Over the past two years, the National Women’s Task Force has engaged CUPE members in a discussion about the status of women in our workplaces, society and within the union.
Our discussions took place in the political context of sustained attacks against women’s equality by the Conservative government of Stephen Harper. Major funding cuts to the Status of Women, cancellation of the national child care program and the elimination of the Court Challenges program have pushed back women’s equality by decades.
Our work also took place at a time when members from other equality-seeking groups are demanding that our union structures be more reflective of the diversity of the membership. One of the reasons that the Task Force was established was because women’s representation at the highest levels of CUPE is the lowest since the early 1970s, even though women now form two-thirds of the membership. Women are grossly under represented in our leadership, as are members from all other equality-seeking groups.
The 16-member National Women’s Task Force, reflecting the diversity of women from across this union, had a huge task. We were mandated to consult with the full diversity of members in our union about the broad issues of women’s equality.
Our discussions went beyond the issue of women’s representation in the union to include the struggles of women for economic security and decent work. Our consultations included and acknowledged the different needs and experiences of diverse women, including lesbians, transgender women, women with disabilities, racialized women, and Aboriginal women. Throughout our consultations, we recognized that women play very active roles in our union, especially at the local level. We found that women show incredible resiliency, creativity and strength to confront the myriad of issues facing their members in the workplace while balancing their community activism and family lives.
Yet, too often, women cannot find the time in their busy lives so they can be active participants in the union. We were touched by personal stories of women who are working two or three jobs, who struggle to support their family as a single mom, who cannot get union leave from their workplace, or get a hard time from their boss for their union activity. We heard from sisters who face racism on a daily basis, sisters who feel invisible and excluded because of their disability, and sisters who are misunderstood or face hatred because of their sexual orientation.
It became clear to us that workplace pressures, societal and family expectations of women and certain behaviours and practices in the union continue to block the full participation of women. Full participation in the union becomes even more difficult for women from equality-seeking groups who are impacted by deep-rooted prejudices in society and a legacy of colonialism. Although the Task Force reached an unprecedented number of members in its consultations, we would have liked to reach even more women from other equality-seeking groups. We realize more time and resources would have allowed us to dig deeper and reach beyond current activists to better reflect the voices of CUPE’s diverse membership.
The process has been an incredibly rewarding one for all members of the Task Force. We have been inspired by the members we have met and energized by a rekindling of women’s activism in the union. This report summarizes the work of the National Women’s Task Force and highlights what we learned from our consultations with over 7,000 CUPE members. Our report also lists the changes we believe need to take place so that we can benefit from the strength and energies of the full diversity of CUPE women.
The changes recommended here will improve the union for all of us. Many of the men who participated in our consultations raised some of the same concerns as the women. For example, some men found it hard to be involved in the union and also play an equal parenting role and some men also expressed a desire for a more respectful culture in the union.
The Task Force has opened the door for deeper discussions on equality issues in our union. There is so much more we need to do to address the additional problems experienced by CUPE women and men who are further marginalized by race, disability and sexual orientation. We recognize that our union needs to continue to break down the barriers if we are to effectively address the needs of all of our members.
We urge members and leaders at all levels of our union to make a commitment to implement the recommendations in this report.
We thank you for giving us this opportunity to serve and respectfully submit our final report.