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This Labour Day, CUPE is launching a national campaign to raise womens wages.

Its not that were burying our heads in the sand, ignoring the tensions that divide the Canadian labour movement. Nor are we immune to the fallout of these divisions. The issues are critical and the stakes are high.

But for most workers, workplace democracy isnt about choosing among unions. Its about having a real voice. Workers arent consumers of unions, shopping around for the best deal. Theyre members of unions working together to improve their wages and working conditions, and defend their rights.

For women in particular, the key question is not switching unions but how to ensure she has one. According to Statistics Canada, full-time unionized women make $5.00 more an hour compared to non-union women workers. Yet even at that, she still earns less than the average male.

On an hourly basis, women earn only 80 cents for every dollar a man earns. A woman working full-time is paid on average $14,600 less per year than a man. This economic inequality follows women for life, as pensions based on earnings leave them to retire into poverty if they can retire at all.

So this Labour Day, in a real expression of grassroots democracy, working women from coast to coast to coast are coming together in an all-out drive to raise womens wages. At the bargaining table, by organizing new workers, on the lawns of the legislature and before the courts, theyre redoubling their efforts to close the gap and end the exploitation of women workers.

We refuse to accept the fiction that womens work in health care, education, social services, as flight attendants merits less pay, or that women work for pin money. Were demanding not just equal pay but a higher minimum wage and an end to wage scales that keep women from earning a full-days pay for a full days work. Were determined to improve pension coverage and benefits. And were looking for improvements to collective agreements, to legislation and to child care and other social programs.

These are more than bread and butter issues. Theyre questions of justice and democracy. And for those who lack the economic security to flee a violent relationship, it can be a question of life and death.

More than 300,000 of CUPEs half-million members are women. Working on the front line providing services vital to the community, many have gone years without a fair wage increase, shouldering the burden of deficit reduction and in effect, subsidizing our employers. Witness group home workers in Saskatchewan who are paid $7 or $8 an hour or child care workers across Canada earning even less.

An increasing number work part-time, casual or as temps, piecing together two or more jobs to meet their familys needs. (In the past ten years, the number of women holding more than one paid job jumped by 45 per cent compared to just 4 per cent for men.)

But our response to this injustice is not despair. Its determination. For despite the many obstacles to winning respect and a fair wage, were energized and organized. In the year 2000, were on our way to creating 2,000 womens committees within our union, working to ensure womens voices are heard and priorities respected.

Weve been buoyed by the mounting number of victories in the struggle for fair wages. Recent successes like the historic pay equity win for 600 library workers in Toronto or wage parity gains for thousands of community social service workers in BC show how much women and their families have to gain.

These victories have come at a cost. This past year alone more than 50,000 CUPE women have been forced to take strike action to improve their wages, most recently social service and child care workers in Toronto. But in each instance, they walked the picket line knowing the decision to strike had been theirs and the decision to settle was also in their hands. That too is union democracy in action.

As we celebrate our victories and look forward to the year ahead, working women want to deliver a clear message to employers and governments.

Were not going to tolerate continued discrimination. Were sick and tired of the stalling tactics. Were not willing to accept the excuses.

And on this particular Labour Day, working women also have a message for the labour movement. Too many of us are not yet organized. Too few of us have been given the chance to lead. Too often our voices are not heard.

CUPE has a long history of leadership fighting inequality and injustice. In building our womens wages campaign from the grassroots, were determined to demonstrate to working women and all workers that now, more than ever, unions are key to our lives.

Through this and other efforts, were confident that we can build an ever stronger, more progressive and more inclusive labour movement.

Judy Darcy is National President of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, Canadas largest union.