BC Federation of Labour Women’s Rights Forum Talk, November 2012

Jarrah Hodge:

First I just wanted to say thanks to the BC Fed for inviting me to speak on this panel. I’m really honoured to be up here with these amazing women and I’m looking forward to being part of this important discussion.

Last week someone in the BC government had a particularly crummy job: spinning the latest numbers that showed BC still has the second worst child poverty in the country.

I quote: “The government has created the BC Jobs Plan – focused on strengthening the economy, creating and protecting jobs for families in every region of BC, and making sure BC residents are able to get the skills training and education needed to fill job openings.”

Well that’s nice. Never mind the only real evidence of the jobs plan so far is ads in movie theatres and on transit lecturing young people that “hipster is not a real job”.

I could go through this whole thing but I think it’s pretty obvious how out-of-touch our government is when this is their reaction to over 100,000 BC children living in poverty.

Now granted they have upped the minimum wage slightly and they’re making a couple changes to Income Assistance. That’s important, but it doesn’t nearly go far enough.

I mean Christy Clark’s priorities are way off. I’m sure some of you saw over the last little while she’s been having meetings with women business leaders in Northern BC. She’s also launched a Women4Christy campaign on social media, which is bombing on Facebook and Twitter except among Liberal activists.

No one should buy the meetings with women are about anything other than responding to the polling that shows women in BC are twice as likely to vote NDP as Liberal.

After all, just last month she refused an invitation to meet with the Nobel Women’s Initiative, which was in town to talk about issues relating to gender and climate change.

Did anyone see what happened at Christy Clark’s women’s meeting in Cranbrook? It’s almost so bad it’s funny. So it was organized by Beth Bennett, wife of the local MLA and Cabinet Minister Bill Bennett. Thing was – Beth Bennett declined to speak and her husband went on stage and spoke for her about how great Christy Clark is at relating to women. Anything seem a bit off about that to you?

But anyway, we already know a lot about the problems women have experienced in the economy under the BC Liberals, now compounded by the attacks on workers, unions, and activists we’ve seen from the Harper Conservatives. Young women and women of colour – especially migrant workers – are even worse off under these governments.

We need government change and with a bit of hard work and a little bit of luck we’ll have that in May, at least provincially. There’s no doubt better policy and laws can make a big difference for women.

But the NDP won’t be able to wave a magic wand and make gender and racial inequality disappear – systemic discrimination is so entrenched in our society and our workplaces that it takes more than legislation to address economic inequality.

So what I want to focus on is how we move forward within our unions. Because increasing union density and protecting unionized public sector jobs is key to advancing women’s equality. Union women earn an average $15,000 more a year than non-union women.

Just imagine what it would be like in your life right now to make $15,000 less than you currently do.

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.

But we’re not quite there yet. Kate Bronfenbrenner out of Cornell has done a lot of research on organizing and she found that worksites where people of colour and women predominate have a much higher win rate for organizing drives. However she also found – granted this is the States but looking around at organizing in Canada it doesn’t seem to be much different – that only 20% of organizing drives were happening in sites where there was a significant majority of women or people of colour. So for one, we have to broaden the sectors and reconsider he size of workplaces we’re looking to organize.

But how and who does the organizing is important too. Studies and our own experience have shown that face-to-face contact makes a big difference. And Bronfenbrenner’s research also found having a representative team of organizers – be those staff or inside or outside volunteers – doing that face-to-face outreach significantly increased the likelihood of success.

It makes sense – we all know there’s stigma out there against unions. 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. I know a lot has changed and many unions have done a great job actively increasing diversity among volunteers, staff, and elected representatives. But I hate to tell you this – at least some of us have a bit more work to do.

That’s not something that’s unique to the labour movement but really an issue that affects most institutions that have been around as long as we have.

As Irene mentioned when she introduced me, I used to be the Chair of the Women’s Rights Committee for the BC NDP and I can’t tell you how many times I showed up to an event and had people assume I was there because my parents brought me or because my boyfriend sign me up. Or they’d say to me and other youth members something like: “Why aren’t more young people here?” as if they were somehow blaming us. I also encountered a lot of people who assumed that I joined because my parents were members or because my boyfriend must’ve brought me along.

I know there’s a perception out there in labour, in progressive politics, and certainly in feminism that “the young people” don’t understand or appreciate what we fought for or how hard we fought. There’s a perception that most of us take our rights for granted.

Certainly we could all stand to listen and learn a little more. There are important lessons that need to be passed on about our movements’ struggles for reproductive rights, for workers’ compensation, for public auto insurance, for pay equity.

But you don’t build unity by assuming the young people in your group don’t care or by putting all the onus on them to recruit more young people without giving them the tools to do so and without taking a look at whether things could be improved with the process and dynamics of organizing and new member engagement.

If you take a more positive approach and empower young members by giving them responsibility, it will pay off. The example I’m most familiar with is from where I work. COPE 378 during our strike at Hertz a couple of years ago the union’s leadership said to a group of young activists: “We trust you. We want to listen to your ideas. We are in this together.” They put them in prominent roles organizing and supporting the picket lines. Not only were they capable of doing that with a little support – those same activists are major players in the union today.

There are young women activists out there doing amazing things. When Stephen Woodworth brought forward M-312 it was young women in Ottawa who came up with the idea of the “Radical Handmaids” – based on the Margaret Atwood book The Handmaid’s Tale – to show how the motion would set back reproductive rights. Their protest ideas took off and a lot of us went down to the Vancouver Art Gallery before the vote and wore our red shirts and funny hats and had an effective protest based on their idea.

Look at Brigette DePape, who spoke earlier today. With one simple action she sent a message across the country.

I run a feminist blog called Gender Focus and one of my contributors, Matilda, has volunteered with grassroots women’s NGOs around the world. She currently works with the Feminist Dalit Organization in Nepal, which fights for the rights of the lowest caste of women. Most recently she helped organize Nepal’s first national girls’ netball team.

There are so many more examples of young women working on important issues and causes every day. We need to do a better job as unions of reaching out and speaking with them and making them truly a part of our movement.