• authored by Members for Democracy
  • published Sun, Mar 3, 2002

For International Women's Day

Earlier this week the Canadian Labour Congress issued a media release awkwardly headlined "Work has to work for women". The media release announced a new initiative aimed at doubling the number of women union members in Canada over the next three years. The launch of the new initiative will take place on March 8th, International Women's Day in an Ottawa shopping mall.

"The Canadian Labour Congress wants to double the number of unionized women in Canada over the next three years. Nancy Riche, Secretary-Treasurer of the 2.5-million member labour organization will unveil the 1+1 campaign at noon on Friday in the Eaton Court in the Rideau Shopping Centre.

The 1+1 launch celebrates International Women's Day. March 8, 2002 is the day when women around the world "reach out to each other and make things Happen. Everybody is better off when they belong to a union. It just so happens that women benefit more because working women have more to gain," says Riche.

In 2000, a unionized woman who worked part-time earned $17.20 an hour, compared to $10.39 for women who were not union members. It is worth noting that 64% of all non-union part-time jobs fell into a low-wage bracket, compared to only 20% of unionized part-time jobs."

Is everybody better off belonging to a union? They ought to be. Union membership provides workers with leverage that they could not possibly have on their own. A major source of workers' power is their ability to act collectively to withhold their services and to do it legally. By joining unions workers acquire a range of legal rights that they would not otherwise have. They gain the ability to bargain as a group with their employer who is required to bargain with them. They have the legal right to strike (arguably the single most important source of workers' power). They are protected from employer reprisals (or should be). Going beyond the legal advantages however, joining a union empowers workers in other, less tangible, but equally important ways. Being part of a union can help workers develop self-confidence, it can boost their self-esteem and sense of self-worth, and it can help them to define themselves in positive, empowering ways. Being part of a union can shift the way that workers' perceive themselves - from cogs in a wheel to valued members of a community. A union can help workers develop a shared vision of the kind of workplace they want and identify and work towards common goals.

Do working women have more to gain by joining unions? Well, as things sit right now, they don't have a lot to lose. There is little doubt that working women need representation in the workplace and that, for many working women, there is nowhere to go but up. All of the data on women in the workplace attests to this. Although they currently make up about 50% of the Canadian workforce, various studies and research consistently show that women workers are at a considerable disadvantage in the workplace. Women workers are more likely than their male counterparts to be:

  • Unemployed
  • Underemployed
  • Working part-time involuntarily
  • Subject to arbitrary changes in hours and days of work
  • Have little or no recognition of family responsibilities
  • Among the first to be displaced in reorganization or restructuring
  • Have limited or no health benefits
  • Have limited or no pension benefits
  • Be subject to electronic and other monitoring.
  • Retire into poverty
[If you are interested in more detailed information about the issues and challenges facing working women, see Women's Work, a report published by the CLC in 1997.]

Union membership has significantly improved the working lives of some working women and that's a fact. In the public sector, in manufacturing, in professions such as nursing and teaching, there is no question that working women have seen some tangible benefits as a result of their participation in unions. Then there's the service sector.

Women workers...being served up

The service sector is growing in leaps and bounds. A wide range of businesses make up the service sector: Banks, hotels, insurance companies, retail shops, supermarkets, restaurants and very few of their workers are union members (Statscan information indicates that as at 1996, the union density rate for the Canadian service sector stood at a miniscule 8%). Unions have tried to break into the service sector but have found it tough going. The Employers are hostile and aggressively oppose organizing drives. Labour legislation governing union certification doesn't lend itself well to large, multi-unit chain operations. The service industry workforce is more transient - workers come and go - making it difficult to maintain support during what could be long and drawn out campaigns. Certainly, the CLC has its work cut out for it for these reasons, but there is an even more formidable obstacle to organizing in the service sector and that is the track record of the biz-unions that dominate the pockets of the service industry that are extensively unionized.

To organize successfully, unions must not only have something to offer workers - they must be able to show that they are capable of achieving it. The track record of the biggies of labour, doesn't give us a warm feeling.

