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I was 23 when I first got involved in my union. I was running a photocopy machine at the University of Toronto library. The blinding, flashing lights were giving us workers massive headaches and – even though part-timers weren’t organized then – the union went to bat for us and we got sunglasses to protect our eyes. A victory for the right to health and safety on the job.

So I was hooked on the idea that workers, through their collective power, could move the boss to act before I was even in the union. And when I started a full-time job, I became a union steward before my probation was up – and I was local union president two years later.

If your first experience as an activist is anything like mine was, you’re probably finding the labour movement a pretty exciting, but also sometimes a frustrating place. That unions can be a positive force for change in our workplaces and our communities is really exciting. The frustrating part for us as activists is that change is sometimes too slow. Or worse, that two steps forward is followed by one step, or even two, backwards.

Take what’s happening right now in our country, the massive attempt by the right to drag workers backwards. They want to take us back to the days before public health care, the days when women had few options but to be unpaid caregivers working in the home, the days when workers were forced to rely on the benevolence and good will of their employers to get a raise, the days when you had to quit your job if you were going to have a child. Back to those “Happy Days,” which like the old TV sit-com had nothing to do with workers’ reality. Or, women’s reality.

I remember those ’happy days’ in the labour movement. When I brought my four-month-old son with me to a CLC Convention in 1984 and a brother asked me: ’What’s more important to you anyway? Your baby or your union.’ I was so stunned – and overwhelmed by guilt – that I didn’t think to ask him whether he had put the same question to male delegates at the convention.

That we have child care offered at today’s union gatherings is now taken for granted. Yes, we still have sexism. Now it’s usually subtler, but we’ve learned to see it for what it is. And we’ve learned to share our experiences so together we can challenge sexism (and racism and other forms of discrimination) in the workplace and in our union.

What I do remember about my early days of activism in CUPE Local 1230 was how exhilarating that experience was. I still feel incredibly lucky to have become part of a union like CUPE where a young worker, a brand new member, is able to jump into the local union with both feet and feel they can get involved and make a difference. Then, it took time for us to learn that we had power as women to make gains. That we had power as members to make change in our union. We had to build our confidence and work together.

The young CUPE women I meet today – who work in child care, women’s shelters, health care, schools, universities, libraries and municipalities – really do inspire me. Your willingness to stand up and fight, to say no, and to demand respect for the work you do is awesome. And today, more then ever, the union movement needs young workers who are willing to dream. Young women who are willing to lead.

Today CUPE’s ranks are more than 60 per cent women and more than half of our local unions are led by women. I am honoured to be the second woman to be President of CUPE. The ground ahead of me was paved by Grace Hartman who was elected in 1975. Grace was not only the first woman to become leader of a national union, she was the first major union leader to put equality issues on the bargaining table.

Our National Women’s Committee was created more than two decades ago. Our national Equality Branch today works not just with union women, but workers of colour, aboriginal workers, gay and lesbian workers, and workers with disabilities. These activists help ensure that we engage all members in our union, and that we reach out and engage workers in our communities – to take on the closing of women’s shelters and hospital beds, the cutbacks to home care and child care, the growing violence and racism, the overcrowded, dirty classrooms, the issue of safe, clean water for our families to drink.

Today more than ever, with young workers being bombarded into believing that unions are about protecting “special interests”, it’s important to get out the message: we are our communities.

The battles we’re fighting are about people’s rights – workers’ rights, women’s rights, and young people’s rights.

Nowhere is that more clear than in Mike Harris’ Ontario, Ralph Klein’s Alberta – and now especially in Gordon Campbell’s B.C. where, with a few strokes of the legislative pen, they are wiping out jobs by the thousands, stripping workers of their hard-won rights, and rolling back gains for women that took literally decades to achieve.

It’s no coincidence that the same governments that are closing women’s shelters are also rolling back pay equity and attacking unions. Without economic independence, women can’t walk away from violence in their homes. Without shelters, women have nowhere to go. Without unions, we wouldn’t have made gains in wages and benefits, on maternity leave, parental leave, harassment and employment equity.

The issues that women put on the public agenda and the union agenda in the 1970s and 1980s have been put on the bargaining table across the country. These are the gains they’re rolling back when they tear up our collective agreements. This is what’s at stake when they say they can’t afford to pay us what we’re worth. As women, we can’t afford anything less.

Nor can you as a young woman worker. The attack on the public sector, which is over 70 per cent unionized, is an attack on present and future jobs for women. Every job that’s eliminated is a job that will never exist for a young person. As well, the jobs that are disappearing are the better paying jobs for women. The struggle we’re waging today is as much about women’s economic health and the future of our youth as it is about choosing to keep Medicare public, protecting our fresh water supplies, and deciding what kind of society we want to live in.

The point I want to make is that it is possible to make change in your working life – and yes, in our society – by getting involved in the union. The key ingredients to success are: reaching out and involving our union members, mobilizing our communities, being prepared to stand up and fight, and sustaining the fight for months and even years if that’s what it takes.

It is also possible to make change in your union. The key is sticking by your principles, sticking it out, and learning how to work with others to make change happen. Whether it’s a women’s committee, a rainbow caucus, a youth committee, an action caucus, a local union executive, a National Executive Board, or whatever, you can’t get very far shaking things up on your own. And you sure as hell can’t deal with the frustrations and the barriers and the sexism or the racism all on your own. You shouldn’t even try!

There have been important changes in the labour movement since I first got involved. There are more women and young people and workers of colour on union executives and on union staff than there were ten years ago, much less thirty years ago. There’s a growing recognition that unions must focus on mobilizing members and mobilizing communities in order to make real change.

There’s a recognition on the part of many – but certainly not all – that the labour movement must work with broad coalitions of social justice groups if we’re going to achieve our goals. The labour movement today is an incredibly exciting place to live and work.

Now I’m not going to try to tell you that everything’s hunky dory – and that the walls in the labour movement have all come down. You wouldn’t believe me if I did!

The truth is it’s still tough to become a union leader if you’re a woman – and it’s a whole lot tougher if you’re an aboriginal person, or a person with a disability, or if you’re gay or lesbian or if you’re black.

It’s also still tough to be a woman union leader. The “old boys club” and the sexist stereotypes are still alive and well. I could write a book about that, but since this is a letter, I’ll have to cut it short. For now, let me just say, there are more women in leadership positions in the Canadian labour movement than ever before – and collectively we refuse to be type cast or pushed aside.

Is it still a struggle? Absolutely.

Is it worth it? You bet it is.

There is no other institution – no other place in our society – where workers, where young people, where women, are able to take control over their futures and improve their lives.

There is no other place in our society where workers can become leaders and realize their full potential by making social change. I believe that with all my heart.

Solidarity Forever isn’t just a song we sing at union gatherings, it’s a declaration of what binds us together as a movement.

The union is a place to stand. A place to grow. A place to fight for all workers, here and across the globe. It’s your place, too. As the line on that old button says: A Woman’s Place is in her Union!

“Dear Sister, Dear Sister” is a collection of sisterhood letters from 35 trade union women edited by former CLC Secretary-Treasurer, Nancy Riche. The women, with a few to several years experience in the labour movement, share their experiences and it is great reading.

Contact Gisl0065 Lavoie at the Canadian Labour Congress (613) 521-3400, ext. 243 or by e-mailing mcwalker@clc-ctc.ca to order one or more copies. Prices are: $14.95 (for one to ten books), $12.00 (for 11 to 35), $10.00 (for 36 to 75), $8.00 (for 76 to 125), and $7.50 for orders of more than 125 books. The CLC will cover cost of mailings and any profit goes to the National Action Committee on the Status of Women.