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Feminist Success Stories - Célébrons nos réussites féministes

Karen A. Blackford
Marie-Luce Garceau
Sandra Kirby

Part II: Women at Work — Partie II : Femmes et travail

Intersecting Multiple Sites of Marginalization: The Work of Feminizing Within an Educational Workers’ Union

Marianne Parsons et Starla Goggins

Texte intégral

The politic of separate organizing recognizes that the problems women face in unions are a result of structural and ideological discrimination, and that women must organise collectively — bringing to this process their own gender-specific knowledge — in order to effect institutional change. (Briskin 1993, 97)

Starla Goggins

1I am a Black woman of West African and American cultural heritage. Having witnessed firsthand the Detroit riots of the late 1960s, my politics have been greatly influenced by the efforts of those involved in the Civil Rights Movement. This history, in conjunction with my own experiences of racism within Canada, give me the particular perspective which I bring to my activist work.

Marianne Parsons

2I am a white woman from Nova Scotia. Having been raised in a region of economic disparity and in a large family with a strong commitment to grassroots community activism, I became politically aware of social inequity and injustice at a very early age. My politics find voice in my activism.

Joining Our Perspectives and Taking Action

  • 1 Many thanks to those past chairs and members of the women’s caucus who provided us with informatio (...)
  • 2 The dedication and hard work of many feminist activists at various points in time made the caucus (...)

3We share a twelve-year history of teaching part-time within the university. From 1989 to the present, we have been politically active within part-time educational workers’ collectives at several Canadian universities, located in southern Ontario and Nova Scotia. In this article, we focus on our activist work as co-chairs of a women’s caucus (1991-1993) within a Toronto-based union local serving part-time educational workers. Through self-reflection, discussions with other caucus members, and a review of documents, events, and literature in this area, we provide a critical account of our experience of feminist organizing, locating it within the broader context of part-time university teaching within Canada.1 Specifically, we examine the strategies and methods of resistance we employed as a feminist collective in our struggle to politicize and address issues of race, gender, class, and disability as part of the process of feminizing union policies and practices. It is important to emphasize, however, that the efforts of countless women and men over the years secured this separate sphere for women, and that our story is only one of many in a rich history of feminist organizing within this union.2

4For the purposes of this paper, “feminizing” is defined as the active process of effecting social change within institutions through the recognition and inclusion of women’s multiple and diverse experiences of marginalization. We argue that, by revealing the intersections between and within marginalized groups, the women’s caucus within this union provided the “woman space” wherein systemic discrimination could be addressed, and strategies for social change developed and implemented. Without a politic which recognizes and includes diversity, union “solidarity” becomes a vehicle through which the rights and privileges of the powerful are reproduced and maintained.

5Our story is one of empowerment, of personal transformation and institutional change. By documenting these experiences within a feminist framework — one that links personal narrative to feminist activism and social change — we continue the work of providing testimony to the history of the feminist movement. In the words of Bell Hooks

we must have more written work and oral testimony documenting ways barriers are broken down, coalitions formed, and solidarity shared. It is this evidence that will renew our hope and provide strategies and direction for future feminist movement.… If a revitalised feminist movement is to have a transformative impact on women, then creating a context where we can engage in open critical dialogue with one another, where we can debate and discuss without fear of emotional collapse, where we can hear and know one another in the difference and complexities of our experience, is essential. Collective feminist movement cannot go forward if this step is never taken. When we create this woman space where we can value difference and complexity, sisterhood based on political solidarity will emerge (1994, 110, own emphasis).

Locating Ourselves as Part-time Educational Workers

  • 3 The job descriptions of teaching assistants vary greatly among universities. It is important to em (...)

6We were employed as teaching assistants and members of a part-time educational workers’ union at a large Toronto university.3 Our union local served part-time faculty, teaching assistants, and graduate assistants. The union membership included approximately 1800 workers, with an equal proportion of women and men (Ornstein, Sandilands and Teiman 1992). As co-chairs of a women’s caucus within this union, our relationship to each other as feminists activists provided the framework within which we worked together for change. As with any political strategy employed to affect social change, the work of “feminizing” is context bound. In order to understand the strategies employed by the women’s caucus, it is necessary to locate part-time university teaching within the broader historical context of economic restructuring within the university.

