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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

Feminisms, Feminization, and Democratization in Canadian Unions

Linda Briskin

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  • 1 This article draws freely on other articles I have written on women and unions. See especially Bri (...)

1In a 1981 assessment of the situation of women in Canadian unions, Charlotte Gray concluded that the main achievement of the previous five years of union activity was a shift in attitudes.1 In 1996, extensive evidence suggested that the organizing of union women has had a dramatic impact on the structures, policies, practices, and climate of the union movement — a transformation that goes well beyond the elusive change in attitudes. The 1994 Policy Statement “Confronting the Mean Society” (Canadian Labour Congress [CLC]) underscores the significance of these changes:

Equality seeking groups have strengthened our movement, bringing new ideas and perspectives into the practice of unionism. The diversity that is now present in our unions has not divided the labour movement: on the contrary, it has energized us and brought many more committed people into our activist cadre. (#8)

2Notwithstanding, women unionists continue to face significant barriers to participation. In fact, most of the literature on women and unions has focused on these barriers (for example, Braithwaite and Byrne 1995; Cuneo 1993; CLC 1990; Chaison and Andiappan 1989.) This article, however, concentrates on successes. It documents and evaluates strategies of union women in four key areas: representation, leadership, separate organizing and redefinition of union issues. The conclusion reflects on some general issues about feminisms, feminization, and democratization that emerge from this discussion of union women’s organizing. In a time when so many equity gains are under attack from economic and state restructuring as well as right-wing ideologies, the victories of union women provide some strategic optimism and act as important reminders of the possibilities for exercising agency.


  • 2 In 1982, the OFL Women’s Committee drafted a discussion paper on affirmative action, entitled “Our (...)

3Not surprisingly, concerns about representation, which have been central to women’s organizing in all institutional contexts, have been a major focus in Canadian unions. For over ten years, many key Canadian unions and federations have had affirmative action policies that designate or add seats on leadership bodies for women in attempts to address their underrepresentation in top elected positions. In 1983, the Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL) broke new ground in Canada by amending its constitution to create five “affirmative action” positions on its executive board. The leadership role played by the Women’s Committee of the OFL was crucial to winning this first affirmative action policy. The Committee organized a grassroots campaign and promoted an analysis linking employment equity in the workplace with affirmative action in the unions.2

4As a result of this successful initiative, women unionists across the country promoted affirmative action seats. In 1984, the CLC adopted a constitutional change calling for a minimum of six female vice-presidents. Subsequently, many large labour federations and unions across the country did the same. Undoubtedly, affirmative action strategies have increased women’s participation in top leadership positions in unions:

  • 3 White (1993: 99) reports that women constituted 18% of executive seats in 1980 and 9% in 1970.

Of the ninety-five executive seats held by women in these organizations, fully thirty-nine of them (41 percent) are affirmative action positions. Without them, the representation of women on these labour central executives would fall from 28 to 18 percent. (White 1993, 105)3

5These high profile positions give visibility to women in leadership positions, challenge stereotypes, and provide role models. Since some of these women are committed to addressing the specific concerns of women as workers and unionists, the visibility of these issues has also increased. Penni Richmond from the CLC Women’s and Human Rights Department reports that the presence of “outsiders” on the CLC Executive has

  • 4 Telephone Interview, 12 Oct 1994.

changed the issues raised, changed who gets to hear what we talk about, and changed rank and file perception of who has power; in fact, it has put the discussion of power itself on the agenda.4

  • 5 Correspondence, Joanne Labine, PSAC, 1995.

6Increased awareness of issues of representation and power has had spin-off effects in other areas: employment equity for union staff; affirmative action seats for visible minorities and gays and lesbians; equity representation in education courses; and improvements in gender distribution in local leadership. Since affirmative action policies have often benefited white, able-bodied, heterosexual women to the exclusion of others, it is encouraging that, in at least some areas, the representation of minority women and members of other equity-seeking groups is on the agenda. Some examples include the following. In the OFL, by 1989, “women filled 4 of the 9 program staff positions (1 a visible minority), and 7 of the 11 field staff positions (1 a visible minority)” (Cuneo 1993, 128). In 1992, the CLC added 2 seats for visible minorities to its Executive Board; around the same time, the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) added equity seats to its Human Rights Committee for racial minorities, aboriginals, people with disabilities, and lesbians and gays (Hunt 1996, 21). In February of 1995, PSAC signed an employment equity plan with its staff unions to target recruitment and selection of equity group members (designated in employment equity legislation: women, people with disabilities, aboriginal peoples, visible minorities). The Alliance also ensures equity representation in its education courses.5 Since union education is one of the stepping stones to union leadership, increasing inclusivity in union education may improve representation in the future.

