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From meisenscher@igc.org Wed Feb 9 12:24:58 2000
Date: Tue, 8 Feb 2000 20:23:23 -0600 (CST)
From: Michael Eisenscher <meisenscher@igc.org>
Subject: Organizing Women Workers
Article: 88472
To: undisclosed-recipients:;
X-UIDL: e2602fd4d273f2199b9c607704eab0d7

Women and unions: Contribution to organized labour 2000

By Linda Briskin, York University, Canada, 8 February 2000

This post takes up the issue of women and unions. First, it examines the impact of women's organizing on union transformation. In Canada and many other Western countries, union women have taken significant initiatives around representation, leadership practices and the organization of union work, separate organizing, redefining union issues, expanding the collective bargaining agenda, and building alliances and coalitions across unions and with social movements. In many cases, these challenges have changed the ways that unions do their work, and have moved unions toward greater inclusivity and more democratic practices.

Second, given that increasing competition among workers is at the heart of restructuring and globalization, both equity and solidarity (ie. "unity in diversity") must be central to union strategies. This means addressing discriminatory practices inside unions and workplaces based not only on gender but also on race, ethnicity, citizenship, ability, age and sexuality. Taking account of such differences will not create more divisions among union members; rather, it will acknowledge existing differences. In so doing, the unions can build equality in practice, and increase the potential for transformed, inclusive and activist unions. Indeed, organizing these multiple constituencies, many of whom have traditionally been marginalized, will be central to the survival of the labour movement, and will provide the foundation for addressing the complexity of solidarity in a global context.

The patterns of restructuring, regional integration and globalization discussed on this list over the last months are seriously undermining equality gains. Decreased funding to state services like health, education and welfare programs, increased calls for labour flexibility and competitive wage bargaining across national boundaries, contracting out and the creation of more non-standard, part-time, part-year service work, the shift to homework, and the ideology of radical individualism all negatively impact on women and minority workers (although unevenly depending on their age, race, ability, citizenship and class).

In this context, women workers need unions more than ever. Unions provide a vehicle for struggling around fundamental issues affecting their home and work lives, and union activity fosters not only personal empowerment but political awareness and collective solidarity.

Undoubtedly, unions in the West also need women, most obviously to bolster declining union membership caused by the erosion in the largely male industrial union base. Unions are looking to women workers for revitalization and growth, and to new sectors of the economy to replace their traditional support. Thus unions are simultaneously confronting the necessity to organize the unorganized and to develop strategies for the realities of homework and casualization at the same time as they face the task of representing increasingly diverse constituencies of workers.

Before I explore these issues in more detail, I would like to make some general comments. There has been some conversation on the list about activist and academic interests in unions. I have difficulty with this binary since there are many activists in the academy. The academy is often a unionized workplace (my union was on strike for two months in 1997), and undoubtedly a site of political practice (for example, in Canada, students have organized a national student strike around access issues for Feb 2, 2000). I myself have both an activist and scholarly interest in unions. For the last two decades I have been a union activist, first in the Ontario Public Sector Employees Union (OPSEU) and currently in the York University Faculty Association (YUFA). I have also been writing about women and unions since 1983 when I co-edited a collection entitled UNION SISTERS. (Some recent references are listed below if anyone is interested.)

However, I also recognize the limits of this experience. In my research, I have focussed on the unions in North America, Western Europe and the Nordic countries. Among these countries there are significant variations in the strategies of union women, and in the equity practices of unions. Nevertheless, the situation of women workers organizing in/for unions in countries of the East and the South is dramatically different. I hope this posting will encourage a dialogue around women and unions that bridges these divides.


The successes outlined below do not erase the fact that women unionists continue to face significant barriers to union participation. This posting concentrates on successes both to counterbalance the emphasis on barriers in most of the literature, and to underscore that unions can learn much from the strategies of union women.


Concerns about representation have been a major focus in unions. Many key Canadian unions and federations now have affirmative action policies that designate or add seats on leadership bodies for women in an attempt to address their under-representation in top elected positions. Undoubtedly, these strategies have increased women's participation in top leadership.

The increased awareness of representational issues has had spin-off effects in other areas: employment equity for union staff; affirmative action seats for visible minorities, and gays and lesbians; equity representation in education courses; and improvements in gender distribution in local leadership. However, the focus on top leadership may make invisible local and informal leadership by women, thereby exacerbating women's low status in unions, and reproducing traditional patterns of organization and male domination.