  • 4 Universities vary in their categorization of full-time and part-time faculty. In our discussion, w (...)

7Historically, massive changes within the Canadian post-secondary educational system in the post WWII era effected change in the academic labour market. Briefly, a dramatic increase in student enrolment (initiated by returning war veterans) facilitated the expansion of post-secondary institutions (Rajagopal and Farr 1989). Many students pursued graduate studies and new faculty were hired. In the 1970s, government funding to universities “levelled or declined... and both government and corporate leaders... called for economic measures to reduce duplication and produce more scholar for the dollar’...” (Rajagopal and Farr 1989, 269). To fill the labour gap in the most economically feasible manner, universities increasingly hired employees on a contractually limited or part-time basis. This growth in part-time teaching has led to the development of a tiered system within the academic labour market, separating privileged, fulltime, tenured academics from marginalized, part-time, non-tenured academics (Rosenblum and Rosenblum 1994; Rajagopal and Farr 1992; Rajagopal and Farr 1989; Warme and Lundy 1986).4

8Part-time faculty generally receive low pay and work in unsatisfactory conditions:

the majority experience working conditions that to some extent resemble the conditions of low-skilled labour... akin to industrial ‘homework’ in terms of isolation, low pay for long hours of effort... the characteristics generally identified with sweatshop work (Sharff and Lessinger 1994, 6).

  • 5 We were the only local (out of twelve locals) with a budget and executive voting rights for a wome (...)

9Part-timers have little or no political voice in university and departmental governance (Gappa 1987) and teach the lower level, larger courses, and the “off-hour, off-campus, and summer school...” courses (Rosenblum and Rosenblum 1990, 153). There is virtually no opportunity for advancement or job security within this part-time labour market. Part-time workers are typically the “last hired” (after teaching assignments have been allocated to full-time faculty) and the “first fired” in times of economic restraint and retrenchment: “As a cost-efficient, highly skilled workforce, part-timers have become an integral part of academe not in spite of their low cost, but because of it” (Rajagopal and Farr 1992, 318). While individual departments may vary in their attempts to better accommodate these workers, it is not surprising that part-time university teachers are referred to as “the new working class” (Jackson and Clark 1987); “the underclass” (Committee G 1992); “second-class educators” (Thompson 1992); and “gypsy scholars” (Rajagopal and Farr 1989).5

10This economic restructuring within universities provides management with a group of disposable workers who have little bargaining power and virtually no job security (Rajagopal and Farr 1992). We argue that, for marginalized groups within this labour market, racism, sexism, and other forms of systemic prejudice place historically disadvantaged groups in the centre of equity backlash: “This backlash is a conscious attempt to protect the privileged position of white males in a period of economic decline and assault on union rights, making it increasingly difficult to gain broader support for equity measures” (Creese 1995, 146).

11Other than a few studies which examine women part-time faculty, there is little research examining the location of other equity groups (Aboriginal Peoples, visible minorities, and persons with disabilities) within the academic labour market. Given women’s predominance in the part-time labour market (Armstrong and Armstrong 1994), it is not surprising that compared to men who dominate the full-time academic labour market, women are disproportionately employed as part-time faculty (Edwards 1994; Rajagopal and Farr 1992; Simeone 1987; Warme and Lundy 1986; Kantrowitz 1981), and are particularly vulnerable to remaining within the part-time pool for the duration of their academic careers (Rosenblum and Rosenblum, 1994). A Quebec study found part-time women faculty to be more “dependent upon the university for a major share of their income” than their male counterparts, for whom the majority (76%) enjoy “regular full-time non-university employment” (Rajagopal and Farr 1992, 327).