  • 6 For example, a 1989 QFL found that “at the local level women had reached or exceeded proportional (...)

7Although women have always been better represented at the local level,6 concern with representation has been trickling down through the union movement, and the leaderships of some male-dominated unions are proactively encouraging the participation of women and other underrepresented groups on local executives. For example, in 1991, Leo Gerard, then Director of District 6, the Ontario Region of the United Steelworkers of America (USWA), encouraged local presidents to keep in mind that

the makeup of our Local Union Executives should reflect the membership of the local as well as the community in which the local exists. I, therefore, ask that... you consider encouraging women, people of colour, the disabled, etc., to run for executive positions.

8Increasing the numbers of women in leadership positions is important, and affirmative action positions do represent a significant turning point for union women; nonetheless, some cautionary notes are worth sounding. Women who fill designated affirmative action positions, often chosen or elected through a special process, can face considerable resistance. Their credibility may be challenged and their ability to fill their mandates hampered by their association with affirmative action. They may encounter systematic exclusion from information networks and from formal and informal decision making processes. They may also experience ghettoization to narrowly-defined “women’s issues” and become the object of feminist, lesbian, and red-baiting (Briskin 1990).

9To some union activists, the focus on affirmative action seats sidelined more substantive demands for equality: “Many female activists saw affirmative action for exactly what it was, an admission of defeat in their bid for equal treatment within the labour movement” (Bail 1985, 9).

  • 7 Telephone interview, 12 Oct 1994.

10Penni Richmond (CLC) concurred with the substance of Bail’s assessment: “The measures were not designed to actually change the arrangement of power.”7 Moreover, a few high profile women leaders can make it appear, mistakenly, that great strides toward “women’s liberation” have been made. This misconception can weaken the drive to more proactive and substantive solutions to women’s marginality in unions. It is certainly easier to appoint/elect a few women as vice-presidents than to challenge the deeply rooted male domination of union structures, strategies, and ideologies.

11A narrow focus on changing the gender profile of leadership does not recognize the limits of a strategy of numerical representation based on biological sex. There is no guarantee that a woman, by virtue of her sex, will have progressive political views on women’s issues. This reality has raised the question of whether representational strategies should be linked to a feminist perspective rather than a biological fact.

12To some researchers and union activists, the focus on top leadership makes more invisible local and informal leadership by women, thereby exacerbating women’s low status in unions and reproducing traditional patterns of organization and male domination. This is explored in the next section, which examines some structural (rather than representational) strategies that women have used to transform the institutional reality of unions.

13When we consider the broad picture, we find that, despite some gains in numerical representation, despite a growing consciousness that women are prepared and competent to take on leadership positions, and despite the development of creative strategies to encourage this participation, women continue to be seriously underrepresented. This suggests that leadership patterns reflect deeply embedded patterns of structural discrimination and that increasing women’s profile in leadership will require complex and multifaceted strategies that go well beyond a focus on numbers.

Leadership, Process, and Participation

  • 8 This discussion is excerpted from Briskin, 1990 which deals exclusively with women, unions, and le (...)

14Out of women’s organizing in unions, and in response to male-dominated and hierarchical union practices, a new approach to leadership and alternative ways of working can be identified which emphasize process, accountability, and constituency building: participation rather than representation.8 This politic supports the decentralization of power traditionally associated with leadership positions and provides “members opportunities to develop their own power and the self-reliance required to effect democratic changes in the union” (Edelson 1987, 6). In practice, this often means that women leaders encourage leadership development among women (Needleman 1988). For example, one of the major tasks of equal opportunity officers in many Canadian unions is to support and encourage the self-organization of rank-and-file women so that they can “speak” for themselves.

15This view of leadership is reflected in the practices of female union staff. Based on their extensive experiences as union staff, Jane Stinson and Penni Richmond (1993) contrast the work styles of male and female representatives. In the dominant male model, the staff act as authority figures, experts, and “white knights” who charge in to rescue weak locals. In contrast, women staff tend to promote a participatory approach whose aim is to develop the confidence and skills of members. These ways of working draw on “expertise,” but also recognize that experience and everyday knowledge are forms of that expertise.

16This politic of leadership moves toward greater democracy and accountability, emphasizing a strong and active link between leadership and constituency. For example, in response to what was seen as a top-down and male-dominated mechanism for selecting women to fill affirmative action positions in the CLC, women in the Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL) won the right for the women’s caucus to elect the women who would stand for these positions (Cuneo 1993). These new practices also provide a foundation for re-valuing “women’s ways” of working and the local work and informal leadership of women. Traditionally, women have been better represented in local leadership positions and have often wanted to work at the local level. The tendency to undervalue local work and see it primarily as a stepping stone to higher positions (see, for example, Elkiss 1994; Melcher et al. 1992) reinforces the individualism of personal success stories and the hierarchical practices associated with male-dominated and bureaucratic unions. The focus on affirmative action for top leadership positions, along with the focus on expertise in staff positions, makes less visible the leadership contributions of elected women at the local level, the commitment of local women activists to union transformation, and the informal leadership provided by rank-and-file women.

