In the 1970s, women continued to enter the labour force in rising numbers and many of these women became union members for the first time. While more women were now members of trade unions, they were underrepresented in leadership positions and women’s issues continued to be marginalized in the Canadian labour movement.
In this context, delegates at the 1975 women’s conference “Women in the Workforce, It’s About Time,” co-sponsored by the Labour Council of Metropolitan Toronto and Humber College Women’s Centre, passed a resolution to establish the organization Organized Working Women (OWW).
The OWW would bring together any woman who was a member of a bona fide collective bargaining unit to “convince the organized labour movement to take up the cause of working women.”
In pursuit of improving women’s position in the labour movement and in society, the OWW supported women to take up leadership positions in their unions, brought the demands of the feminist movement into the labour movement by establishing women’s committees, and used the resources of unions to advance gender equity at the bargaining table.
In what feels like a nadir of feminist organizing in Canada, we should remember the OWW as a testament to what effective, autonomous organizing can accomplish for women workers, while also learning from history to avoid repeating the OWW’s mistake of unintentionally excluding marginalized women.
Sexism in the labour movement
The establishment of the OWW occurred as Canada transitioned to a neoliberal political regime characterized by cutbacks to childcare, education, and healthcare, and wage and price controls that would cap real wages in the mid-1970s.
Even as this situation increasingly necessitated a dual-income household and women’s participation in the labour force, society and the labour movement resisted this shift, and there continued to be a debate about whether married women should even be in the workforce.
Within trade unions, the perception was that women might even weaken the labour movement and that they wouldn’t be strong enough in fights with the boss.
Former OWW member, Barbara Cameron, reflects on the patriarchal culture of the labour movement in the 1970s, “I remember the climate of the labour movement. It was overwhelmingly male. When we hear about what goes on in the military today and the problems of sexual harassment . . . it’s not all that different than what the climate was like in the labour movement.”
Even speaking at a union conference could be a hostile experience for women who would be shouted down and heckled.
“I remember being in my first OFL convention. David Archer was the president at the time, and he was chairing, and a woman got up and she wanted a point of privilege, and he just told her to ‘sit down, sister’ and ‘sit down and shut up, you’re out of order’. And I was thinking, am I going to feel comfortable going up to a mic in such a hostile environment,” explains OWW member Holly Kirkconnell.
As ongoing sexist hostility of this sort continued to make unions “Old Boys Clubs,” the OWW provided much-needed autonomous organizing opportunities for women trade unionists. Through the OWW, women could meet and strategize outside of traditional union spaces, while gaining the skills and education needed to effectively pressure their unions to take up women’s issues.
Supporting women workers through training and education
Training and educating women on how to navigate their unions was especially important, recognizing that women would be granted less room for error from hostile male memberships.
To support these women, the OWW hosted regular workshops in Toronto, Sudbury, Ottawa and Peterborough to provide training in public speaking, convention resolution preparation, collective bargaining, and rules of order to support women in becoming more confident and effective within their unions.
The OWW also hosted an annual conference on women’s issues, including on childcare, equal pay, and women’s occupational health and safety to provide an autonomous venue for women trade unionists to discuss important feminist issues.
These conferences were designed with a specific formula in mind: what are the issues, what do we want, and how do we get it? This formula ensured that conferences were not just educational, but also supported further political and labour action. For example, the OWW’s pay equity conference organized workshops to “examine how pay equity legislation works and how we can use it in our workplaces . . .[while also assessing] the limitations of the legislation and develop strategies to improve it.”
The work of the OWW would then be disseminated to supporters through the newsletter, Union Woman.
Supporting women workers through solidarity and militancy
Beyond this work, the OWW would also become active on the picket lines of women workers, including those unionized with the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW), the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU), the Canadian Air Line Employees Associations (CALEA), and others, hosting rallies, candlelight vigils, and marches to increase pressure on unyielding employers while bolstering worker morale.
Notable cases include in 1978 when the OWW organized a solidarity demonstration on the picket line at Fleck Industries where women workers were engaged in a bitter fight over their first contract. They also held a demonstration to shut down the Eaton’s store at the Yonge Eglington Centre to support the members of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union who had gone on strike against Eaton’s during the winter of 1984-1985.
