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Flashback to 1971, when delegates to CUPEs national convention adopted a ground-breaking report on the status of women in CUPE. The report challenged the union to make changes in a number of areas to advance equal rights for women members both in the union and in the workplace.

Now, more than 30 years later, CUPEs long history of fighting inequality and injustice for women in the workplace is beginning to pay off. Recent victories include a $414 million proxy pay equity payout in 2003 by the then-Conservative Ontario government to 100,000 women across the province, pay equity advances for health care workers in Saskatchewan and victories won through strikes large and small across the country.

While CUPE campaigns like Up with Womens Wages, focused on increasing the wages of female workers are succeeding at the bargaining table, womens political participation in the union has stalled. The retirement of National President Judy Darcy, and that of National Secretary-Treasurer Geraldine McGuire two years earlier, has left a female leadership void, say many womens rights activists in the union.

That sentiment was given voice by delegates attending the womens caucus at the recent national convention in Quebec City, who expressed concern and frustration that, at a time when womens share of membership in CUPE is rising, the participation of women in the political process of the union is lagging.

Barriers remain

The recent election of seven men to the National Executive Committee (NEC), and only six women to the 23-seat National Executive Board (NEB), is an indication women still face significant barriers to political participation in the union, say activists. These barriers include womens triple day, as workers, parents and union activists, the structure of CUPE, and local union mergers that have effectively shut out women leaders on local union executives.

To go from a period where women have played a significant leadership role in CUPE to an executive board that is predominantly male leaves me asking, Where are the women? This has to change, says Denise Hammond, a worker at the Ryerson Students Administrative Council in Toronto and a member of CUPE 1281. She points out that there are 300,000 women in CUPE and our issues must be better represented in our union through the visible presence of female leaders. Its shocking that this kind of gender gap is happening.

New strategies needed

Hammonds concern was echoed by many of the women present at the emotionally charged caucus, who called on the national womens committee to aggressively advance the womens equality agenda within CUPE. The caucus called on the committee to find ways to improve communication between CUPE women across the country, and to develop new strategies for lobbying newly elected NEB members to ensure that issues relevant to women in CUPE are heard, and acted on.

In addition, the group called for a one-day pre-convention opportunity for women to caucus in order to identify priorities and organize speakers to key convention resolutions. Going one step further, Ontario delegates scheduled a one-day forum for February, geared to determining workable strategies to change CUPEs structure, to identify women leaders and to strengthen the role of womens committees.

I know that women delegates left convention feeling like weve (CUPE) gone back to the 70s, says Barbara Ames, co-chair of the National Womens Committee. But she is hopeful that womens rights activists will harness those feelings to fuel increased activism to challenge the status quo both at the national leadership level and on local union executives. I know that I will personally be lobbying (National President) Paul Moist to enact changes so that we do achieve gender balance in future elections.

Resurgence expected

Both Ames and Hammond are optimistic there will be a resurgence of gender equality politics in the union as activists increase their participation on local and provincial womens committees and push for substantive leadership training for female CUPE members.

Although we elected seven great brothers to the NEC, the concern many women in the union have expressed is a valid one, says Donalda MacDonald, president of CUPE PEI and one of the six female members of the NEB. While we have worked to achieve gender balance in our union, we still have a long way to go to break the barrier of the glass ceiling, not just on the national executive of the union, but throughout CUPE at the provincial and local union level.

The first step is recognizing that there is a problem. And then we work together to fix it, says MacDonald. My goal is to make the opportunities for men and women equal, so that over the next few years, we can find solutions.

Stella Yeadon