17Research suggests that women often play a critical role in informal leadership positions. In his study of women activists in Canadian unions, Carl Cuneo (1993) disaggregates leadership and formal elected positions, thereby making informal rank-and-file leadership activities visible. He concludes that “activist rank-and-file leaders...are women; they are more likely than men to be unpaid for what they do, and engage in temporary, voluntary activities” (118). This politic of leadership also emphasizes process, sharing work collectively, and consensus decision making. For example, Ann Marie Wierzbicki (Canada Employment and Immigration Union [CEIU-PSAC]) recalls sharing the duties of strike captain: “Officially there was just one strike captain, but unofficially we shared the responsibilities” (Little 1989, 12). In another example, Local 7 of the Canadian Union of Educational Workers [CUEW: now part of CUPE] experimented with rotating the position of chief negotiator:

  • 9 In May 1988, CUEW formalized this collective process at the national leadership level in a structu (...)

This gave everyone a chance to face management head on. I would never have run for the position of chief negotiator but when it was shared I became familiar with important adversarial skills which then encouraged me to run for chief steward. (Jacquie Buncel quoted in Little 1989, 13)9

  • 10 Telephone interview, 6 June 1995.

18In 1995, PSAC instituted an innovative employment equity plan for union staff. On every staffing action longer than three months, a joint decision is made about whether the position will be posted as a preferential hiring. Joanne Ursino, the Employment Equity Officer, characterized the process of developing the plan as a “model of consensus decision-making” through joint committee work.10

19Many of these innovations around decision making and leadership practices are informed by the organizing strategies of the grassroots women’s movement. In that context, what is often referred to as “feminist process” has been the source of strength but also of problems (Ristock 1991; Briskin 1990; Adamson, Briskin and McPhail 1988). In the women’s movement, feminist process is often situated in a non-institutional setting where the focus on political goals is difficult to sustain, and the desire and potential to create a haven from the “world out there” is stronger.

20The daily reality of the workplace and the union seem to minimize some of the problems. The unions provide an institutional structure and a resource base; that is, the workplace as a common reference point. The informal and formal skills encouraged through feminist process are directly and immediately applicable to work and union situations.

21Notwithstanding, when assumptions about process do not take account of the diversity of cultural and class experiences, women’s committees and “women’s” ways of working can be made less accessible to women who are not white or middle-class. For example, what constitutes a safe environment for some women may be experienced as dangerous by others; interpersonal practices which emphasize sharing experiences may be more comfortable in some cultural contexts than in others. Further, the time commitment necessary to make “process” work can easily exclude women who work full-time, face a double (triple) day, are single parents, and so forth.

Separate Organizing

22Separate organizing takes a variety of forms within the union movement: informal women’s networks or caucuses; formal, sometimes elected, provincial or national women’s committees; women only educational conferences; women’s locals of mixed unions or women’s auxiliaries; and women only unions such as the Federation of Women Teachers Associations of Ontario (FWTAO). Separate organizing is increasingly supported by union resources and facilitated by equal opportunity coordinators, newsletters, and women’s bureaus. In examining “separate organizing,” it is useful to distinguish between separatism as a goal — an end in itself, and separate organizing as a strategy — a means to an end (Briskin 1993a, 91). It is also important to recognize that separate organizing is not segregation, either imposed or chosen, but rather a strategic response to differences in power.

  • 11 In Women and Decision Making in Trade Unions, an extensive study done for the European Trade Union (...)

23Such structures, especially women’s caucuses and committees, were generated by women unionists, originally on the margins of traditional union organization (Field 1983; Little 1989). By highlighting the specificity of women’s concerns as workers and unionists, these committees mobilized women in large numbers. They have provided a supportive context from which women can do union work, and modeled alternative and often more inclusive ways of working. Evidence suggests their efficacy in promoting women leaders and women’s rights (Trebilcock, 1991). For example, Barbara Nichols-Heppner (1984) concludes that, in public sector unions in Quebec, establishing women’s committees was a more effective strategy than seeking greater electoral representation, and that such committees “evoke more organizational responsiveness from unions” and are “the strongest determinant of the negotiation of collective agreement provisions favourable to women unionists” (294).11

24More than 20 years of women’s committees and caucuses in the unions have not led to a decline in such organizing among women. Evidence also suggests a growing acceptance and legitimation of separate organizing — at least in the public discourse of unions — and increasing institutionalization and formalization of structures to facilitate it: constitutional clauses to incorporate women’s committees (for example, the constitution of the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) mandates women’s committees at all levels of the union); policy statements to address women’s concerns, allocation of staff and financial resources, etc. (Boehm 1991). Peggy Nash, a CLC Vice-President and a staff member with Canadian Auto Workers (CAW), a male-dominated union mostly organizing industrial workplaces where “women have to get along with the guys to do anything,” commented:

  • 12 Interview, 9 Sept 1994.