Out of women's organizing in unions, and in response to male-dominated and hierarchical union practices, a new approach to leadership and alternative ways of working can be identified among some women activists and leaders which emphasizes process, accountability and constituency building, and participation rather than representation. Many of these innovations are informed by the organizing strategies of the grassroots women's movement, and are consistent with demands for union transformation made by rank and file activists.


Over the last two decades, women unionists have successfully pressured unions to take up issues of childcare, reproductive rights, sexual harassment and violence against women, pay equity, affirmative action and employment equity, etc. Around each of these issues, union men and union hierarchies questioned the legitimacy of unions addressing such issues. With each victory (expressed in policy statements, expansion in the collective bargaining agenda, changes to political focus), the boundaries of what constitutes a legitimate union issue have shifted, the understanding of what is seen to be relevant to the workplace has altered, and the support for social unionism has increased.

These transformations have set the stage for two other shifts: gendering union issues and recognizing diversity. Gendering issues has meant a subtle move from an identification of a women's platform of concerns to a recognition of the gender implications in all issues. This is evident in recent discussions on free trade, on economic restructuring, on seniority, on health and safety, and on telework. Second, issues are frequently scrutinised for their impact on diverse groups of women. For example, discussions of sexual harassment acknowledge the specific forms of sexual harassment experienced by women of colour. Discussions of family benefits increasingly reject traditional definitions of 'family' that exclude gay and lesbian couples. Undoubtedly, these shifts have had impacts on the collective bargaining agenda. Making gender realities visible has undermined the notion of a generic worker with a homogeneous and self-evident set of interests and challenged the idea that abstractly calling for solidarity or seeking a common denominator like class will suffice to strengthen the union movement.


Despite calls for mainstreaming (see, for eg. the 1995 report of the European Trade Union Confederation), evidence suggests a growing acceptance and legitimation of separate organizing ('special structures' in the language of the ILO and sometimes called 'self organizing'), at least in the public discourse of unions, and increasing formalization of structures to facilitate it. For example, the constitution of the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) mandates women's committees at all levels of the union, and that of UNISON in Britain supports self-organizing structures for women, black workers, workers with disabilities, and gay and lesbian workers.

Those committed to women's empowerment in the unions raise strategic concerns about whether separate organizing leads to ghettoization or marginalization of women's concerns. Increasingly there is a call for the mainstreaming of women's issues as the alternative. However, mainstreaming on its own is not the answer. I would argue that union women's continued success depends upon maintaining a strategic balance between autonomy from the structures and practices of the labour movement, and integration (or mainstreaming) into those structures.

The autonomy pull supports fundamental revisioning of union practices and prevents political marginalization and the dissipation of the radical claims for inclusivity and democratization often embedded in separate organizing initiatives. Autonomy measures provide the vehicles for women to assert their rights (to full time work at a living wage, to social welfare measures, health care, to protection against violence) in opposition to the trajectories of current economic and political policies. And they provide the context for building alliances between union women and the community-based women's movement.

Integration into union structures prevents organizational marginalization, and creates the conditions for both resource allocation, and gendering union policy and strategy. Integration measures, which ensure that women are strategically placed in union structures, will help deter the unions from accommodating the conservative values which co-exist with and support restructuring.

Union women's separate organizing has been instrumental in raising the issues of other marginalized groups. Highlighting gender-specific patterns of discrimination has encouraged many unions to respond to the concerns of other groups of workers: in the Canadian context, immigrant workers, gay and lesbian workers, workers from the First Nations, and those with disabilities.

Women's separate organizing has also provided an important precedent. Increasingly women and men of colour, lesbians and gay men, and native peoples are organizing separately inside the union movement, often through Human Rights Committees, Aboriginal Circles and Pink Triangle Committees. Separate organizing can also provide the basis for different constituencies to come together from positions of strength, for example, the links established between health and safety committees, and women's committees in Quebec which facilitated taking up previously-ignored women's occupational health issues.

Not only does separate organizing continue to be relevant, but I suggest that this strategy can make an important contribution to organizing marginalized unionists in the context of globalization and restructuring. Strategies of (and for) women unionists must pro- actively address the potential marginalization of their concerns, the neo-liberal invocation of patriarchal and individualistic values for workplaces and households, and the need to build solidarities across diversities, with un-unionized women and across national boundaries. The past two decades of separate organizing suggests that this strategy can make a contribution to these ends.


