Tuesday afternoon’s task force report on improving the representation and participation of women within the union garnered both applause and controversy.
“CUPE has a long and proud history of breaking ground and breaking barriers, including the inroads made by Grace Hartman. We must renew our fight to raise women’s wages, secure a national child care program and decent pensions so women don’t retire into poverty,” said task force co-chair, Barb Moore (Nova Scotia) in the opening presentation to delegates.
“Women want more than a foot in the door; they want the door to equality thrown wide open,” said Moore.
Several delegates applauded the task force’s hard work, the scope of its 54 recommendations and the need to bargain better wages for women, support union education, and mentoring initiatives. Others spoke against proposed structural changes, saying they will divide the union and create new barriers.
Susan Zander, president of CUPE 728 (Surrey Schools), who went to the mikes after the presentation said her personal opinion was that “the issues raised on the floor are difficult and the ways to achieve those are even more difficult.” Zander spoke to the need to fight the right-wing attack on women’s hard-fought gains and Prime Minister Harper’s cuts to equity supports such as the Court Challenges program.
Commenting on her local’s fight for pay equity, a CUPE 391 (Vancouver Public Library) member spoke about how her employer refuses to understand how the gender gap in wages affects her library co-workers.
“I don’t pay 71 per cent of my electrical bill or other household expenses,” she said.
The task force’s report began with a video documenting women’s activism, which received enthusiastic applause. After the video and as part of the committee’s presentation, several task force members spoke about moving forward. They outlined comments from women gathered in the consultations – the most extensive in CUPE’s history – which highlighted the needs of women members and the need to advance women’s equality while overcoming gender barriers.
Speaking about the need to improve women’s economic situation, Lucie Levasseur (TF Quebec) said the task force’s consultations showed women want and need more bargaining power.
“Women’s economic insecurity is a major obstacle. Women in Canada earn 30 per cent less than men. They are over-represented in part-time, casual and temporary jobs. Furthermore, family responsibilities are not equally shared,” Levasseur said. “It is up to us to break this vicious circle.”
“We need more women on our decision-making bodies, so that we can take all measures necessary to eliminate inequalities in our union, then in our society,” she said. “With better representation, CUPE will put more effort into the fight to eliminate gender inequality.”
Other NWTF members spoke about the union’s need to better reach members of diversity.
Presenting for Liz Paris (TF Nova Scotia), Shelina Hassanali (TF Alberta) spoke about the expectations the task force has raised. Paris was unable to attend convention as her father is gravely ill.
“For me, as a Black woman and a woman of colour, it’s raised hope,” said Paris in her submission. Paris, an activist for 36 years is now in her first term as an elected representative for the Chignecto Regional School Board and active on several town committees.
“I was inspired and encouraged by my mother, a CUPE local president, and by my father, a CUPE member. It’s not been easy for me to be active in the union. I know the barriers of raising a daughter as a single mother, caring for aging parents and being responsible for seven siblings. I know the obstacles faced by my East Coast Black community that has suffered a history of discrimination economically, socially and politically that still continues,” wrote Paris. “I want to tell my sisters that we’re making the road to activism easier for them to travel.”
Speaking later at the mikes, Yolanda McClean, CUPE 4400 (Toronto Public School Board), said when she looked around the convention floor that she did not see a lot of women of colour “and that hurts my heart.” Speaking in favour of the task force’s report, including the proposed structural changes, McClean said the women she met during Ontario’s task force consultations were “crying out” and needed the supports the report’s recommendations will bring.
McClean also spoke in support of union education for women and praised the breaking barriers workshop. “The women who came in on Sunday were not the same women who left on Friday,” she said about the week-long course. “They had a lot more power, a lot more strength to take on leadership positions going back to their locals.”
In her portion of the task force presentation, Sheryl Burns (TF B.C.) talked about the members she met during provincial consultations. Burns is a hard of hearing woman and also a member of the Persons with Disabilities National Working Group.
“One woman I spoke with said she’d had to give up being a union activist, something she enjoyed. Why? Because living up to the expectations placed on her – a woman with an invisible disability – began to consume her life. The “all or nothing mentality” that too often defines union work is a huge barrier that keeps many women from being active,” said Burns.
“These barriers must come down so that the women – and men - of our union can become CUPE members in more than name,” she said. “In our quest for equality, we need these members as much as they need their union.”
Hassanali, speaking during the task force’s presentation, told delegates that she shared the hope that more sisters from equality-seeking groups see themselves at home in CUPE.
“We need to hear their voices. We have much to gain from their experience. We all win when we work together,” Hassanali said.