CUPE women’s conference delegates are primed to fight for wage equity in their workplaces and communities, after a practical session that shared strategies to identify and close wage gaps.

CUPE’s Regional Vice-President for Ontario, Yolanda McClean, opened the plenary with a fiery speech, reminding the crowd that women are still paid significantly less than men, on average. She called for pay equity, and for a minimum wage increase, which would mostly benefit women.

“Our union is committed to fighting discrimination in all its forms. We need to stand up for what is right,” she said.

“No one chooses to have their work undervalued and underpaid. In our union, we want to lift everyone up. Fighting for pay equity is one of the ways that we can demand justice for all,” said McClean.

CUPE job evaluation and pay equity staff then showed delegates how to understand the wage structure in their workplace and spot inequities.

Fighting wage discrimination makes our union stronger, said CUPE national job evaluation and pay equity coordinator Emily Turk.

“CUPE locals are well-positioned to connect the dots between equity and solidarity. Winning fair and equitable wages for all workers is the cornerstone of the labour movement.”

An equity approach recognizes systemic barriers that affect the wages of CUPE members who face intersecting forms of discrimination including women, gender diverse and 2SLGBTQI+ workers, Black, Indigenous and racialized workers, migrant workers and workers with disabilities.

Turk and job evaluation and pay equity representative Kari Scott-Whyte highlighted strategies members can use to close inequitable wage gaps. These strategies can be tailored to the size and scale of the situation.

Locals can target specific jobs in bargaining to address low or inequitable wages for work that has been undervalued because of gender bias, racism, ableism and other forms of discrimination.

The job evaluation process can sometimes be uncomfortable because it forces discussions about gender stereotypes and historical inequities.

“It’s very important to remember that this is all about lifting people up. Not taking people down to the basement,” said Scott-Whyte.

Locals can also tackle inequities in their entire wage structure. For example, many locals bargain percentage wage increases, but this approach can widen the gap between low-paying and higher-paying jobs. Last November’s Ontario school board worker win shows why it’s important to bargaining flat rate wage increases, which benefit lower-paid workers the most.

We also need to use our political power, along with our bargaining power, to win long-term change across entire sectors, and in our society. Mobilizing for pay equity legislation is one example, and in Quebec it’s had a huge payoff. 

Édith Cardin, CUPE’s job evaluation and pay equity coordinator in Quebec, and Mélanie Gougeon, a job evaluation and pay equity specialist in Quebec, shared the story of our union’s role in getting pay equity legislated in Quebec. Cardin says the Pay Equity Act, first adopted in 1996, has been the best tool to improve pay equity in the province.

“We built a coalition, we held rallies. We rally a lot in the labour movement. Then we got the legislation and for us, it was a tsunami, because it covered all of our sectors,” she said.

The initial legislation wasn’t perfect, but CUPE women kept mobilizing and led the successful charge to challenge its shortcomings, right up to the Supreme Court.

According to Cardin, CUPE’s success in Quebec is thanks to a great deal of hard work, determination and courage. “Pay equity is our business. Nobody’s going to give it to us. We’ll have to fight to get it.”

Mélanie Gougeon, who is responsible for public sector bargaining at CUPE Quebec, spoke about the impacts of pay equity legislation on a sector with 78% female representation in health care, education and social services.

The initial payment for CUPE members averaged about $6,000 per person. So, it did pay off, but the Quebec government has had trouble maintaining pay equity. Tens of thousands of complaints have been filed, and there have been lengthy delays.

Once again, CUPE women banded together to get what was owed to them—and had fun doing it, including occupying the offices of the Treasury Board.

The mobilizations we spearheaded resulted in agreements worth over $1 billion, that have an impact on 77,000 people. However, pay equity has not been achieved in some job categories.

During public sector negotiations in Quebec, CUPE played a leadership role and managed to reduce the wage gap between the lower-paid and the best-paid job categories.

With just a few days to go before the collective agreements expire and at a time when CUPE is getting ready to play an important role in the union common front, equity is once again central to the concerns of women in our union.

“We have a premier who believes women are born to teach and care. Well, he’ll have to pay them!”