It used to be the kiss of death to be involved in the women’s committees in terms of other involvement in the union. Most women activists don’t feel this way now. There is a growing sense that ‘sisterhood’ in the union is a good thing, that organizing separately is a good thing, and that fighting to include women of colour, and lesbians strengthens the women’s movement inside the union.12

25Women’s separate organizing in the unions has provided a strategic foundation for responding to issues around race and racism as well as sexual orientation and homophobia. First, it has provided a venue where issues of concern to minority workers were first raised and continue to be raised:

Issues of race or disability or gay/lesbianism were often first raised within women’s committees or women’s conferences because these forums were more accepting of the problems and more prepared to deal with them. One exception is the women’s committee of the Quebec Federation of Labour, which opposes the introduction or handling of these issues in the women’s committee, and does not agree with the position taken by many women’s committees in English Canada. (White 1993, 232)

26Notwithstanding, the efforts by women of colour to raise issues of racism inside women’s committees and inside unions have not always been welcomed (Leah 1989 and 1993). Evidence suggests, however, some union responsiveness to the pressure of women of colour. Changes in union educational programs, new policy statements, and the commitment of resources indicate the development of a discourse of race privilege among white women, a growing sensitivity to the needs of minority groups of women in Canada, and the facilitation of dialogue about these issues.

  • 13 At the same time, Penni Richmond of the CLC Women’s Bureau notes that the self-organization of the (...)

27Second, women’s separate organizing has provided an important precedent; increasingly, women and men of colour, lesbians and gay men, and Native peoples are organizing “separately” inside the union movement, often through Human Rights Committees, Pink Triangle Committees, and Aboriginal Circles. Separate organizing also provides the basis for different constituencies to come together from positions of strength; for example, consider the links established between health and safety committees and women’s committees (Messing and Mergler 1993), and the convergence of human rights and women’s issues (Leah 1993).13

28Women’s separate organizing challenges not only men’s power but also the organizational practices of unions. Historically, unions have been male dominated. Yet, perhaps more significant than the numerical domination of men has been the domination of an organizational model based on bureaucratic, hierarchical, overly competitive, and often undemocratic practices. Men’s power, privilege, and leadership, then, combine with traditional organizational forms to exclude and disadvantage women. It may or may not be useful to label these organizational approaches as “masculine,” but they do often co-exist with numerical domination by men and exclusionary practices such as sexual harassment. Since women’s separate organizing simultaneously contests the gender relations of power and organizational structures and practices, it is experienced by men as a serious challenge.

  • 14 See Briskin, 1993a in which I compare the conditions of separate organizing in SORWUC and FWTAO.

29Since separate organizing is about gender and about organization, organizing “separately” is not itself enough to guarantee success; the location of the separate organizing in the structural web of the institution is critical. The success of women’s separate organizing in unions depends upon maintaining a balance between the degree of autonomy from the structures and practices of the labour movement, on the one hand, and the degree of integration into those structures, on the other. Too little integration and the separate organizing is marginalized; too much integration and the radical edge is necessarily softened. Relatively successful integration produces the level of legitimacy necessary to ensure access to adequate resources. Sufficient autonomy provides the foundation for a strong voice about women’s concerns and the context for building alliances between union women and the community-based women’s movement.14

  • 15 See, for example, the 1992 and 1994 Reports of the Women’s Rights Committee to the Convention of t (...)

30Despite the incontrovertible evidence of the success of separate organizing and the significance of “women’s” ways of working to a revisioned union movement, ambivalence continues.15 First, there is a serious concern, supported by extensive feminist research, that focusing on “women” as a group can make invisible the diversity among women based on class, race, sexual orientation, and ability, and thus privilege the experiences and needs of white middle-class women.