12At the university which employed our union membership, fulltime and part-time faculty positions were rare among Aboriginal Peoples, visible minorities, and persons with disabilities who comprised less than 1%, 6.5%, and 3.9% of full-time faculty, respectively (Ornstein, Sandilands, and Teiman 1992). The corresponding figures for part-time faculty are less than 1%, 9.0%, and 3.1%. (Ornstein, Sandilands, and Teiman 1992). Himani Bannerji contextualizes the relationship between disenfranchised groups and the university (as a site of racist, sexist, and class oppression) and discusses the effect it has had on her career as a part-time university teacher:

From 1974 to 1989, I was a temporary, contractual, part-time, piece-work teacher of part-time students... In the last year, I have, at this late stage in my life, finally found favour in the eye of the establishment and become an assistant, non-tenured (but possible) professor. Once, a long time ago, I was a tenured faculty in India-from 1965 to 1969.I came to Canada on leave from my job — it took twenty years to find myself comparable employment. (1991, 72)

13The intersection of race and gender serves to doubly disadvantage women of colour in the academic labour market (Ornstein, Sandilands, and Teiman 1992).The prioritization of one issue (for example, gender) can lead to the invisibility of these interconnections, and negate the individual experiences of marginalization (Belkhir 1995). We argue that the only way to raise consciousness around these issues and work toward change is to reveal the intersections between and within marginalized groups. Feminizing within this broader politic is very difficult, particularly within mainstream institutional structures.

Feminizing Within the Mainstream

14Mainstream union and feminist ideologies, politics, and practices fail in their ability to provide an adequate framework within which to locate and address the concerns of marginalized groups (Leah 1993). Historically, unions in Canada served as a microcosm, replicating larger societal forms of discrimination by actively excluding visible minorities and women from union membership (White 1993). The social construction of “work” and “worker” within traditional trade unionist discourse conceptualized workers as white, able-bodied, skilled crafts men, thereby negating the work performed by women, ethnic/racial minorities, people with disabilities, and immigrants (Modibo 1995; White 1993).

15Mainstream feminists, while advocating economic, political, and social equity with men, do not always recognize diversity in their efforts to eradicate systemic discrimination for women (Hooks 1989). The withdrawal of several middle-class, predominantly white women’s groups from NAC (National Action Committee on the Status of Women) in the mid 1990s is a prime example of the non-inclusive nature of mainstream feminism. With Sunera Thobani (an activist within the Southeast Asian community and then chair of NAC), and the development of an executive board with members from various marginalized groups, many women’s groups maintain that NAC no longer responds to the needs of “all” women. An interesting paradox, to say the least.

16In her interviews with three Black women unionists, Ronnie Leah reveals the barriers and opposition encountered by Black women in their struggles to integrate issues of race and racism within the mainstream women’s movement:

Throughout the interviews there were numerous references to Black women being ‘disillusioned’ with the mainstream, largely white women’s movement and there emerged a common perception that there was little support from white women activists for either individual women of colour or for the issue of racism... ‘Progressive women have to recognize that there is a struggle. And it’s a women’s struggle; racism is a women’s struggle.’ (1993, 168)

17As a women’s caucus, we were particularly strident in our efforts to address issues of racism in our organizing efforts. It takes considerable effort to confront issues of systemic discrimination within a union setting. Unlike other bodies on the executive and those within the larger structures of the union, we had to struggle to keep our space and make our voice heard.

Mainstream Resistance/Caucus Struggle

18The need for a separate sphere for women to define issues for themselves and work together for change is often challenged within unions (Briskin 1994, 1993). One year prior to our appointment as co-chairs, a small group of union members refused to pay their union dues on the basis of the existence of an exclusive women’s caucus within the union. The person who spearheaded this initiative argued that unless men were allowed membership in the women’s caucus, the budget and voting rights of the caucus should be discontinued and the caucus disbanded. It was only through solidarity with women and men union members who supported women’s caucus initiatives that members of the women’s caucus we were able to successfully defend their right to remain a “woman only” space.

