it’s not the union that can authorize that, it’s the management support system.”

And there’s a role for a women’s advocate at every workplace, said White.

“It is not a problem limited to any one group. We’re working every day to expand the program — we know the need is there.”

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