31The second concern relates to the biological essentialism that can emerge in discussions of “women’s” ways of working and separate organizing. Biological essentialism is

that set of assertions... designed to demonstrate that there is a ‘female nature’... It assumes a psychology and emotional temper peculiar to women... a set of preoccupations [and, I might add, occupations] appropriate, by nature. (Kramarae and Treichler 1985, 142)

32Talking about “women’s” ways of working, then, can reproduce common stereotypes about women: they are more nurturing, relational, and emotional, by nature. Recognizing the realities of gender-specific experience and discrimination, however, need not invoke biological essentialism.

33A non-essentialist approach begins from the position that women’s experiences are socially constituted. It recognizes that women enter unions differently from men because of their workplace locations and their household/family responsibilities; that women’s work bridges the public and the private, and that each has an impact on the other; and that the pervasive violence women experience in both public and private spaces influences workplace and family experience as well as women’s political strategies. It is not surprising, then — and it need have nothing to do with biological natures — that women identify different issues as salient, and organize and resist in distinct ways.

  • 16 From an interview with Jean Rands, a founding member of SORWUC conducted on 7 May 1991. See also C (...)

34The experience of the Service, Office, and Retail Workers Union of Canada (SORWUC) provides an excellent example. SORWUC was an explicitly feminist union which, in the 1970s, took on the enormous task of organizing bank workers in Canada (Bank Book Collective 1979; Lennon 1980; Warskett 1988; Baker 1991). It focused on the banks as a sector of women’s low-wage work that had been virtually ignored by the trade union movement. SORWUC felt that women had to organize women because women had respect for the work of women; because women organized differently with more participatory decision making strategies and with a recognition of the limits placed on women workers by the double day; and because women focused on different issues such as pay equity, childcare, and sexual harassment. SORWUC was able to organize many bank branches where others had failed.16 Their success was related to the recognition of gender-specific concerns and methods of organizing, such recognition highlighting the structural and ideological discrimination of women.

35No doubt, there is a danger that the practices of separate organizing and claims about “women’s” ways of working can be mobilized in support of a right wing agenda which uses biology as a justification to enforce women’s “special” responsibilities for children and caring and to exclude them from the public sphere. This means that discussions of gender specificity must not be framed by essentialist arguments, but by a recognition of the socially constructed nature of experience and of structural power imbalances.

Redefining Union Issues and the Collective Bargaining Agenda

36Over the last two decades, women unionists have successfully pressured unions to take up the issues of childcare, abortion, sexual harassment, pay equity, affirmative action, employment equity, and so forth. Around each of these issues, union men and union hierarchies have questioned the legitimacy of unions addressing such issues. With each victory (expressed in policy statements, expansion in the collective bargaining agenda, changes to political focus), the boundaries of what constitutes a legitimate union issue have shifted, the understanding of what is seen to be relevant to the workplace has altered, and the support for a more social and political analysis of the role of unions has increased.

  • 17 From a letter to all Local presidents, secretaries, women’s committees from Peggy Nash, Assistant (...)

37A dramatic case in point is the increasing union involvement, often with explicit and active support from top leadership, in the broad issues around violence against women. These campaigns go well beyond a focus on employer harassment or even co-worker harassment, and many have successfully integrated race issues. For example, the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) sponsored a women’s conference on the issue of violence against women in August 1991 and again in 1992, passed a resolution committing the CAW to the goal of creating “zero tolerance level of sexist treatment of women,” and did a mass distribution of posters and buttons with the slogan “Violence: Break the Silence.” To mark December 6, a national day of remembrance and action on the issue of violence in commemoration of those women who died in the Montreal massacre in 1989, the CAW urged its locals to conduct educationals, participate in local events around December 6, and support their local shelters and rape crisis centres through fundraising and volunteer work.17

38The transformation in the union agenda to address women’s concerns has set the stage for three other shifts: gendering union issues, recognizing diversity ramifications, and understanding the impact of family-workplace connections. Gendering issues has meant a subtle move from an identification of a women’s platform of concerns to a recognition of the gender implications in all issues. This is evident in recent discussions on free trade, on economic restructuring, on seniority, on health and safety, and on telework.

39The family-workplace nexus has been recognized in union support for childcare and in the provision of childcare at union meetings. The CAW, responsible for some of the most innovative gains in collective bargaining, has linked issues of family, workplace, and violence. In a recent contract with Chrysler, the following clause was negotiated:

The parties recognize that women sometimes face situations of violence or abuse in their personal life that may affect their attendance or performance at work. The parties agree that when there is adequate verification from a recognized professional..., a woman who is in an abusive or violent personal situation will not be subjected to discipline without giving full consideration to the facts in the case...

