Unions taking up the mantle of women’s issues

Pay equity, child care and violence among causes unions support

With manufacturing jobs disappearing, gas prices soaring and the environment calling for attention, women’s issues have not been front and centre in the media. However, the pay gap between the genders remains, the availability and cost of child care is still an issue, employment insurance is out of reach for many women who lack the requisite qualifying hours, and privatizing and contracting out in the public service sector have negatively affected many women’s wages.

According to a March 2008 report by the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC), unions have been an important force in closing the economic inequality and pay gap between men and women. While women employed full time in Canada earned about 75 per cent as much as their male counterparts in 2006, unionized women earned an average of 93 per cent. The report, Women in the Workforce: Still a Long Way from Equity, notes union wages as a whole tend to be substantially higher than the average wage –– anywhere from seven per cent to 14 per cent depending on the sector, the worker’s age and job classification.

Pay equity still priority one

However, unions are still working to improve women’s financial fortunes. For example, the CLC is running a one-year campaign devoted to raising awareness of women’s economic issues. One of the organizers, Gisèle Pageau, human rights director at the Communication, Energy and Paperworkers union (CEP), says the chief concern of the CLC’s campaign is still pay equity.

She has been working to get women from all regions of Canada to participate in the year’s activities and to lobby governments for change. Although she says the current federal government is not receptive to women’s issues, that doesn’t mean “we stop banging on the doors of government.”

CEP workers have been hit hard by the decline in the forestry industry and by changes in communication media. Many women work in broadcasting in good paying jobs that are put at risk when a media outlet changes its programming, says Pageau. Right now, CEP is appealing to the CRTC the decision by the owner of a radio station in Montreal to change its programming from all-news to music. The station, which used to employ 21 CEP members (14 of them women), now has just seven employees.

As well as lobbying governments and their agencies, CEP campaigns to “organize the unorganized,” many of whom are women — often immigrants — in low-paying jobs. To bring the message to people who face language and cultural barriers, CEP trains women who are also immigrants and who better understand the situation of minimum-wage workers as they have often “walked in their shoes,” says Pageau.

To help unionized women bring forward issues to fellow union members, CEP provides material on how to start a women’s committee within a union local. Pageau says women’s issues are often more nuanced than those for men in the union, chiefly because women are caregivers in their families.

“The guys are more inclined to say, ‘Give me my pay and my pension’ and that’s it,” says Pageau. But women are concerned about workplace violence, bullying, harassment, parental and other leaves, child care and elder care, not to mention better salary levels, she says.

Unions themselves have learned to be more respectful of women and to accommodate their needs, says Pageau. At conventions and committee meetings, child care is looked after even if the union has to rent an extra room and cover caregiver costs.

Women’s issues in collective agreements

Unions also ensure language around women’s issues is included in collective agreements, says Pageau. The contract at Laurentian University in Sudbury, where Pageau spent 25 years before joining CEP five years ago, contains one of the first references to paid leaves to handle emergencies involving children or other family members.

Another example is the agreement CEP recently negotiated with Dilico, an agency of about 230 employees, most of whom are women, serving the needs of Aboriginal children and their families in Thunder Bay, Ont. According to Pageau, CEP did not try to impose itself on the culture of the bargaining unit members, who work issues out by consensus. The collective bargaining process resulted in an agreement that Pageau described as “quite spectacular.” For example, the grievance and arbitration process involves the use of healing circles and elders as arbitrators. The local developed an elders’ handbook for handling such situations.

Julie White, director of women’s programs for the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) has also been involved in the CLC’s equity campaign from the beginning and is organizing a CAW women’s conference for mid-August. Participants will discuss how union women can respond in their communities and at the bargaining table to the federal government’s decision to cut funding to women’s programs and services, says White.

“The single most significant factor for equality in the workplace is union representation,” she says.

In 1985, when the CAW broke away from the United Auto Workers, only 11 per cent of its members were female; now 34 per cent are women. Over the years, and especially since a 1991 affirmative action document, women have been more involved in the union. They receive training, are encouraged to take advantage of staff opportunities and sit at the bargaining table. As a result, women’s issues are heard by all union members both at the local level and three times a year when representatives of the rank and file meet with union leaders.

CAW’s Women’s Advocate Program

White points to the Women’s Advocate Program, which began 15 years ago with 21 women in the automotive sector and now encompasses 113 women in various workplaces covered by CAW collective agreements.

Under this program, women are trained by the union as resource people to intervene on a woman’s behalf in the event of workplace harassment or domestic violence. They make referrals to community resources and advocate for women not to be disciplined for taking time off to find emergency housing. Usually CAW collective agreement language states there is no loss of pay for the first three days under the sickness and accident plan if a woman goes into a shelter.

The advocate receives 40 hours of training initially and receives a three-day update each year, which is often paid for by the employer. Many employers embrace the idea enthusiastically, even to the extent of naming a management counterpart who understands the program and works with the union rep, while others are reluctant, fearing liability and need to be educated about their obligation under occupational health and safety legislation to provide a safe work environment, says White. Members of the Women’s Advocate Program also advocate at the municipal and provincial level for women and for changes to occupational health and safety rules.

Lorna Harris is the assistant editor of Canadian HR Reporter’s sister publication CLV Reports, a weekly newsletter that reports on collective bargaining and other issues in labour relations. For more information visit www.hrreporter.com/clv.

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