Some 5000 workers at Swiss Chalet restaurants across Canada have been union members since the early 1980's. Since 1997, UFCW Local 206 has represented workers at some 70 Swiss Chalet's in Ontario (a key market for the restaurant franchisees and their highly profitable parent company Cara Operations). Here's what union membership has meant for the largely female workforce at these restaurants.

The Waitress/Waiter hourly rate starts at $5.95 per hour (the provincial minimum wage for liquor servers) and progresses to $6.20 after 60 months of service (that's a 25 cent increase after 5 years!). By comparison, Local 206 President John Hurley and Secretary Treasurer Frank Kelly, earn annual salaries of $111,756.00.

Then there are the tens of thousands of women who work for retail food industry giant Loblaws stores. Their employer has been reporting record profits for the past several years. Most recently, the company again reported record profits.

For all of 2001, earnings totaled $563-million ($2.03), up 19% from $473-million ($1.70). Sales reached $21.5-billion, up from $20.1-billion in 2000.

The company said it spent $1.1- billion last year adding locations and renovating existing stores, as well as investing in warehouse and distribution networks. The chain added 61 new corporate and franchised stores in 2001, 10 fewer than in 2000.

Too bad for the tens of thousands of sisters who work for the grocery giant. They won't have an opportunity to increase their pay cheques until 2005. Their union, UFCW Local 1000a inked a 6-year deal with Loblaws a little over a year ago. While corporate earnings have increased by double-digits, the workers will get an average annual increase of 1%.

The sad reality is that in many unionized service industry workplaces, the $10.39 per hour average wage for non-union women workers that the CLC cites in its media release might as well be a million dollars. Many earn minimum wage or just a little above. Few can ever hope to see $10.39 or the $17.20 per hour that is cited as the average wage for women in unionized establishments.

Then there's a whole other dimension of union membership that is only just beginning to be aired for public consumption:

Nobody wants to pay money to be oppressed. There just isn't any point in that.

Once upon a time...
On a muggy Sunday evening in the summer of 1997, a few dozen union members filed into a small meeting room in a hotel. The room was hot and too small to comfortably accommodate the number of workers who had shown up. Clearly the union executive was expecting a smaller turnout. Sunday evenings in late August don't usually draw a big crowd to union meetings - no matter what's on the agenda. This meeting, however, had packed them in. Some members had changed vacation plans to be there. Others had driven 2, maybe 3 hours to be there. They had come to vote on a new contract and there was a lot of apprehension in the air.

Their local union reps had been in negotiations with their employer for several months. There had been a lot of talk about concessions. Even before negotiations began, their employer was making noises about rollbacks. The company needed to be more competitive in the regional market in which it operated. The company needed a break on labour costs - or else it might have to start closing stores. Their union, although initially skeptical about the need for rollbacks, eventually seemed to take the employer at its word. The workers would have to face some tough realities, they were told by their union. It was a bad old world out there and there was just so much that they could expect. Bargaining dragged on for months and the message discipline continued. Finally there was a settlement. Tonight the workers were meeting to ratify the deal.

They had no advance information about the settlement they were about to ratify. The air was thick with rumours and speculation. Various accounts were circulating about the package that would be presented for ratification. Upon arrival at the ratification meeting they were given copies of an extensive document that was to be their new collective agreement. They were told that they had just one hour to look it over. After that they would vote. After that they could ask questions.

The hot, crowded room became chaotic. An hour to review a lengthy document written in confusing legal terms? No questions until after the vote? Why could they not ask their questions first? Confused and angry, the group demanded an opportunity to know what their representatives had brought home from the bargaining table before the vote. But their local exec could not be persuaded. The voting began. The new agreement, a five-year deal containing significant concessions, was ratified. Many of the workers could not quite believe what had just taken place. Some felt that they had been railroaded, some felt betrayed, and some even felt violated.