19Our experience as members of the executive board of the union served to reinforce our commitment to separate organizing for women. This antagonistic political climate created many tensions for us as feminists working for change within the system. The following examples provide insight into the ways in which “male model” process and mainstream politics served to marginalize our participation within the executive.

20An initial example of minimizing women’s power occurred following our first women’s caucus meeting as co-chairs (February 1991). The outgoing chair argued that the duties of the chair warranted an increase in honorarium. The chair of the women’s caucus is responsible for ensuring the representation of women at the caucus, executive, and national levels, and on twelve committees within our local. We had a two-tiered system of honoraria ($350.00 and $600.00 per month), whereby certain executive positions received the lower honorarium (e.g., Secretary), and other positions received the higher honorarium (e.g., Chair of the Local).

21When we proposed the increase and rationale to the executive, we were faced with two opposing points of contention:

  1. that all union positions should have equal honoraria in the spirit of “solidarity”; and
  2. that the exclusion of men from women’s caucus membership meant that the work of the women’s caucus could not be recognized within the larger framework of the union, and therefore did not warrant the higher honorarium.

22The first argument was quickly dropped, as various members of the executive were quick to point out that the duties attached to certain positions required much more work and were deserving of the higher honorarium. With regard to the second argument, the majority of executive members maintained their view. Since the women’s caucus was exclusionary and, therefore, did not serve the interests of the union as a whole, the work of the caucus was considered to be significantly less onerous and less deserving than other executive posts. Our motion to receive the higher honorarium was defeated by the executive.

23The next step was to bring the issue to the general membership (the highest governing body within the union) for consideration. At the next general membership meeting, the women’s caucus argued that our position served the membership at large in representing equity aims, which required a high level of skill and dedication. We also argued that our efforts in addressing job security, stewardship within departments, tuition increases, and accessible childcare on campus affected many of our members — not “just” women. After considerable debate, our motion to receive the higher honorarium was passed by the general membership.

24It was months before we began to receive our full honorarium on time, as the staff representative and treasurer kept forgetting that the honorarium had been increased. On several occasions, we had to resubmit copies of the minutes from the general membership meeting to both of these men as “proof” that our motion had been passed. It is important to emphasize that our ability to organize effectively was due in large part to the existence of an operating budget for the caucus and honoraria for the position of chair, and the fact that the chair of the caucus was a member of the executive with full voting rights.

25Racism was a second form of oppression faced by women’s caucus representatives. Starla was the first woman of colour to hold the position of chair (in our case, co-chair) of the women’s caucus. Attending executive meetings became one of the most difficult duties of our position as women’s caucus co-chairs. Raising issues that addressed the existence of systemic racism and sexism within the union was often met with open hostility by several members of the executive. Labelled “dictators of the politically correct,” we often felt harassed and isolated during these meetings, both as union activists and as feminists working for change within an institution. For Starla, the situation was particularly difficult as “...a woman of colour can be singled out for harassment around race as well as gender, thereby reinforcing and intensifying feelings of isolation from her male as well as her white female co-workers”. (Leah 1993, 158)

26The high value placed on a masculine “presentation of self” during executive meetings was a third form of oppression. Men were expected to speak with authority, and state their case in an assertive manner. However, speaking with an authoritative voice was totally unacceptable for women members. As exemplified in her own experience, Judy Darcy (president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees) articulates these double standards:

It is not easy for a woman to be labelled shrill and strident and even hysterical for speaking forcefully on a convention floor when her brothers, who say exactly the same thing and bellow as if they ate megaphones for breakfast, are heartily congratulated for their fire and brimstone speeches. (Darcy 1985, cited in White 1993, 138)

27It was also unacceptable for women to demonstrate any emotionality, as this would be interpreted as weakness:

It is not easy to be told by a higher up male trade union official, as I was quite a few years ago, that when I cried a little in a very emotional strike meeting which I was chairing, when we were voting to go back to work under wage controls, that I was not displaying ‘leadership qualities’ and also to be told that ‘you have to be tough to be a union leader you know.’ (Darcy 1985, cited in White 1993, 138)

28Even those executive members who agreed with our politics and strategies sometimes failed to support us when caucus concerns were being debated. During informal discussions, these members admitted to feeling very stressed and ultimately silenced by the ever present adversarial “male model” group dynamic. We would spend time debriefing after every executive meeting, consulting with caucus members as to how best to address caucus concerns within the union, and supporting other executive members who were being marginalized.

