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Up with Women’s Wages!

Aug 27, 2000 08:00 PM
 
Across the country, CUPE women and men are rising up to bring women’s wages up, ending decades of discrimination. At the bargaining table, on the job, on the political front and through membership education and mobilization, CUPE members are fighting to get women the wages they deserve for the work they do. And with the World March of Women just around the corner, the timing is right to catch a global wave of wage rage.

Despite decades of struggle the number of Canadian women living in poverty continues to grow. At the turn of the century, almost 19 per cent of adult women were poor – almost 2.2 million women, compared with 1.8 million low-income women in 1980. And the wage gap persists, with women earning an average 80 cents for every dollar a man earns. On a yearly basis, the annual earnings of women working full-time are 70 per cent of male earnings.

Within the public sector, widespread unionization means women fare slightly better, earning 83 cents for every dollar a man earns. Calculated over a year, women working full-time in the public sector earn 76 per cent of what men take home. But the attack on public services is eroding this safe haven, as privatization and funding cuts mean good jobs disappear.

CUPE is fighting back, challenging privatization, contracting out, discrimination and wage inequities. Equality up front is a priority for all CUPE members in the year 2000 – and beyond.

Bargaining and job action score historic win

After eight long years, Cathy Hamilton is finally seeing the effects of a 1992 pay equity ruling.

“It’s sure been a long time coming,” says Hamilton, a housekeeping and food services worker at the Kamloops Royal Inland Hospital, and a member of the Hospital Employees’ Union, CUPE’s health services division in BC.

While the HEU won their historic pay equity victory in 1992, it wasn’t until April 2000 that the employer agreed to stop appealing the award and face up to their responsibilities.

Hamilton expects an extra $50 a month on her paycheque, and retroactive pay of around $2,400. “I’ll probably pay some bills. And I’ll trade in my old car for ano-ther old car that’s a bit newer,” she said.

Hamilton and others saw their paycheques go up on May Day, and will get their retroactive pay around Labour Day.

HEU members scored their big pay equity win thanks to picket lines, work slowdowns and a work-to-rule campaign that forced the employer to compare HEU workers’ wages with the direct public service. While members got a preliminary 3.7 per cent wage adjustment in 1994, it was only the start of a long process to close the gap. The balance was supposed to be paid by April 1, 1996 – but the employers stonewalled.

“The employer didn’t want to accept the fact that we’d won what was rightly ours,” said Hamilton, who sits on HEU’s women’s committee. “But we kept on fighting. We drew inspiration from the PSAC pay equity victory, when the federal government stopped appealing their award. That definitely sent our employer a message.”

Last fall, a BC arbitrator awarded HEU members a pay equity adjustment worth $25.8 million, retroactive to April 1, 1996. Health employers agreed this spring to stop appealing the award, meaning almost 40,000 health care workers in BC hospitals and long term care facilities – who are mostly female – would start receiving monthly wage adjustments of up to $130, and retroactive payments ranging from $960 to $7,700.

“It makes me feel better it’s finally settled, and that we got the respect we deserve. Now we can look forward to the next battle – our collective agreement. It’s up in 2001, and we’re already talking bargaining,” said Hamilton.

There’s no rest for HEU activists. After this payout, Hamilton still faces a four per cent wage gap, which will gradually be closed over the next few years.

“We’ll struggle on. Of course, a pay equity law would be great,” she said. “Our women’s committee will keep pushing the government for that.”

The pay equity win is one of several big steps forward BC members have taken to close the women’s wage gap. A community and social services worker strike that started on International Women’s Day last year ended with big gains for the workers, who are mostly women. CUPE and HEU members were among the 10,000 members, represented by four unions, who joined forces to win wage parity with health workers in the broader public sector. As well, recent settlements in the university and college sectors addressed pay equity.

In the megacity of Toronto, walking the picket line also made the difference for women’s wages in CUPE 79. The strike by 20,000 City of Toronto inside workers was the largest municipal strike in Canadian history.

“Equity and respect” was the rallying cry for Local 79 members, who were dealing with the fallout from the megacity amalgamation, which meant merging 24 collective agreements into four contracts. Members include child care workers, public health nurses, city planners, chemists, clerical staff, recreation workers and social service workers.

“People had been working since January 1998 without a collective agreement,” said Carmen Smith, Local 79’s secretary-treasurer and a member of the bargaining committee. “We all deserved to be treated equally – and we weren’t being.”

Central issues in the strike were wage harmonization and pay equity – key issues for a predominantly female local. Workers doing the same jobs but coming from different municipalities had wildly varied rates of pay – in the case of public health inspectors, varying up to $14,000 per year.

Local 79 refused to back down on this critical issue of fairness, calling for wage harmonization as quickly as possible. They stood equally firm on the question of pay equity.

“The employer was opposed to pay equity because of the cost. Well, pay equity’s the law. The city has a legal responsibility to take this on. And we already have an approved, gender-neutral job evaluation plan that’s been around since the ‘70s. It worked well for the old City of Toronto,” said Smith. “There was no reason to delay.”

