What did unions ever do for women? I remember this question from a class several years ago. It was asked by a young woman who was a first-rate student and also had a good deal of experience in the workplace. When I mentioned that half the union members in our province these days are women, she was surprised.
Of course, that was not always the case. Far from it, and in writing a history of the provincial federation of labour in New Brunswick, I tried to keep the student’s question in mind. Would my student see unions paying attention to the needs of women? Would she see women joining unions? In short, if unions were truly part of the struggle for workplace rights and social democracy, would she be able to recognize people like herself in that story?
There were no women at the earliest meetings of the New Brunswick Federation of Labour in 1913. The Federation nonetheless endorsed votes for women and collaborated with women reformers on other issues, such as restrictions on child labour and free textbooks for schoolchildren.
But there was no woman delegate to their meetings identified until 1919, when Nellie Thorne was named as a representative from the Hotel and Restaurant Employees; even then, we are not sure she attended, even though the meeting took place in the Saint John hotel where she worked. Three years later, there were two women delegates from the cotton mill at Milltown. Both were elected as vice-presidents, but their union did not survive. After that, women disappeared from the delegate lists for more than 20 years.
This did not mean the province’s early labour movement had no interest in the condition of women workers. The Federation’s first success, the enactment of workmen’s compensation in 1918, helped secure monthly payments for the families of men injured or killed on the job. This was helpful for women who would otherwise have to go to court to get any compensation at all. As in other provinces, it was a law whose very title – “workmen’s compensation” – was shaped by traditional male breadwinner ideas. Women who remarried lost their eligibility for payments; and those who were themselves in the labour force as domestic servants, farmworkers or office employees were not covered at all.
Meanwhile, the Federation was promoting other reforms intended to help women, including minimum wages (for “women and girls”) and mother’s allowances (for “deserving” lone women with children). Again, they collaborated with the early women’s movement in these campaigns. They supported the idea of “same pay for equal work” but also favoured the exclusion of women from jobs that “tend to impair their potential motherhood”. Only a few unions took a direct interest in recruiting women members, and women did not appear as delegates until 1944 (from another group of textile workers). A few years later there were women from the Laundry Workers (1951) and telephone operators from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (1952).
After that, women were a continuous and growing presence in the work of the Federation. One of the pioneers was Dorothy Power (b. 1925), whose story reflects the changing times. At the end of the Second World War, she was forced to leave her job as a telegraph operator for Canadian National because the railroad refused to continue employment for married women after the war. When she went to work as a typesetter at the daily newspapers in Moncton, however, she benefitted from the policies of the International Typographical Union, which had long enforced equal pay for men and women workers. In 1964 she became the first woman officer of the Federation of Labour in more than forty years. Later she was also president of her union local and of the Moncton labour council. In the 1970s, a younger generation of activists associated with the second wave of the feminist movement looked to her for leadership in lobbying for a provincial Advisory Council on the Status of Women.
By the mid-1970s women accounted for more than one in four union members in the province; by the mid-1980s, they were more than one in three. Why did this change take place? It is easy to point to structural changes, such as the increase in public sector employment, where many of the workers who delivered health care, education and other government services were women. Moreover, for many decades the Federation had campaigned for public sector union rights and other changes that opened doors for women; the province’s first equal pay law, for instance, was passed in 1961 (even though different minimum wages for men and women continued until 1965), and the ban on the employment of married women in the civil service was repealed in 1967.
But it is also important to know about the women who recognized unions as organizations designed to strengthen the economic position of all workers, including women. Notable leaders included women such as Mathilda Blanchard (1920-2007) who organized fishplant workers in Acadian New Brunswick; she had worked in the automobile industry in Ontario during the war; as a hairdresser back home in Caraquet, she listened to the concerns of her customers in the 1960s and was soon recruiting them into unions. Another example is Joan Blacquier (b. 1936), who knew nothing about unions when she started work in a hospital kitchen on the Miramichi; she went on to help lead the struggle for recognition of unions in the province’s nursing homes; much later she became a regional director for the Canadian Union of Public Employees, one of the first women in Canada to hold this office.
In convincing women to join unions, activists were following the lead of people such as Canadian Union of Public Employees Secretary-Treasurer and then President Grace Hartman (1918-93), the pioneer labour feminist who often spoke in the province in the 1960s and 1970s and did her part to educate union members to the new challenges facing them. Her message was that women had become an essential part of the employed work force in the Canadian economy: “if they are going to reap the due rewards of their labours, they must also become an integral and vital part of the trade union movement”.
When there was resistance from men, the Women’s Committee of the Federation, established in 1980, took the lead in debates on gender parity in union matters, and issues such as workplace grievances, maternity leave, childcare, sexual harassment and violence against women became common agenda items. In 1984 the Federation created a separate vice-presidency for women’s issues, and in 1986 they approved a more inclusive official title of the organization in French: “Fédération des travailleurs et travailleuses du Nouveau-Brunswick”. “Equal pay for work of equal value” was adopted as a priority issue in 1987; the progress in changing employers’ practices has been slow but steady, and the Federation has been a strong supporter of the Coalition for Pay Equity. In 2009, the decision of the New Brunswick Nurses Union to join the Federation was seen as an endorsement of the Federation’s part in advancing the place of women workers in the province.
Structural changes in the economy always produce challenges for workers and for labour organizations. Over the past century, the Federation of Labour was forced give up ideas of patriarchal privilege and adapt realistically to the changing needs of the province’s workers. They have also continued to make alliances with the women’s movement on issues of shared concern. The Federation will need to keep making these kinds of adjustments as the shape of the labour force keeps changing in the future.
Although the Federation has yet to elect a woman president, women delegates at the conventions now outnumber the men. And with many of the male-dominated parts of the provincial economy suffering from the boom-and-bust cycle of regional underdevelopment, the prominence of women union members is continuing to grow.
All this is only a part of an answer for my student. It is not just about “what unions did for women” but also about “how women made unions work”. And it is also about “how unions were too slow”. But I hope there is enough here to encourage my student to look more closely at the people and the stories that are part of provincial labour history. In this province, women are now central to the present and future of the Federation of Labour.
Sources and Reading:
Susan Crean, Grace Hartman: A Woman for Her Time (Vancouver: New Star Books, 1995)
Kimberley Dunphy, “The Feminization of the Labour Movement in New Brunswick: Women in the New Brunswick Federation of Labour, 1913-1984”, M.A. thesis, University of New Brunswick, 2009
David Frank, Provincial Solidarities: A History of the New Brunswick Federation of Labour (Edmonton: Athabasca University Press, 2013). Publié également en français: Solidarités provinciales : Histoire de la Fédération des travailleurs et travailleuses du Nouveau-Brunswick (Edmonton: Athabasca University Press, 2013)
Janet Guildford and Suzanne Morton, eds., Making Up the State: Women in 20th-Century Atlantic Canada (Fredericton, N.B.: Acadiensis Press, 2010)
Meg Luxton, “Feminism as a Class Act: Working Class Feminism and the Women’s Movement in Canada”, Labour/Le Travail, 48 (Fall 2001), 63-88
Joan McFarland, “Women and Unions: Help or Hindrance”, Atlantis: A Women’s Studies Journal, vol. 4, no. 2 (Spring 1979), 48-70