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The economic crisis has imposed a new reality on trade unions - but panelists at CUPE’s National Women’s Bargaining Conference agreed that it could also bring about a push for greater equality. “Public sector unions are in a unique position,” said Armine Yalnizyan, a senior economist with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. “Those outside of the unions will not look favourably at wage increases next to massive job loss. We need to consider the context in which we advocate.”

Yalnizyan, along with researcher and community organizer Darline Raymond and former CUPE President Judy Darcy, were the featured panelists at CUPE’s National Bargaining Women’s Equality Conference on Thursday, February 12, 2009.

All three women agree that there will be significant challenges, but there is also significant room to move forward in bargaining equality.

I firmly believe there are opportunities for equality gains even in the midst of a crisis, and we have to seize those opportunities by thinking analytically and strategically, by thinking smart,” said Darcy.

For Yalnizyan, it is inequality within the system that we must stand up and fight against. “Who is going to fight to raise up the bottom? That’s our job,” said Yalnizyan. “We are fighting for social wages, too, not just money. There is health care, transit, community services, education – all of those things that keep people healthy. These things put the ‘social’ back in social unionism.”

Darcy agreed that raising the wages of low wage workers – the majority of whom are women – will be the fundamental equity issue for our generation. “We do have to take into account the current crisis,” said Darcy. “But there isn’t just one way to raise women’s wages.”

The former national president called for more CUPE women at the bargaining table. “Let’s do something about smashing stereotypes of what it means to be a good negotiator,” said Darcy. “Bringing women to the table is integral to building women’s leadership within the union.”

Darline Raymond emphasized that coalition building is essential to advancing equality issues in communities. “I don’t think that staying on each other’s side with our own point of view will create anything positive,” said Raymond. “We have to focus on our common elements rather than our differences.”

Thursday’s conference punctuated by workshops and cultural events included a sneak preview of a brameggadon exercise which will see New Brunswick education workers surround the legislature with bras—a demand for government support that harkens back to the second wave of feminism.

The conference will conclude on Friday, February 13.