29The manner in which parliamentary procedures were applied constituted a fourth method of silencing us. We arrived as executive members with a working knowledge of this process, unaware of the ways in which rules of order and other formal rules of process could be used (and improperly invoked) to silence members. When we spoke, we were constantly interrupted and/or ignored. Issues raised by the women’s caucus were placed at the bottom of the agenda, so that the executive could attend to the “real” business of the union first. Given the fact that our input was often unwelcome, on a number of occasions (usually at the end of a five hour meeting), we were resolved to decline to give a report from the women’s caucus, and instead conduct our work and strategize for change within the women’s caucus.

30Caucus decision-making operated within a “consensus model,” where formal parliamentary rules of order were abandoned in favour of a more accessible, open style of communication. As consensus had to be reached in order to act on initiatives brought to the caucus, concerted efforts were made by caucus members to invite the viewpoints of all women present. While at times a difficult process, by using this method, the women’s caucus was able to provide a space where women could voice their concerns.

31Jacquie Buncel (1990) discusses the need for feminist activists both to organize separately (in women only spaces) and to work within mainstream institutional structures when organizing for change. She refers to these strategies as “disengaging” and “mainstreaming.” Drawing on the work of Adamson, Briskin, and McPhail (1988), Buncel articulates the problems associated with choosing one strategy over the other:

If feminists operate solely out of a mainstreaming politics, they can become submerged within the existing social institutions and thereby lose their critical analysis of the status quo... feminists who rely solely on a disengagement strategy run the risk of becoming marginalized. If feminists separate themselves completely from social institutions, they become removed from the lives of the majority of women and are unable to count on their support in creating a mass movement for social change. (Buncel 1990, 8-9)

32In the following discussion, we share the strategies and methods of resistance the women’s caucus employed as part of the process of feminizing within the union. As these examples reveal, it was necessary for the caucus to employ both strategies of disengaging and main-streaming in order to effect change. By detailing these activities, we provide a framework and context to the process of feminist organizing for change.

Strategies for Inclusion/Methods of Resistance

33In an effort to address the concerns of marginalized groups, members of the women’s caucus focused their energies in three main areas:

  1. recruiting new members and ensuring caucus membership and gender parity on the executive and all union committees (internal and external);
  2. networking with the broader activist community within the union (including other locals and the national), the university, and allied groups outside of the university; and
  3. proposing changes to the collective agreement.

Recruitment/Committee Membership

34Women’s caucus members encouraged women within our local to become actively involved within the caucus. This included sign-up sheets during fall registration for graduate studies, mailing information packages to all women union members of our local, encouraging union stewards to solicit members in their departments, recruiting members at general membership meetings, establishing phone trees to contact new members and maintain links with existing members, and ensuring that the caucus was a vital and visible part of any public outreach or media event in which the union was involved. As a result, women’s caucus membership tripled to over 200 members in two years. It is important to emphasize that the wisdom and efforts of past chairs and caucus members provided a strong, viable, feminist collective with a core group of seasoned activists. Without this firm foundation, it would have been virtually impossible for the caucus to realize this success.

35Regarding committee membership, all union committees had women’s caucus representatives who would keep the caucus informed of any important union business. Almost all of the work performed by members of the caucus was performed on a volunteer basis. Some of this work included proposal writing for bargaining, membership on the bargaining team, the development of employment equity language, the disbursement of funds to members in need, and various other activities, including raising awareness of caucus goals and initiatives within the broader university community.