The local’s firm stand paid off. Their new collective agreement makes many strides, including on wage fairness. If headway isn’t made on wage harmonization by the end of the year the matter will be referred to arbitration. There are deadlines for the process, to ensure that wages get harmonized sooner, rather than later. In addition, the City has agreed to set up a special reserve fund to ensure funding exists for pay equity adjustments.

“The strike was crucial. We couldn’t have done it without going out,” said Smith.

Local 79’s call for equity and respect echoes loud and clear in New Brunswick, where the province’s court stenographers are bargaining to up their wages.

The 62 stenographers, members of CUPE 1840, are all women. They’ve been in bargaining since last November, demanding wage parity with co-workers who earn $11,000 more despite having fewer responsibilities and lower qualifications.

It’s been slow going for the women, who earn an average $29,000 a year. The provincial government’s latest offer does not come close to closing the wage gap.

“Every time the other group gets a wage increase, the gap widens,” says CUPE 1840 president Pat Roy. “We’re sick of playing catch-up.”

The stenographers are also judges’ secretaries, yet they earn less than secretaries working for crown prosecutors.

“We don’t want something outrageous. We just want wage parity,” says Roy, whose job demands that she travel across the province and work long hours.

In addition to keeping the official record of court proceedings, stenographers are responsible for courtroom exhibits including drugs, weapons and large amounts of money. Stenographers also collect unpaid fines.

The stenographers recently backed their bargaining demands with some political action, demonstrating outside the premier’s office. The premier sent the justice minister to meet with the women.

“The minister gave the impression he was really interested. Then he said he’d have to talk to the finance minister. They’re passing the buck. Well, we’re not going away. The buck stops with us,” said Roy.

Breaking boundaries in Québec

Boosting women’s wages takes many forms in Québec. Several locals are challenging unfair salary increment steps. Other CUPE activists are working to get women into jobs typically held by men – as well as working to improve wages in female-dominated jobs.

They’re seeing the results in CUPE 301, Montréal’s blue-collar workers. More than 10 years ago the local bargained and won an employment equity program that opened non-traditional jobs to women and workers of colour. Now, they have women working as truck drivers, electricians, gardeners and security guards. Nearly 1,000 of the city’s 4,500 workers are women.

“It wasn’t easy for the union, but at the end of the day, the employer was bound by law to provide what we were demanding,” said Lucrecia Sotomayor, a cafeteria worker who sits on the local’s executive.

Bringing in women meant many changes, including bargaining for women’s toilets and showers.

“Within the union, there may have been a bit of hesitation at the begin-ning. Now we’re visible. There are women on nearly all our committees, and we’re inte-grated throughout our union structure,” said Sotomayor.

Integrating women had a direct payoff for CUPE 2929, the provincial agency that cares for government buildings. A group of female clerical workers were facing layoff. At the same time, the employer was about to contract out to fill vacant electrician jobs. The light went on for Hélène Simard, who sits on the local’s women’s committee.

“Of course, we wanted to stop these layoffs,” said Simard.

The local convinced their employer to train some of the women as electricians. Now, five women – including Simard – are working as electricians.

The women earn $155 a week more than they did as clerical workers, and the electrician jobs have stayed in-house. The local’s strategy shows that boosting women’s wages goes hand-in-hand with fighting privatization and contracting out.

Simard credits membership mobilization and education for the local’s bright idea. “Our CUPE Québec women’s committee puts a tremendous effort into helping develop and support local union women’s committees.

Mobilization and education played a critical role in another struggle on the east coast in Nova Scotia nursing homes, where workers joined together to win an unprecedented victory – wage parity with hospital workers.

Forty nursing homes got together and bargained provincially – a first for the workers, and the employers.

“We’d done our homework before we got to the table, and we knew exactly what we were entitled to,” said Betty Jean Sutherland, a long-term care worker and president of CUPE 2330 and the Nova Scotia division. “We would never have gotten it on our own – we all had to be there at the table together.”

Sutherland’s proud of the victory she helped win as part of the bargaining team.

“Bottom line is, it means more money in my paycheque. We worked so hard for so many years because a lot of our workers are single parents,” she said. The bargaining team confronted some sexist attitudes head-on.

“Some of the employers still see us as women who have husbands with good jobs, and that we’re just taking these jobs for pin money. I hate that term. We had a board member say that at the table. So I went and talked with a resident who’s one of the oldest women’s libbers I know. She came back up with us and went up one side of him and down the other – it was priceless.”

The nursing home workers won’t see parity adjustments until next year – but they’re already looking ahead to their next round of bargaining in 2001, preparing to flex their province-wide muscle again. Some of their priorities also tackle women’s wages head-on, including a good pension plan – which is unfinished business from the last round of talks – improving benefits and dealing with casual work.

Taking care of the present and looking to the future. It’s a smart strategy – and it’s CUPE’s women’s strategy. Through bargaining, organizing the unorganized, mobilization, education and political action, CUPE members are rising up to bring women’s wages up.

The campaign swings into high gear this fall. For more information, contact CUPE’s Equality Branch at (613) 237-1590 or women@cupe.ca.

Karin Jordan