Sheree Leclair is a counsellor at Osborne House, a women’s shelter in Winnipeg. In August, the 48 members of CUPE 2348 ratified a new contract that delivers long-deserved pay hikes of between 30 to 49 percent. All the workers except one are women.
“It’s a huge step forward,” says Leclair. “And I think it opened a lot of eyes.”
Despite the “big jump” in wages, Leclair is still disappointed there wasn’t more. She says people in the business sector and others still don’t see social services or women’s work as being important.
“We’re still paid less than what we’re worth. Our male counterparts are still making more and they have
better benefits. We’re still way behind,” she says. “I’m a single mom with two kids. If I was starting in the job now, I’d still be under the poverty line.”
In BC, another single parent is also getting a raise. Susan Stevenson is a long-term care aide, also called a “nurses’ aide,” at the regional hospital in Prince George.
Stevenson is one of more than 40,000 health care workers, members of CUPE’s BC health services division, HEU, who are receiving four years of back pay. The payments are the result of a major pay equity settlement that addresses in part historic gender-based wage discrimination.
“It’s great having a better wage. I’m raising two kids on my own. It means things are not so tight,” she says.
For Stevenson, who works in a 72-bed extended care wing and provides one-on-one care to patients in other parts of the hospital, the pay equity victory also brings long overdue recognition.
“It’s nice to be recognized for what we do, how hard we work. It’s a very physical job. You’re exhausted physically and emotionally,” she says. “We’re being paid now what we’re worth.”
Other women fighting to get paid what they’re worth across the country are also buoyed by a recent Quebec human rights decision. A tribunal has just ordered the University of Laval to pay thousands of dollars to 131 CUPE 2500 members after ruling that the group’s pay scales were discriminatory.
“It means a Quebec employer cannot use incremental pay scales to avoid paying women what they’re worth,” says Equality rep Carol Robertson.
Originally, an agreement had been worked out to reach pay equity through negotiations. But, the office workers – 86 per cent female – found themselves with a ten-step pay scale while their comparable group – the 84 per cent male trade and services unit – had one rate of pay. The employer had refused the money to eliminate the increments.
The human rights tribunal ruled the deal discriminated against the university’s clerical staff. The decision means pay equity goes beyond having the same maximum salary. Pay levels must now be comparable as well.
An appeal by the employer, Robertson says, could result in the case going to the Supreme Court. The Quebec decision is “a really big win.” Lengthy increment systems are most often found in collective agreements covering a high proportion of of women workers.
In Saskatchewan, workers for community-based organizations (CBOs) are also fighting for the same goal: to get paid what their work is worth. On September 28, union members from CUPE, Saskatchewan Government and General Employees Union and the Service Employees International Union came together for the first time in a “We’re Worth More” conference.
The employees, predominantly women, who staff the province’s group homes, vocational training centers, shelters and crisis centers, child-care facilities and other agencies say they’re tired of being paid incomes at or below the poverty line. A major wage study two years ago showed workers in agencies earn about $10 less an hour than their counterparts in facilities funded directly by the province.
The CBO group organized a province-wide day of action October 24 to pressure the Saskatchewan government to raise wages and benefits and provide pension plans.
With the cry of 2000 World March of Women ringing in their ears, CUPE women across the country are fighting back and demanding an end to wage discrimination. For those who have already tasted victory, like HEU’s Stevenson, the raise is fitting recognition for the importance of the work performed.
“A lot of people say (to me) I can’t believe what you make for a woman. And I say ‘take your shoes off and step into my job for a minute’,” Stevenson says. “I am worth every dime that I make. I’m worth it.”