36Being active on these committees gave many women’s caucus members the experience, skills, and courage they needed to vie for an executive position. Union activism can, very often, have the effect of raising consciousness and empowering women to meet their potential as leaders and change makers within their union (Baker 1993; Buncel 1990). We lobbied women within our local to run for positions on the executive, and supported pro-feminist male candidates. Women’s participation in leadership positions within their union (and the labour movement as a whole) is essential if unions are to successfully address the concerns of women workers (Cuneo 1993).


37Networking is a crucial element of union activism. Through attendance at national women’s committee meetings, national educational forums, and national conventions, we met regularly with women from sister locals to discuss common concerns. As the only local (out of twelve locals) with a budget and executive voting rights for a women’s caucus, we shared information regarding our caucus structure and history in an effort to support those women who wanted to establish feminist collectives formally within their union locals.

38We also maintained ties with national women’s organizations and other political organizations (international student collectives, women’s collectives, graduate and undergraduate student networks, progressive left organizations, and lobby groups) outside the union. The women’s caucus sent two delegates to the National Action Committee on the Status of Women Conference every year. Caucus proposals for the conference focused on women and education, and, most importantly, the need to support access to higher education for women from marginalized groups. We lobbied for changes within the NAC executive board, focusing on the need for the Board to be more diverse in its membership.

39Through these networking strategies, the women’s caucus was able to gain support for our union local during both the process of negotiations and at other times when the caucus was organizing for change both inside and outside of the union (for example, during lobbying efforts to change discriminatory provincial legislation, when supporting other workers during a strike, and so forth).

Changes to the Collective Agreement

40The main focus of union activity and the place where union practice becomes formally entrenched in policy and organizational structures is through the collective bargaining process:

The attainment of the goals of a group of workers... depends on their political influence with the union. Because of the low participation of women in the negotiating process it is not surprising that, in many workplaces, women’s issues are still the first to be dropped at the bargaining table. (Kumar 1993, 209)

41The women’s caucus has been instrumental in prioritizing issues for bargaining and ensuring that the concerns of marginalized groups be represented within the collective agreement. Past chairs and caucus members successfully lobbied and bargained for part-time daycare on campus, sex and gender harassment language, maternity leave provisions, and language on race and ethnic relations.

42During our time as co-chairs, the women’s caucus was actively involved in prioritizing health and safety issues for bargaining. The attack of a woman maintenance worker at knife point in a secluded basement area of the university politicized the issue of safety and security for women on campus. She managed to pull the fire alarm (and probably saved her own life) as that was her only means of emergency contact. A caucus member was commissioned by the executive to devise, distribute, and compile the results of a survey concerning the health and safety of our union members. This led to the formulation of proposals for bargaining, and ultimately to changes in the collective agreement; for example, the provision of telephones in secluded basement offices and near laboratories.

43Accessibility for persons with disabilities was also raised in the health and safety survey and resulted in changes to the collective agreement. We gained language in the collective agreement providing physically disabled members with the option of classroom re-assignment in the instance that the classroom was far removed from their office and/or difficult to get to. Also, a fund for the distribution of assistive devices which support teachers in their work (e.g., scooters, adaptive computer screens, and other resources) was proposed by the women’s caucus and successfully bargained.

44In our networking with the African Students’ Association, we were sensitized to the plight of international graduate students, many of whom were union members. By legislation, they were restricted to employment within the university. The overwhelming majority of those who were able to obtain employment wound up working for low wages as domestic labourers cleaning toilets and student residences during the summer months. The women’s caucus proposed that priority be given to visa students in the allocation of summer teaching assistantships, teaching positions which were rarely given to visa students. The bargaining team was successful in gaining language on this issue in the collective agreement.

45Through the work of the women’s caucus in proposal development for bargaining and the participation of women’s caucus members on the bargaining team, the caucus was successful in its efforts to organize for change within the institutional structures of the union, and thereby create a safer, more equitable work environment for union members. However, the process of bringing bargaining issues to the general membership and broader university community for consideration and support and working through these issues at the executive level was difficult within the negotiations process. The following account examines our struggle as a union executive to produce and disseminate information on key bargaining issues that included the experiences of marginalized groups within our union.

