Women outnumber men in Canadian unions

Shift thrusts labour into women’s rights fight

For the first time in Canadian history, there are more women than men in the ranks of unions. According to Statistics Canada, there were 2,248,000 women represented by unions between January and June 2007 compared to 2,237,200 men.

That means unions are increasingly fighting for policies to improve the status of women at work, according to a labour and human rights lawyer.

“I see unions pushing cases forward on issues that recognize the reality of women in the workforce in ways that they didn’t 20 years ago,” said Kate Hughes, a partner with Toronto law firm Cavalluzzo Hayes Shilton McIntyre and Cornish.

Child care is one priority that ranks high among unions. Recently, the Ontario Nurses Association obtained an injunction against a hospital that was unilaterally changing a number of women’s shifts because it “adversely affected their child-care arrangements and therefore caused irreparable harm,” said Hughes.

Another cause unions have recognized as being important to women is that of pensions and mandatory retirement, said Hughes. Not that long ago women had to leave the workforce when they had children. In doing so, they lost seniority, took a pay cut and saw a reduction in pension contributions.

“Women (didn’t) build up the same pensions as men and actually were not in a position to retire at the same time as men,” she said.

One of the reasons for the increase of women in unions is women are increasingly recognizing the importance of being in a unionized environment, said Julie White, the director of women’s programs at the Canadian Auto Workers union (CAW).

“Women are seeing the value of belonging to a union and it’s not just around wages and benefits,” she said. “It’s around working conditions, it’s around the broader fight that unions are taking on around equality issues.”

Since the CAW split from the United Auto Workers in 1984, representation of women in the union has grown from 11 per cent to 34 per cent, said White.

The increase also reflects the unionization of typically female industries such as health care, retail and hospitality, as well as the recent loss in manufacturing jobs, typically a male-dominated sector.

Child care has been especially important to the CAW and it has negotiated $12-a-day subsidies for some locals and opened daycare facilities for workers in Windsor, Ont., and Oshawa, Ont., said White.

The CAW has also taken on the cause of ending violence against women. In some collective bargaining agreements the union has negotiated clauses that prevent an employer from firing a woman for missing work if she can prove she’s being abused at home, said White. The agreements give abused women time off to find safe shelter for themselves and their children.

While making life better for female members is important, the CAW recognizes the need to make a difference for all working women in Canada, which has become especially important in light of the cuts the federal government has made to child care and funding for organizations such as the Status of Women office, said White.

“We’re lobbying members of parliament around issues such as affordable housing for women, child care, the minimum wage campaign — they’re all tied into women’s equality issues. We know that in order for women to leave violent relationships, they need affordable housing, they need child care, they need good paying jobs,” she said.

Another issue that is gaining importance for women is the need to care for aging relatives, said Hughes.

“I think we’re going to see a lot more union activity around that family status issue,” she said.

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