An important strategy in Canada and elsewhere has been the building of alliances and coalitions across political current, sector and institution to bring women together from the unions, political parties, and community-based groups to co-operate nationally, provincially and locally. The most successful formal expression of this, but by no means the only one, is the National Action Committee on the Status of Women/Comit* Canadien d'action sur le statut de la femme (NAC), a bi-national(includes Quebec), bilingual umbrella organization of over 600 member groups which celebrated its 25th anniversary in 1997. This co-operation has meant that trade union women work with community-based feminist groups, both to build coalitions around key issues such as childcare and pay equity, and to pressure the union movement to respond to the feminist challenge. Trade union women, in turn, have had an important impact on the politics and practices of the Canadian women's movement, weakening the tendency towards individualistic solutions and introducing (and re- introducing) a class perspective.

Such organizing has helped to legitimize coalition building with groups outside the union movement, thus actively challenging traditions of union isolationism and has provided a model for coalition building which Canadian unions are now adopting. Undoubtedly, corporatization, workplace restructuring, changing state forms, and processes of decommodification have put the question of coalitions and alliances, both nationally and internationally, on the strategic agenda more firmly than ever before.


A thread through all these initiatives has been a call for a substantively different form of union democracy: for structures of participation and inclusivity rather than simply representation. Demands by women activists for full participation challenge the apathy produced by the service mentality of business unionism, and shift the ground of union power structures. The parallels with concerns raised by rank and file activists is worthy of note.

The democratizing vision is in stark contrast to the bureaucratic, hierarchical, overly competitive and often undemocratic practices of many unions, practices which converge with male domination to exclude women and other marginalized groups. For these reasons I call for 'gendering union democracy' which speaks to making the internal practices of unions more democratic and welcoming, and more accessible by taking account of realities such as childcare and domestic responsibilities. It means ensuring that the bargaining agenda reflects the needs of women workers, and promoting organizational structures such as women's committees that encourage the participation of women. The language of 'gendering democracy' is both useful in moving away from abstractions about democracy, and problematic in that it is does not reflect the specific visions about, and claims for, democracy that emerge from other marginalized groups in the unions: lesbian and gay workers, workers of colour, workers with disabilities. So, for example, democratizing unions for workers with disabilities will involve, at minimum, increasing accessibility.

Gendering democracy is a way of actualizing the principles of equality, solidarity, justice and fairness which are such a deeply engrained part of union ideology, if not its practice. The struggle to gender democracy in the unions is critical: for women, it will be the key to gaining and maintaining access to, and a voice within, the labour movement; it will empower women to stand firm when confronting their employers; and it will strengthen the union movement's capacity to resist economic and political restructuring.

Undoubtedly, the effectiveness of unions as sites of resistance for the 21st century depends on the successful re-visioning of union democracy.


If anyone does not have access to these journals and would like copies of the articles, send me your mailing address.

Briskin, Linda. (1999) "Autonomy, Diversity and Integration: Union Women's Separate Organizing in North America and Western Europe in the Context of Restructuring and Globalization." Women's Studies International Forum, Vol. 22, No. 5, pp. 543-554.

Briskin, Linda. (1999) "Feminisms, Feminization and Democratization in Canadian Unions." In Feminist Success Stories/C*l*brons nos r*ussites f*ministes, eds. Karen Blackford, Marie-Luce Garceau and Sandra Kirby. University of Ottawa Press, pp. 73-92.

Briskin, Linda. (1999). "Unions and Women's Organizing in Canada and Sweden." In Women's Organizing, Public Policy and Social Change in Sweden and Canada, eds. Linda Briskin and Mona Eliasson. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, pp. 147-183.

Briskin, Linda and Janice Newson.(1999) "Making Equity a Priority: Anatomy of the York Strike of 1997." Feminist Studies, Vol. 25, No. 1, pp. 105-118.

Briskin, Linda. (1998) "Gendering Union Democracy." Canadian Woman Studies/les cahiers de la femme 18 (1), pp. 35-38.

Briskin, Linda. (1994). "Equity and Economic Restructuring in the Canadian Labour Movement." Economic and Industrial Democracy, 15 (1), 89-112.

Briskin, Linda and Patricia McDermott. (Eds.). (1993). Women Challenging Unions: Feminism, Democracy and Militancy. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Linda Briskin
Associate Professor
Social Science Division
York University
4700 Keele St
Toronto, Ontario, Canada M3J 1P3
Tel: 416-736-5054 Fax: 416-736-5615