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Labour and International Women's Day

Carolyn Egan

March 5, 2013

March 8, International Women’s Day, has always had a very close relationship with the labour movement. The day was first declared in 1910 at a socialist women’s conference in Copenhagen to commemorate the struggles of immigrant women garment workers who had marched in the streets of New York City in 1908. These women came from many countries around the world and joined with their American sisters in a fight for dignity and respect.
The song “Bread and Roses” which is often said to be the anthem of the women’s movement came out of the textile strikes in Lawrence and Lowell, Massachusetts in 1912. “The rising of the women will be the rising of us all”. Women speaking twenty-two different languages joined together and fought back against the robber barons in incredibly difficult circumstances and became an inspiration for all working people. They won gains against all odds and showed the collective power of workers.
As time went on women struggled for equality within their unions. Many of the gains that women have made have been through collective bargaining and strikes. Paid parental leave was achieved by the Canadian Union of Postal Workers who walked the line in1981, and went on to be incorporated into unemployment insurance.  Equal pay for work of equal value was first won through strike action.  Anti-harassment protection was gained through collective bargaining as was same sex spousal benefits.
Trade union support for women’s demands such as childcare and reproductive choices was instrumental in winning gains. One of the first abortion clinics in Quebec was housed in a union office. The campaign to overturn the federal abortion law was taken up by almost every union in the country.
Today women need unions in the same way we did in 1908.  Governments at all levels are trying to take away these hard won gains.  We have seen the Harper Conservatives legislate Air Canada workers, rail workers and postal workers back to work taking away their right to strike.  The Liberal government in Ontario has imposed collective agreements on teachers. The Ontario Conservatives are threatening to bring “right to work” laws into our province bringing back the open shop allowing “free riders” to opt out of paying union dues to undermine our unions.
Women beat back the employers in years past and we can to do it again fighting side by side with our brothers. We have to build deep roots in our workplaces through rank and file activity, reactivate our fellow workers and help develop the confidence in the majority that we can win this crucial fight for union rights.
Join International Women's Day this saturday, March 9, in Toronto: rally 11am at OISE (252 Bloor St. West), march 1pm to Ryerson (55 Gould St.). Fires are burning, we are rising!

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