The Poster

46At an executive meeting (during contract negotiations), a finished proof of a poster was revealed to executive members. This poster was intended to bring the local (and allied groups) together in support of the bargaining process in preparation for the possibility of a strike. Neither of us recalls being consulted about the nature or content of the poster, and we were quite concerned that, having been commissioned and completed, it was ready for printing. In order to appreciate our response to the poster fully, it is necessary to describe its visual presentation.

47Starla recalls the poster vividly. The background pictorial was of a jagged cliff overhanging a river which contained large sharp rocks jutting upward. On the top of the cliff stood three white pot-bellied men, wearing suits and carrying briefcases (marked “administration”). The man near the edge of the cliff had his foot raised in a kicking position. Hanging off the side of the cliff, holding on to a breaking tree branch with one arm, was a caricature of a Black person (kinky short hair, large lips, bare feet, a ripped shirt, and ragged pants) with a footprint on the persons buttocks and the words “teaching assistant” printed on the person’s back. Hanging off the ankle of this person was a white woman with “student” printed on her back. At the bottom of the cliff floating in the river was a slogan referring to better access to education.

48Upon seeing the poster, we immediately called “caucus” in order to discuss it privately. Our first reaction to the poster was that it appeared to be depicting the lynching of a Black man. (We were surprised to find out later that the figure was intended to be a Black woman). We objected to the fact that the poster relied on stereotypical notions of Black people, both in terms of the physical appearance of this person and her social location as that of victim. Our key concern was how the poster could be interpreted by union members and other groups within the university community. As women’s caucus co-chairs, we had an obligation to members of our community that our union local address issues of race and racism in a sensitive manner. We fully recognized that the poster was intended to portray diversity. However, intentionality is of little significance in the final analysis if the effect of distributing the poster is the creation of racist antagonisms within the university community. As articulated by George Sefa Dei, “racist practices do not require intentionality... such practices are deemed racist in terms of their effects.” (1995, 13, own emphasis)

49We made a decision to argue against the distribution of this poster. We informed executive members that, by endorsing this poster, we risked losing the support and trust of allied groups on campus; this could negatively affect our bargaining efforts and our reputation. Given the high level of racist tension and conflict within our community — the recent media coverage of the beating of Rodney King, rioting within the Toronto downtown core, and the intrusion of the white supremacist group, Heritage Front, on campus — our union local could have inadvertently contributed to an already volatile situation by using the poster.

50In addition to the issues of race and racism, we were very concerned about the possible ramifications for our local of distributing a poster which was overtly violent and portrayed our relationship with the administration of the university as inherently adversarial. The poster relied on traditional, male, trade-unionist notions of worker struggle — the “fat cat” capitalist stereotype of management beating down the suffering, struggling worker. We argued that it was time to be more creative and think of different (less violent) visual ways to depict our struggle as workers, ways more representative of who we are as a collective of university educators. Our critical insights were not well received by other executive members.

51Starla was immediately verbally attacked by those defending the merits of the poster. She was forced to remind executive members of the systemic nature of racism within Canada (historically and currently) and our need to consider cautiously how this poster might be interpreted. If both of us were offended by the poster, perhaps other people would also be offended. Nonetheless, many executive members failed to see how the poster could (even remotely) be considered racist by any person or group. Several executive members denied the possibility that racism existed within our union. The motion to continue with the poster was only defeated when we insisted that the names be recorded in the minutes as to how each executive member voted. We were not going to be associated with this poster should the executive decide to distribute it.

52Given our concerns with the poster, several executive members insisted that we address the “problem” directly by suggesting ideas for another poster. Marianne suggested a quilt motif to represent diversity and solidarity, rather than realistic visuals of people which typically rely on stereotypes. Several male executive members commented that we needed a “hard hitting” poster; the quilt idea was too feminine. We ended the discussion at this point and agreed that the caucus would become involved in developing a new poster.