In 1978, the OWW supported the work of the Wives Supporting the Strike Committee, a women’s support group of United Steelworkers Local 6500 in Sudbury that organized babysitting co-operatives, car pools, potluck suppers, and neighbourhood entertainment to ease the pressure of the strike on families who were often struggling to survive on $30 of food vouchers every week.
At the time, 12,000 workers were into the tenth week of their strike and were facing a bargaining stalemate over the winter knowing that Inco would continue to operate using nickel stockpiles that would not be depleted until the spring.
The OWW helped raise money for the strikers and their families by planning a benefit rally in Toronto. Speakers from Wives Supporting the Strike Committee, the Citizens’ Strike Support Committee, and a union member on strike spoke about the Sudbury situation, followed by a party and entertainment.
The OWW also participated in organizations that advocated for wider political change including the National Action Committee on the Status of Women, the Equal Pay Coalition, and the Ontario Coalition for Better Child Care. They also founded the International Women’s Day Organizing Committee in Toronto.
Questions of membership within the OWW
For all its good work, the OWW has been the subject of critique, some of it merited and some a reflection of needless divisions within the labour movement.
The biggest debate was whether members of the OWW needed to be part of a trade union and whether that union needed to be allied with the ‘house of labour,’ meaning the Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL) and the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC).
“My union, the [Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation], was not allied with the OFL or the CLC at that time” and so in making the decision to accept unaligned unions, “it meant that so many more people could be involved in and supportive of OWW,” explains former OWW member, Margaret McPhail.
This caused tension with the OFL, which chose not to recognize the OWW officially. Still, the OWW would go on to positively influence the OFL by successfully pushing the federation to establish a women’s committee in 1978, which was a contentious proposal at the time.
But in excluding non-unionized women, the OWW was forgoing an opportunity to more actively engage with and support the unionization of non-unionized working women. This exclusion also unintentionally barred more marginalized women, including migrant women, racialized women, Indigenous women, and women with disabilities, from the organization because they were (and are) less likely to be unionized than white women.
The absence of marginalized women with decision-making power within the OWW would become apparent in 1979 when the OWW proposed that abortion and lesbian issues be dropped during organizing for International Women’s Day in Toronto for fear of offending and alienating more conservative union women.
The end of the OWW
The OWW would eventually cease functioning in the early 1990s around the same time when other women’s organizations, including the National Action Committee on the Status of Women, disbanded as well.
Former OWW members partially attribute the end of the organization to its success in supporting women’s, namely white women’s, entrance into leadership positions in trade unions and district labour councils. As these women continued to enter the labour movement in executive and paid staff positions, there were also fewer volunteers available to run and manage the OWW.
Beyond its successes, the OWW was likely also disbanded as the political and social landscape became more antagonistic to feminist organizing in Canada. In the 1980s, the government began to attack women’s organizations by defunding women’s advocacy groups and delegitimizing feminism, with a notable moment being when former Prime Minister, Brian Mulroney, characterized feminist groups as enemies of Canada to pit the public against feminists.
As feminism became a four-letter word, it’s possible that it made more tactical sense to disband and work within trade unions and other organizations that had more public legitimacy and financial resources, rather than operate separately with limited financial resources in an inhospitable political climate.
Reflecting on the OWW’s impact
Having been disbanded for more than thirty years, the OWW’s legacy can be evidenced in the positive impact the organization had on the labour movement that has made trade unions more inclusive places for women workers. The bargaining wins made around equal pay, maternity leave, parental leave, and employer-provided childcare, and the widespread establishment of Women’s Committees are a testament to this.
“I think we did change the culture of the labour movement in many ways,” says Kirkconnell.
Even as we can appreciate the legacy of the OWW’s successes, we should also consider that it disbanded too soon, knowing that sexism, especially as it intersects with racism, still plagues the labour movement and wider society. For example, women are still underrepresented in union leadership positions. Hierarchical and bureaucratic practices still disenfranchise women who don’t possess the right kinds of connections in union spaces. And unions are still struggling to bring in women workers currently standing outside of trade unions, including temporary migrant care workers and women working in smaller female-dominated workplaces such as childcare centres.
In remembering the OWW, we need to consider that women workers still need the support of autonomous and avowedly feminist and anti-racist groups willing to push organized labour to adopt a feminist and anti-racist agenda, while also pushing for more transformative political change.
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