A small group, mostly women, decided that they'd had enough. Unions were supposed to be democratic. It wasn't supposed to work this way. A reform movement was born and quickly gathered momentum.The reform group decided that it would run candidates in the local's executive election a few months hence. They did a stellar job. Campaigning, fund raising and making use, for the first time of the Internet as a means of communications. As Election Day dawned, they were in the race.

They'll never know how they did, however. As the polls closed, union officials arrived on the scene and seized the ballot box. Citing suspected "election irregularities" they refused to open the box and count the ballots. Ever.

This story is loosely based on events that occurred at Vancouver-based UFCW Local 1518 which led to the creation, in 1999, of a union reform group called UFCW Local 1518 Members for Democracy. Some of the details may not be accurate but the business about the concessionary contract is real. The stuff about the workers being given an hour to bone up on the contract settlement is real. The stuff about the workers being told that there would be no questions until after the vote is for real also. The stuff about the union officials taking the ballot box - that's real too. And here is something else that's real: This is how some women workers experience union membership.

And if that's not enough, here's how one of the women involved in the reform movement upon which this story is based is experiencing life in her union now: Yes, in case you've not been to the MFD web site over the past few days, Sharyn Sigurdur, part time grocery store worker and member-in-good-standing of UFCW Local 1518 is being sued by UFCW International for her involvement in this web site. So is her son, MFD's web master. The UFCW International is put out - after some 2 years of knowing about it - by the MFD's use of its acronym in its URL. The UFCW International claims that certain statements on this web site are defamatory. It threatened legal action some six months ago for this very reason and was asked - six months ago - to specify which ones. It did not reply. Nonetheless, it wants Sharyn Sigurdur to pay damages in some unspecified amount for its pain. Sharyn is going to fight the UFCW International.

There is a good chance she will fight her battle without legal representation because she can't afford to retain a lawyer. The UFCW International will most certainly have a lawyer or even more than one. It can afford all the legal representation it wants. Sharyn Sigurdur's union dues and those of thousands of other working women will pay for it.

Now Sister Riche of the CLC, we wish you well in your 1+1 campaign. We hope that you are able to organize many thousands of women workers because they sure need to be represented at work. But you have got to tell us what it is that you are going to tell them union membership is all about. Is it about unquestioningly accepting what the boys at the local office put in front of you? Is it about blaming yourself for what little you have and counting your blessings that you don't have even less? Is it about deferring to the wisdom of the patriarchy? Is it about putting up and shutting up?

Pardon our relentlessness about this sister, but these are the questions you are going to have to answer if you hope to organize your way out of a paper bag. Around here, we've to a 1+1+1+1 campaign going- that stands for the number of lawsuits pending against union democrats.

If you do not have answers to those questions, sister, then we can only conclude that the CLC isn't serious about organizing women workers. Maybe they'll just have to organize a future for themselves. Here at MFD, we'll do what we can to help them if you won't.

Never underestimate the power of the Power Source. Look at what one worker did this week.

A note to the MFD community:

As you are by now undoubtedly aware, the MFD web site along with its web master, Kelsey Sigurdur and UFCW Local 1518 member, Sharyn Sigurdur, are being sued by the UFCW International Union. The lawsuits against the Sigurdur's are the 3rd and 4th such suits filed by the UFCW against Canadian union democrats in the past six months (that we are aware of). In addition, the UFCW has threatened legal action against three activists in the Toronto area and a newspaper published by the Socialist Action group. This is a very disturbing trend and one that we need to raise awareness about. The Sigurdur's intend to fight the lawsuits against them and to keep this site and its online community alive.

You can help in the effort to defend MFD and its community of union democrats. Many of you have already lent your support by publicizing the lawsuit, raising awareness of union democracy issues and sending in information and advice that may be helpful. We want to thank each and every one of you for your support and ask that you stay with us. Good things can come of this if we are united in our resolve to help the community of workers take back its unions.

In the weeks ahead, we'll keep you informed about the progress of the UFCW's litigation. We'll also tell you more about the history of MFD and this web site (since many of you have been asking lately), and as usual, we will continue to provide a place where the community of workers and especially those who value union democracy, can meet, talk and learn.

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