40At the same time that the significance of gender is examined, issues are increasingly scrutinized for their impact on diverse groups of women. Education, policy development, and negotiations around harassment acknowledge the specific forms of harassment experienced by women of colour. Discussions of family benefits more often reject traditional definitions of “family” that exclude gay and lesbian couples:

Many of us assume that our collective agreements apply equally to all members. They do not. Our lesbian sisters, gay brothers, bi-sexuals in same sex spousal relationship and their families are denied access to the basic rights that heterosexual members take for granted. (PSAC Policy on Sexual Orientation, 1994)

41These shifts in the understanding of what constitutes a union issue, as well as the increase in gender visibility and specificity, have had impacts on the collective bargaining agenda. The most recent national assessment of the gains made by women through collective bargaining in Canada concludes that there is now

  • 18 Despite significant changes in the collective bargaining agenda, Kumar (1993, 224) concludes that (...)

widespread consensus within the Canadian labour movement that unions need to escalate their efforts towards labour market equality, safe and harassment-free work environments, and policies and practices to make it easier for women to balance more effectively their work and family life. (Kumar 1993, 207)18

Feminisms, Feminization, and Democracy

42This conclusion considers the contribution of feminisms and feminization to union democratization, which I would argue is a critical thrust of union women’s organizing. In a generic way, feminisms challenge gender-based inequity and, as such, can highlight the common problems women face. Given the complex diversity of class, race, ethnicity, ability, and sexual orientation operating in most union contexts, however, this trajectory toward gender commonality can be strategically mobilizing or fragmenting. Moreover, not one but a multiplicity of feminisms struggle for place within the union movement as elsewhere, bringing different approaches to prioritizing union issues, expanding women’s participation in leadership positions, developing new process mechanisms, and organizing with the community outside the labour movement. To this complexity, any study of feminisms in the unions must be sensitive.

43Not surprisingly, the self-identification as feminist and the labelling of organizing practices, strategies, or solutions as feminist remain quite contested inside unions:

  • 19 Executive Vice-President of the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC), in a speech to the 1991 Annual Gen (...)

When I first ran for a national position in the trade union movement... I said ‘I’m a trade unionist and a feminist and I think the words are synonymous.’ I was advised by a number of labour leaders not to say that — that I would be seen as only concerned about the women’s side of the trade union movement. What concerned me was that I had to say it at all — that I had to say that trade unionists and feminists were synonymous. Because I had assumed in my trade union life that it was... that the principles of feminism and the principles of trade unionism and social democracy were all the same. (Nancy Riche 1991)19

44Penni Richmond, from the CLC Women’s and Human Rights Department Bureau, has a similar view:

  • 20 Telephone interview, 20 Oct 1994.

It used to be that few women would identify themselves as feminists; now there is a very significant group but still there is an ambivalent relation to feminism and a discomfort labelling oneself a feminist. The problem is that when feminist women organize openly and militantly, other women sometimes feel they are being criticized and support men.20

  • 21 In a provocative preliminary study of women union activists in two unions in Britain, Colgan and L (...)

45Caution, then, is needed in labelling the practices of union women organizing as “feminist,” given that women militants in the unions might not understand their movement or their militancy in this way (see also Sugiman 1993 and Coulter 1993). This paper has prevaricated around such labelling in order to respect the struggles around feminism inside the union movement and to avoid a reification of feminist practices. For example, the discussion on ways of working begs the question of whether characterizing the new politic of leadership and process as “feminist” is appropriate. Although I have in the past so labelled it (1990), I am increasingly uncertain about the relevance, accuracy, or meaning of such naming, given a more fluid understanding of feminism and a move away from abstract criteria; a recognition of the multiplicity of feminisms that produce different leadership styles, practices, and politics; and the fact that women unionists themselves do not, by and large, use this language. Such labelling might limit rather than open a debate about the relationship of feminism to new organizational practices. At the same time, there is no doubt that the ideologies, strategies, and, indeed, the resistances outlined in this paper would be familiar to any feminist activist.21

46I suggest, then, that it is both more appropriate and accurate to study women’s organizing in unions rather than feminist organizing. Such an approach allows the relationship between women’s organizing and feminisms as ideologies, as strategies, as analyses, as organizing practices, as visionary alternatives, and as complex self-identifications and identities to be examined. Feminisms emerge, then, not as abstract criteria or boundary markers against which union women’s organizing is assessed, but as a fluid, contextually located set of meanings and practices. Feminism is a site of struggle, a moment of resistance, an organizing tool; it helps produce communities of interest and patterns of exclusion.

47Notwithstanding these concerns, it is noteworthy that Jane Stinson and Penni Richmond (1993), both long time union staffers, argue that the feminist project in unions is directly related to the future health of the labour movement, and that a feminist approach to unionism, based on more participatory and inclusive decision making, is needed for unions to grapple successfully with the challenges ahead. Additionally, a 1990 CLC discussion paper, Empowering Union Women, speaks directly to the issue of feminism: “We need to develop a more woman-centred union perspective, a feminist perspective; one which will become part of the dominant outlook of the trade union movement” (23).

