Fuelling Gender Equality in the Canadian Auto Workers Union

The ILO Bureau for Gender Equality has included the Canadian Auto Workers Union (CAW) into its recent compilation of 25 good practices entitled "Gender Equality and Decent Work, Good Practices at the Workplace" ( Note 1). The CAW, Canada's largest private-sector union with about 260,000 members, has a long-standing reputation in promoting gender equality, advocating for women workers' rights and fostering women's activism.

Article | 11 July 2005

OSHAWA, Canada (ILO online) - When auto making giant General Motors (GM) closed its Cutting & Sewing Department here in 1968, hundreds of women workers lost their jobs - even though some had more seniority than their male counterparts.

In those days, the Collective Agreement at the GM plant here called for separate and non-interchangeable seniority lists for male and female employees. Different seniority lists meant that women with more years of seniority than their male counterparts could not compete for positions on equal footing with men.

That meant women with more seniority couldn't transfer to areas of the plant to take more conventional "men's jobs". Faced with massive job losses, the Women's Committee of CAW Local 222 decided to fight for the jobs and seniority of female workers at GM and propose changes to the law ( Note 2).

That move set history in motion. In 1970, a group of women in the CAW set in motion a bill that successfully amended the law in the Canadian province of Ontario to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex.

Not only did the 222 Women's Committee manage to improve Canadian law, they set an example as to how CAW women could mobilize and fight for gender equality. Fourteen years later, the CAW was the first Canadian union to negotiate an employer-financed childcare fund.

Buzz Hargrove, President of the CAW said, "The involvement and activism of so many women in our union has made our union better and stronger".

From past to present

The CAW's Women's Department has been fuelling gender equality in the male-dominated union with female membership of just over 34 per cent. "Working closely with departments, staff, and the top leadership of the union ensures that CAW Women's Department programs and policies are widely supported and therefore implemented", says Julie White, the CAW's Director of Women's Programs.

The Department's equality strategy combines both gender mainstreaming initiatives and affirmative measures for women. The CAW has been fighting sexism by negotiating anti-discrimination measures, including employment equity and pay equity plans, and strong anti-harassment language giving workers the to right to refuse work when facing harassment.

The union has also been bargaining for Women's Advocates positions since 1993 with major companies in Canada. The women holding these positions are trained as peer advocates with paid time off. Other women in the company can approach them confidentially to obtain information on issues such as sexual harassment and domestic violence. Each year, the CAW donates over $100,000 CAD to women's shelters across the country and advocates for affordable housing for women facing violence.

In terms of gender mainstreaming, the strategy involves initiatives that integrate equality issues into union policy, activities and structures. With the adoption of union policy on diversity and equality in 2003, the CAW continues to build on its 1991 Affirmative Action paper with a number of progressive concrete equality initiatives such as gender-balanced representation, gender-related research, and gender-sensitive collective agreements.

For the CAW, achieving a gender-balanced representation means that its staff, leadership and programs should reflect the gender composition of the union membership. Gender-related research allows the collection and use of data disaggregated by sex, and helps the CAW assess its progress towards gender equality.

In 2003, the CAW conducted its first gender-disaggregated survey on union membership and leadership. The study highlighted the need to increase the participation of women in CAW leadership: while over 50 per cent of all recording secretaries, and nearly 35 per cent of all financial secretaries were women, they comprised just over 20 per cent of all local presidents and vice-presidents.

The CAW's Women's Department replies to the challenge with affirmative measures. This involves creating space within the union exclusively reserved for women to foster their activism and develop female leadership. These include two seats on the National Executive Board and one seat on the bargaining committee of all local unions with at least 30 per cent female membership.

Union education programs such as the Women Activists and Women's Leadership Programs, the CAW Council Women's Committee, an annual Women's Conference and CAW Women's Committees and Networks, which organize around common equality issues and fight for change, round up the strategy.

"Equality, democracy and solidarity are inseparable - erode one and the others become meaningless, says Peggy Nash, former Director of the CAW Women's Programs. She is currently senior assistant to CAW President and co-chair of the Canadian Labour Congress Women's Committee.

The challenges ahead

Despite the CAW's relentless fight for gender equality and women workers' rights, ongoing challenges remain. When asked about the main obstacles hindering union work in terms of gender equality issues, Julie White points to the recent "mergers [between the CAW and other unions] and working with new members to negotiate CAW women's bargaining agenda in collective agreements".

Due to the expansion of Canada's service sector, Canadian unions are gradually focusing their organizing efforts away from the manufacturing sector to the growing service industry. In the case of the CAW, organizing efforts since the 1990s have gradually shifted away from the auto industry, and increasingly organized workers in the services, since jobs in this sector tend to be some of the lowest paid, insecure and without benefits.

Given the large concentration of female workers in the services, the rank and file of the CAW has experienced an increase in the number of female part-time service-sector workers. An increasing female membership however, has not translated into equal and equitable access to union benefits and services. Due to the precariousness of service-sector jobs, new CAW members often end up negotiating higher wages only, instead of additional union benefits such as employers' contributions towards paid education leave.

"Despite the challenges ahead, the CAW still continues to be a leading voice in terms of fuelling gender equality and activism in the world of work and that's why we have included it in our compilation of good practices at the workplace", says Evy Messell, Technical Cooperation Coordinator in the ILO Bureau for Gender Equality.

The ILO Bureau for Gender Equality hopes that the examples of good practice at CAW and 24 other ILO members, including governments, employers' and workers' organizations, will enable practitioners to learn from the successful experiences of others and to apply them to their own work.

"The compilation documents good practice on how the CAW, along with other ILO constituents, take positive action to advance gender equality in the world of work in line with the ILO shared policy objective on gender equality. This means that trade union work promoting the ILO Conventions on gender equality is important. Right now, Canada has ratified two of the four key equality ILO Conventions (No. 100 & No. 111)", says Evy Messell.

Note 1 - Gender Equality and Decent Work: Good Practices at the Workplace, Bureau for Gender Equality, International Labour Office, Geneva 2004.
Note 2

Note 2 - Source: Pamela Sugiman in CAW Women Activists Wednesday course curriculum, Summer 2004.