Presented by Barbara Byers on Tuesday, 3 April 2012
(Check against delivery)
I cannot tell you how pleased I am to be participating in this discussion, as it has given me an opportunity to reflect on where women stand and the role that union women play in fighting back on any further attacks on our rights.
I don’t need to go into great detail on where women in Canada stand economically. There is good news, and there is bad news. Women are better educated than ever before, and there are more women in the paid workforce. Good news, right? But have these gains meant greater equality? Not so much.
We all know women are working harder for less pay, and are more likely to work in precarious jobs or hold down more than one job to make ends meet. This means there are more women working with fewer benefits and little or no workplace pensions. Only 33% of unemployed women qualify for Employment Insurance (EI) benefits. If you don’t qualify for EI, you don’t have access to maternity, parental, compassionate or sick leave.
We know that racialized women, women with disabilities and Aboriginal women face even greater inequality in pay and access to decent work.
And we know that women still take on the lion’s share of caregiving and household responsibilities. Women are under tremendous pressure to balance work and family life, whether it is caring for children, looking after ageing, disabled or sick relatives, or contributing to their community. Without strong public services, many women pay the price by interrupting their careers or settling for part-time or precarious work to make ends meet while caring for their family.
Now we are facing a climate of austerity which threatens public sector jobs, a source of good jobs for women. The loss of these jobs will be devastating not only for the families that rely on them, but also for the services that women across Canada depend on.
We are also facing serious threats to collective bargaining, one avenue where women can improve their wages and their working conditions.
Our collective agreements are not only a protection for our members; they are what eventually brings up the floor of rights for many unorganized women. The labour movement is often the first and last line of defence for our members and for all workers. We need to stand up against the attack on collective bargaining and the right to strike.
That’s the economic reality. Socially, women also have reason to be concerned.
South of the border, in the United States, we have seen a well-orchestrated attack on women’s reproductive rights.
Here at home, despite a hard fight by women’s and anti-violence groups, unions, policing organizations (and yes, the Quebec government), we lost our struggle to keep the gun registry. And this month our Parliament is debating a motion put forward by a Conservative member to strike a parliamentary committee to investigate when human life begins.
We have a federal government that prefers ideology to evidence, and who has taken some extreme steps to ensure that they aren’t presented with information contrary to their point of view – such as cancelling the long form census, removing questions about unpaid work and eliminating funding for women’s organizations to do research and advocacy.
I could lay out the laundry list of conservative cutbacks and the groups affected, but instead I will focus on the outcome: a fragmented women’s movement, a culture of fear that what little funding is left will be lost if groups speak out, and no pan-Canadian, independent voice to unite our voices in opposition to the Conservative’s regressive agenda.
Sisters, we have our work cut out for us.
Madeleine Parent had a tremendous influence on feminist activists in Canada as well as in Quebec. And although the organization she helped found, the National Action Committee on the Status of Women, is no longer Canada’s united voice for gender justice, perhaps the best way we can honour her legacy is to ensure open lines of communication between feminist activists in Quebec and the rest of Canada. We need to collaborate to find new ways to unite to oppose the conservative attempts to erode our rights. And we also want to continue to advance a strong vision for gender equality at work, in politics and in society.
What shape this collaboration might take is up for debate, but we need to start the conversation. The CLC took the step of inviting representatives of women’s organizations, including the Fédération des femmes du Québec, to a strategy session for our Women’s Committee this fall. It was a great discussion, and hopefully the first of many future opportunities, as we only scratched the surface.
At our strategy session, the CLC Women’s Committee identified some key areas of work, building on policy that was passed at our convention in May 2011. These priorities include:
1) A focus on child care and work-life balance. Because of your activism, Quebec has taken action on developing an affordable child care system and improving parental leave, and it has paid off in increased participation by women in the workforce as well as increased government revenues. While we understand that the system may not be perfect, it is a start. Unfortunately in the rest of Canada, working women do not have access to affordable, quality, public and not-for-profit child care, so the CLC is preparing a campaign and working with child care advocates on a strategy.
On International Women’s Day, we launched Work it!, a web-based game about work-life balance and women’s economic security. Our goal is to use the game to reach out to younger and non-unionized women, to start a conversation about women’s work and the role of unions in making working life more balanced.
2) Closing the wage gap. We know the struggle for pay equity in every jurisdiction is far from over. Federally, the CLC continues to advocate that the government abandon the Public Sector Equitable Compensation Act and implement the recommendations of the Pay Equity Task Force.
3) Fighting for decent work means we need to address under-employment and precarious work, especially for younger women, who are among the most likely to be working in part-time and temporary positions. And we need to invest in public services and fight back against austerity budgeting. Privatization and the contracting-out of public sector jobs poses a threat to good, stable jobs for women.
4) Develop closer links with allies to address disproportionate levels of poverty, unemployment and violence among Aboriginal women and women with disabilities.
5) Engage unions in a concerted effort to recruit, support and elect women to all levels of government.
6) Continuing our efforts to support Domestic workers. Quebec (and the FTQ specifically) has done some tremendous work reaching beyond our traditional borders to women who are very vulnerable, and the passion and knowledge of Carole Gingras was instrumental when we negotiated at the ILO for the successful adoption of Convention 189.
Sisters, we have a lot of work ahead of us and the stakes are high.
When times are tough, sometimes it seems impossible just to hang on to what we have fought for, never mind dream about how we can work toward even greater equality. But one of the sources of hope and inspiration for many feminists in the rest of Canada is the strength and leadership of women in Quebec, like you.
The movement for Bread and Roses, which started here but spread and flourished, showed us the importance of advocating not just against regressive forces but for positive, proactive change. Your achievement in child care brings hope to many Canadian mothers struggling to find affordable, quality child care. Your passion on domestic workers is a challenge to other Sisters to take up the issue with equal energy and drive.
So let’s work together to find more areas of productive collaboration, mutual inspiration and support. And just maybe we can push back at the backlash and restore a vibrant, pan-Canadian feminist movement.