  • 22 In an Australian study, Barbara Pocock (1989, 387) found that the feminization of the workplace wa (...)

48At the same time that I suggest caution in how we talk about feminisms in the unions, evidence suggests the increasing significance of gender in the complex web of work and unions. We see the feminization of labour (more part-time, low-paid service jobs), the feminization of the workforce (more women workers), the feminization of unions (with increasing numbers of women members) and, indeed, the feminization of militancy (with growing numbers of women activists) (Briskin and McDermott 1993b).22

49Distinguishing between feminisms and feminizing helps us to see the contribution of each to women’s calls for more democracy in the unions. Feminization, which transforms the gender profile in unions, precipitates calls for equitable representation of women. Feminist analyses which take account of gender-specific realities and challenge the organizational practices of unions and their culture inevitably push the discussion of democracy beyond representation.

50Moreover, feminisms provide the tools for a gender-specific analysis of democracy that takes account of multiple diversities. The challenge to make gender realities visible has undermined the notion of a generic worker with a homogeneous and self-evident set of interests and laid the basis for legitimating the multiplicity of experiences based on class, race, ethnicity, age, ability, and sexual orientation.

51Increasing women’s representation in elected leadership positions is not sufficient to engender democracy in the unions or elsewhere. In fact, the causal relationship may be the reverse. For representational strategies to be successful, they must be deeply embedded in larger processes of democratizing organizational practices and union culture. In a study of public-sector unions in Quebec, Barbara Nichols-Heppner (1984, 270) found that “an increase in the level of democracy practised in union internal government will foster greater election of women as presidents and officers of union locals.” Throughout women’s initiatives on representation, leadership practices, separate organizing, and redefining union issues are calls for a substantively different form of democracy — for structures of participation and inclusivity rather than simply representation. Furthermore, there is a strong connection between democratic, participatory processes within the labour movement, and the militancy needed to face employer intransigence. For example, in her analysis of the toots of militancy of the United Nurses of Alberta (UNA), Rebecca Coulter (1993) isolates the highly democratic and participatory collective bargaining process within the UNA as the catalyst for nurses’ militancy and a key element in explaining both the solidarity of the membership and their willingness to strike.

52What women unionists have learned is that democracy is not an abstraction, nor is it gender-neutral; that is, since women and men have unequal access to political and economic power and to union power, they do not experience democracy, or the lack thereof, in the same way. Gendering democracy, then, speaks not only to making the internal practices of unions more democratic and welcoming, but also to making them more accessible by taking account of childcare and domestic responsibilities. It means ensuring that the bargaining agenda reflects the needs of women workers and promoting organizational structures such as women’s committees that encourage the participation of women. Gendering democracy is inherently linked to rank-and-file empowerment.

53Not surprisingly, resistance to the organizing of women and other marginalized groups by both patriarchal and bureaucratic union interests continues. It is also not surprising that there is a convergence of demands by rank-and-file unionists for more democracy, and by union women struggling for more voice. Dierdre Gallagher, a long time feminist activist in the union movement currently on staff at the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC), makes this link:

There is still an unwillingness... and a real fear of sharing power with women. In some ways, it is a fear of democracy itself, because women’s push within the labour movement has represented a demand for a more democratic union. These people who fear democracy, fear women. (1987, 354)

54Some of the resistance to women’s organizing inside unions, then, is resistance to the implicit challenge to entrenched leaderships:

Women activists face two kinds of resistance in the union movement. One is resistance to us as women, a reflection of patriarchal norms and values implicit in part of every institution in capitalist society. We expect this kind of resistance. The other form of resistance is not a particular resistance to us as women. It is a resistance to our militancy: to our challenge to the leadership, to our demand that the union movement take up issues outside the narrow framework of business unionism and that it operate with more democratic and accountable structures. (Briskin 1983, 268)

55Gendering democracy is a way of actualizing the principles of equality, solidarity, justice, and fairness which are such a deeply ingrained part of union ideology, if not its practice. The struggle for new forms of democracy within the union movement is critical: it will be the key to gaining and maintaining women’s access to, and voice within, the labour movement; it will empower women to stand firm when confronting their employers; and it will help provide a vision for a new kind of unionism.



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1 This article draws freely on other articles I have written on women and unions. See especially Briskin 1997, 1994, 1993a, and 1990.

