labour issues

BC Federation of Labour Women’s Rights Forum

Linda McQuaig, Veronica Strong-Boag and Me

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.”

Read more

Posted on by Jarrah Hodge in Can-Con, Feminism, Politics 1 Comment

Workers and Women: Supporting Ontario’s Public School Teachers

Teacher with student at a computerby Patricia Kmiec

On Monday August 27th the Ontario Legislature is meeting a week earlier than scheduled to determine if they are going to impose a wage freeze, and with the same bill take away the right to strike from the province’s public school teachers. This issue has been all over the media in this province for the last few weeks, but I have yet to see a substantial discussion of where gender fits into all this. After all, while teachers do represent a diverse group of workers, it is a profession that remains predominately female.

Statistics Canada notes that as recent as 2009, over 82 percent of elementary school teachers were women, and women hold the majority of teaching positions in high schools as well. When conservative-leaning commentaries on the radio or TV, and the comments of their listeners, insult the teaching profession, particularly elementary teachers, by calling them “overpaid babysitters”, they may not be explicitly disrespecting women, but that’s what I hear. And it isn’t the first time.

Historically, women have been the majority of public school teachers since the public system emerged in Ontario in the middle of the nineteenth-century. The move to compulsory public schooling for all children created a demand for a large number of teachers to fill the posts quickly. It also created for the first time a tax-funded system of schooling, and those in charge wanted to spend the least amount of money possible.

In the early years of public schooling women could be paid as little as half as much as their male colleagues, a situation remedied only in 1951 with the Fair Remuneration For Female Employees Act in Ontario. Besides traditionally receiving less pay than men, women teachers also had marital restrictions placed on them, requiring that they cease working as teachers once they married. While school boards began to hire married women more regularly in the 1920s and 1930s, a ban on such discrimination was not made law until the 1970 Women’s Equal Opportunity Act in Ontario was passed to ban discrimination based on marital status.

With the province’s School Boards’ and Teachers’ Negotiation Act in 1975, teachers were finally given the right to bargain with the government for rights, equality, and standards in their workplace, and it is not surprising that they used it to fight for increased benefits and restructured pay structures based on seniority, education , and experience. The Ontario’s teachers’ unions have been an example to workers across the country, and it is still recent memory in Ontario when they stood up to Conservative Premier Mike Harris in the 1990s

Although it appears that public support for teachers in this case is low, (Toronto Sun editorials and comments might give you that idea) it is more crucial than ever that we back their right to fair bargaining and their right to strike. I’ve noticed that the rhetoric surrounding this issue insists that teachers who want to keep the right to strike and not accept the wage freeze don’t care about the children, and if they don’t care about children they aren’t good teachers.

Rather than being seen as workers who want (and deserve) the same rights that are granted to other workers in this country, they are seen as caregivers who should be ready and willing to give up all their rights so that parents and students are not inconvenienced. I know that it is impossible to know how this situation would look if the majority of teachers were men. Would they still be called ‘unskilled babysitters’? Would they be expected to be selfless and put others’ needs over their own? I somehow doubt it.

While Canada is getting used to no-strike and back-to-work legislation from our federal Conservative government, such initiatives from the so-called ‘union-friendly’ Ontario Liberals is a bit surprising, although not unprecedented. This dangerous path of taking workers’ basic rights away is harmful to more than just teachers, or public sectors workers, but to all workers, men and women, across the country. I know that the province is in financial trouble, but the Liberals have yet to convince me that taking the right to strike away from our teachers is the golden ticket out of debt.

(Public domain image via Wikimedia Commons)

Posted on by Patricia Kmiec in Feminism Leave a comment