by Jarrah Hodge
On Monday night I was honoured to be part of a panel at the BC Federation of Labour’s women’s rights forum during their biennial convention. The panel included Kelly Megyesi, Women’s Coordinator for the Public Service Alliance of Canada; UBC Historian Veronica Strong-Boag; and journalist/author Linda McQuaig. The topic was how women have fared economically under our current federal and provincial governments, as well as what the decline in union density means for women.
In addition to being on stage with these amazing women in front of a packed room, earlier in the day during the Women’s Rights Committee report (part of regular convention business), I’d seen so many women come forward to the microphone to share heartfelt and often heartbreaking personal stories on how they, their families, and friends have been affected by BC Liberal policies in particular. I was so moved by their honesty and courage so I went into the panel feeling excited and of course a bit nervous.
I took some notes on the panel, and I’ve also posted the text of the speech I delivered if you wanted to read that entire part.
So we started off with Veronica Strong-Boag, who gave some historical perspective to the situation we’re in today, using some of her own information and others’ research from a site called Women Suffrage and Beyond.
Strong-Boag said that she wanted to address the despair she often sees among feminist activist by telling stories of past women who have reached across boundaries and across difference to form coalitions:
“There are histories of resistance and partnerships and coalitions which I think are needed, in very dark days, to inspire us.”
She highlighted several remarkable Canadian women who have forged those histories, including Mary Ann Shadd Cary, a black woman born free in the United States who came to Canada to support the underground railroad. She also highlighted Agnes Maule Machar, a Christian socialist who wrote novels like “Roland Graeme: Knight” that tackled pressing social and political issues of the 1890s. Pauline Johnson, Flora Macdonald denison, and labour leader Grace Hartman also made Strong-Boag’s list of women reaching across boundaries. Finally, Strong-Boag cited Judy Rebick as an example of a contemporary feminist working “in this strong tradition of collaboration.”
Next, Kelly Megyesi talked about how federal government cuts are hurting women, drawing on her own experience working at an unemployment office. Megyesi pointed out that more than half of the federal government workers are women, mostly working in admin. With huge layoffs already starting, Megyesi said: “Women are losing good jobs, women are losing pensions and benefits.”
“They have decided to relocate thousands of other jobs – jobs they promised wouldn’t be affected.”
Sadly, Megyesi is one of the workers who’s been hit by that move, told that she could relocate or lose her job, even though most of her work is virtual. She said she doesn’t buy for a minute that the relocations will really save money. Megyesi made the difficult choice to refuse:
“It would have meant breaking up my family and leaving my elderly mother without any support.”
To conclude, Megyesi urged the audience to talk to women, talk to their unions, and to the public about the way these cuts have a disproportionate impact on women and why they need to be stopped.
I spoke next and as I said earlier, if you want to read the whole talk I gave you can read it here.
I wanted to do a couple of things in my talk. First, I wanted to talk about how off our provincial government’s priorities are and to call bullshit on the idea that Christy Clark’s sudden outreach to women via meetings with women business leaders and the social media “Women4Christy” campaign is about anything more than responding to the polling that shows women are twice as likely to vote for the NDP as the Liberals.
Second, I wanted to talk about how our unions need to think more broadly about organizing and look toward smaller and non-traditional worksites, because the union advantage is so important for women – even more than for men because it helps close the gender wage gap as well as raising overall earnings.
“I think as a labour movement we’re at a bit of a watershed moment. Just like the students in Quebec or the First Nations people living on the proposed Enbridge pipeline route, our unions have had enough of attacks on our rights. We’re starting to fight back. We’re working with allies in our communities. And we’re recognizing how crucial it is to – in spite of hostile labour laws – be organizing any and all workers. It’s important not just for the size of our movement but also its diversity and vitality.”
I drew on research from Kate Bronfenbrenner out of Cornell, who has found that union organizing drives that focus on workplaces that have a majority of women or people of colour have a far greater rate of success, yet unions’ drives tend to focus on traditional sectors dominated by white men. Bronfenbrenner’s study found only 20% of US organizing drives were aimed at workplaces where women or people of colour were the significant majority.
Bronfenbrenner’s work also found that it was important that, when organizing these workplaces, unions have a representative team of organizers. This isn’t always easy but it dramatically increases the likelihood of success of the organizing drive so it’s important.
I added, “It helps – when you’re trying to persuade someone from a marginalized or underrepresented group to join your union – to show by who your representatives are that there’s room for everyone in your union – that we’re not just a bunch of old boys’ clubs…And then of course that means we have to not be a bunch of old boys’ clubs once these worksites do join the union.”
A lot of unions have made a serious commitment to increasing diversity at all levels but there is still work to do to welcome women, especially young women and women of colour, and to make the space for them to have a meaningful and effective role.
So on to the star of the night: Linda McQuaig, who started out by referencing the mistaken idea that women have already achieved equality and that feminism is no longer necessary. She said we shouldn’t let ourselves get complacent because a few women have been able to overcome barriers and rise to the top:
“Some individual women have succeeded, but I think there’s a real danger in assuming working women as a whole are doing as well…There’s systemic discrimination against women that is very much alive.”
McQuaig said she feels that for ordinary working women, the last two decades have been tough, with little substantive material changes on issues like the gender pay gap. She cited the example of the women workers at Canada Post, who had to fight for 28 years to get legal recognition of their unfair pay and who are still waiting for payment.
The audience had lots of interesting questions for the panel, but a common theme was around the need to “reclaim” the word “feminism” and bring more young women into the labour movement and social justice movements generally. On reclaiming feminism, Linda McQuaig said the way to do that is to simply “use it”. The panel echoed her sentiment, saying that the best way to show the value of feminism is through claiming that term proudly and having conversations with others about why it’s important.
I used one of my favourite Rosemary Brown quotes: “Fighting for equality is like washing the dishes: you have to get up and do it every single day” because I think that’s the only thing that will work. Because of people who have fought that fight every day, we have already made enormous change. Moving forward will take large-scale action but it will also take more of those everyday conversations, more face-to-face connection with people to talk about feminism and feminist/progressive issues.
One woman came up to the microphone and agreed: “I’m a young worker and I’m proud to say that I am a feminist.”
I reiterated on getting more young women involved that it’s fundamentally about giving them space and meaningful roles. I understand that some in an older generation of activists have invested a lot in their movement and they’re afraid that younger women might not get it, but you can’t build unity by approaching young people with fear – you have to trust them to empower them.
To conclude, McQuaig urged the audience to speak out, saying what she feels has worked well in the past was feminist confrontation.
“Be louder,” she said.