2 In 1982, the OFL Women’s Committee drafted a discussion paper on affirmative action, entitled “Our Fair Share.” The 1992 OFL Convention adopted a policy statement on affirmative action, “a clear mandate for the OFL to embark on a major campaign both for mandatory affirmative action legislation and the promotion of women within union ranks.” In 1983, the OFL sponsored an Ontario wide series of public forums on affirmative action ‘which raised awareness of the size of the problem of discrimination faced by women in the workforce.’ The forums resulted in over 170 submissions. At the 1983 OFL convention, the OFL amended its constitution to create five affirmative actions positions on its executive board. In 1984, the OFL published “Making up the Difference” which summarized the findings of the public hearings. The brief made over 40 recommendations to the government for legislative and other action to create some measure of equality for women. Summary and quotations from “Affirmative Action: How We got Started” #1 in a pamphlet series on Organizing for Affirmative Action, produced by the Women’s Committee of the Ontario Federation of Labour, nd. For more information, see Cuneo (1993).

3 White (1993: 99) reports that women constituted 18% of executive seats in 1980 and 9% in 1970.

4 Telephone Interview, 12 Oct 1994.

5 Correspondence, Joanne Labine, PSAC, 1995.

6 For example, a 1989 QFL found that “at the local level women had reached or exceeded proportional representation in executive positions; on average, women accounted for thirty percent or more of them. While recording secretary or secretary-treasurer were the most common positions for women on the local union executive, women were found as president or vice-president in over one-third of the local unions who responded” (CLC 1990, 10-11).

7 Telephone interview, 12 Oct 1994.

8 This discussion is excerpted from Briskin, 1990 which deals exclusively with women, unions, and leadership; it was based largely on a transcript of a workshop on Women, Unions, and Leadership held at the Workers and Communities Conference (York University, Ontario, 1989) which brought together about 60 women militants and leaders.

9 In May 1988, CUEW formalized this collective process at the national leadership level in a structure which called for two co-chairs (one of whom must be a woman) and rotation of responsibilities.

10 Telephone interview, 6 June 1995.

11 In Women and Decision Making in Trade Unions, an extensive study done for the European Trade Union Confederation [ETUC], Mary Braithwaite and Catherine Byrne (1995, 2-3) draw the following conclusions; “The great majority of national confederations have a women’s or equality committee, generally dealing with gender equality issues only and reporting to the executive committee. Most are open to women and men. Those confederations with markedly low levels of female representation within the confederation structures have no such committee, suggesting that women’s or equality committees are a necessary part of achieving better female representation... More than half of the 31 national confederations have a women’s or equality department, and there appears to be a correlation between the existence of such a department and higher levels of female representation in confederation structures and decision making positions. Those confederations with no women’s or equality department have low levels of representation of women in key decision making areas... Less than half of national confederations organize a women’s congress or conference, but again there appears to be a strong correlation between the existence of a regular women’s congress or conference and higher levels of female representation in decision making positions and structures.”

12 Interview, 9 Sept 1994.

13 At the same time, Penni Richmond of the CLC Women’s Bureau notes that the self-organization of these communities of interest is beginning to raise the question of “how these groups will work together, and heal some of the artificial split: since, for example, half of gays and lesbians are women, and some persons with disabilities are visible minorities, etc.” Telephone interview, 20 Oct 1994.

14 See Briskin, 1993a in which I compare the conditions of separate organizing in SORWUC and FWTAO.

15 See, for example, the 1992 and 1994 Reports of the Women’s Rights Committee to the Convention of the British Columbia Federation of Labour [BCFL].

16 From an interview with Jean Rands, a founding member of SORWUC conducted on 7 May 1991. See also Crain, 1994.

17 From a letter to all Local presidents, secretaries, women’s committees from Peggy Nash, Assistant to the President, CAW (30 October 1991).

18 Despite significant changes in the collective bargaining agenda, Kumar (1993, 224) concludes that the record of negotiated successes has been disappointing. For an analysis of this lack of success, see Briskin, 1996.

19 Executive Vice-President of the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC), in a speech to the 1991 Annual General Meeting of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women (NAC). Transcribed from the tape provided by NAC.

20 Telephone interview, 20 Oct 1994.

21 In a provocative preliminary study of women union activists in two unions in Britain, Colgan and Ledwith (1994, 18) find that, although only about 25% self-identified as feminists, “there appears to be a remarkable consensus among feminists and non-feminists about what is needed to be done for women in their unions. Regardless of self-perception, trade union women’s primary attitudes seemed to be in agreement with what can be labeled feminist principles and strategies.” What this suggests is that a feminist analysis can co-exist with a rejection of a feminist self-identification.

22 In an Australian study, Barbara Pocock (1989, 387) found that the feminization of the workplace was one of the predictors of activism among women unionists.


Ph. D., Associate Professor in the Social Science Division, York University

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