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There is a saying that good girls go to heaven, and bad girls go everywhere,” keynote speaker Gloria Mills mused playfully to a packed room on the first night of CUPE’s National Bargaining Women’s Equality Conference. “I decided I wanted to go to heaven, but I wanted to go everywhere as well.”

In her 30 years as a worker, activist and leader in the trade union movement, Mills has gone everywhere. Starting out as a trade union member in the legal publishing industry, Mills ultimately became the first black woman to be elected president of the UK’s Trade Union Congress, and later the director and national organizer on equality issues for UNISON, the largest union in the UK.

For Mills, women’s equality in bargaining comes down to re-examining the balance of power within the union membership. “Men are the minority in the membership, yet they exercise a disproportionate amount of power in the decision-making structure,” said Mills. In UNISON, women comprise 74 per cent of the membership. Similarly, over two thirds of CUPE members are women.

Within her union, Mills sought to shift the balance of power to more accurately represent the vast female membership. “I had to make the case that I did not hate men, but that we really needed fairness,” said Mills. “We needed a built-in approach for equality.”

One such approach was to ensure that women comprise 74 per cent of every UNISON committee. “Overnight, the agenda was transformed,” explained Mills. “Every issue women wanted on the agenda was on the agenda. Equal pay negotiation was no longer a dream, it was a reality.”

Mills would like to see similar mechanisms in place to protect women workers from the global economic crisis, as many companies are using the downturn to demand wage freezes, pay cuts and restrictions on the right to strike. “Women did not cause the recession, and women did not cause the failure of capitalism, so women should not pay for the economic crisis.”

We fought for a living wage, not a minimum wage. We want to continue having that trade union premium. Being a member of a trade union ensures a better quality of living.”

From pay equity to child care, Mills reinforced that women should never feel guilty for standing up for what is right. “It’s not a revolution,” said Mills. “It’s just about fairness as far as I’m concerned. We have got to become impatient for equality, and we’ve got to believe it will happen in our lifetime.”