53The caucus developed several posters depicting various bargaining issues: employment equity; wage increases; safety and security on campus; access to education; and tuition increases. The quilt motif was used to represent employment equity and access to education. The posters were so well received that the national head office of the union used them to represent these issues on a union-wide basis.

54By confronting the issue of racism and working within the caucus to find a solution, we (as a caucus) were not only successful in addressing the immediate need of publicizing and seeking support for bargaining issues; we were also successful in confirming “the power of solidarity and sisterhood” (Hooks 1994, 108).

Final Word

55The women’s caucus forum provided a space for women part-time educational workers to voice their concerns and participate in the decision-making processes of their union. Through the implementation of various strategies and methods of resistance, we as a caucus made a conscious effort to avoid the adoption of mainstream models for organizing, models that often reproduce and maintain existing relations of oppression. We were a feminist collective that focused on addressing the intersections of multiple sites of marginalization — race, gender, class, and disability.

56As co-chairs with voting rights on the executive, we effectively brought issues of concern raised by marginalized groups within our union to the executive and general membership for consideration; through these efforts, we were successful in opening dialogue on sensitive issues of systemic discrimination. Our success in feminizing union policies and practices and providing a more equitable workplace for union members was won through the persistence and hard work of activists from within the union and larger university community. This network provided the support base the women’s caucus needed to meet the challenge of effecting positive change for marginalized groups within the union.

57Marianne is currently active within part-time faculty collectives in Nova Scotia; she is conducting research examining the career patterns of part-time university faculty, focusing on gender differences in the context of economic restructuring within the university.

58Starla continues her activist work on race and gender within the broader Toronto community. She is also conducting research examining the rapidly decreasing availability of land for subsistence farming in West Africa and the effects of this change on women farmers and their families.



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1 Many thanks to those past chairs and members of the women’s caucus who provided us with information and valuable insights during the course of writing this paper. We thank the reviewers for their insightful suggestions which were instrumental in making the paper a much better organized piece. We thank Karen Blackford for encouraging us to share our story. Marianne would like to thank the faculty and staff in the Department of Social Science and Practice at the University College of Cape Breton (especially Dr. Constance deRoche and Ms. Carolanne Sheppard) for their valuable insights and encouragement during the writing of the first draft of this paper.

2 The dedication and hard work of many feminist activists at various points in time made the caucus what it is-a separate sphere within which women can voice their concerns and work toward change. When we talk about the caucus, we are including all of these women. However, we want to make it clear that the analyses and views we espouse in this paper are our own, and do not necessarily reflect the views of all the women involved with the caucus over the years.

3 The job descriptions of teaching assistants vary greatly among universities. It is important to emphasize that as teaching assistants we were very involved in every aspect of the teaching process, from grading and exam construction to tutorial instruction and lecturing. Many professors consider teaching assistants to be part of a “teaching team,” as the work provided by teaching assistants is heavily relied upon, especially by instructors in large classes.

4 Universities vary in their categorization of full-time and part-time faculty. In our discussion, we lump together tenure-track and tenured faculty as full-time workers/faculty, and non-tenure track, contractually limited appointments as part-time workers/faculty. Rajagopal and Farr (1992) discuss the difficulty in the categorization of part-time faculty in Canada, emphasizing that the lack of data on part-time faculty makes it very difficult to define them (as a group): “The variety is astounding, and astoundingly imprecise.” (Rajagopal and Farr, 1992: 321) It is beyond the scope of this paper to delve into this discussion in any detail; therefore, we have chosen to define part-time faculty in the most simplistic and straightforward way — non-tenure track, contractually limited teaching appointments.

5 We were the only local (out of twelve locals) with a budget and executive voting rights for a women’s caucus. The position of chair of the women’s caucus is selected by women members of the local at a caucus meeting.


Part-time Faculty Member, Sociology and Criminology, St. Mary’s University; Doctoral Candidate, Graduate Program in Sociology, York University

Research Coordinator, Princess Margaret Hospital Lodge; Doctoral Candidate, Graduate Program in Sociology, York University

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