Sketch drawing of four smiling facesMaybe you’ve heard about the concept of ‘intersectionality.’ But did you know that it comes from analysis of workplace discrimination?

Kimberlé Crenshaw, a leading scholar on race theory, coined the term in 1989 while she was examining a legal case in the United States where a group of Black women sued General Motors for discrimination based on race and gender.

The women showed that GM hired men for certain kinds of jobs (for example, the shop floor), and women for other types of jobs (for example, the secretarial pool). While Black men were hired for predominantly male jobs, Black women were not hired for women’s positions.

The court rejected their case, saying that they could not combine race and gender discrimination. There was no legal framework that recognized the interaction between race and gender discrimination that Black women faced, and how it differed from discrimination faced by white women or Black men.

Today, intersectionality has moved beyond the world of work and has expanded to recognize and understand the multiple ways that people face discrimination. The use of intersectional analysis in collective bargaining contributes to CUPE’s efforts to advance human rights and equity for women, Indigenous peoples, Black and racialized people, people with disabilities and LGBTQ2+ people.

Intersectionality is an important approach for our locals and the broader labour movement. When we look at who’s left out or left behind in our workplaces, we uncover ways to fight for change at the bargaining table. For example, looking at precarious work with an intersectional lens helps us understand why there is a bigger wage gap for racialized women than for white women.

We need to pay attention to the different ways that different people are affected by systems of power and discrimination. To advocate for an economy that respects all workers, we must understand the barriers all workers face, and include those affected in our bargaining efforts in order to remove those barriers. An intersectional approach helps us build solidarity and take action for an economy that includes everyone.

CUPE has developed a Bargaining Equality kit to help locals build more equitable and inclusive workplaces. There are many ways to fight for equality at the bargaining table, including negotiating for pay equity and employment equity, resisting two-tier contract provisions, requiring accommodation for workers with different needs such as child care, physical accessibility of buildings, supports for workers’ mental wellness, or translation of important materials into a worker’s first language; or anti-harassment language that protects workers from racism, Islamophobia, or transphobia on the job. 

Some of CUPE’s other resources include: