Women, Workers and the Fight for Rights

Friday, March 8, marked International Women’s Day, a
day not only to celebrate the accomplishments women have made even in the ugly
face of systemic discrimination, but also to recognize the forces that have
helped all women to overcome historical disadvantages.

One such force that has assisted women in their
fight for equality is organized labour. It is well documented that women as a
gender have been unjustly compensated, receiving significantly less than their
male counterparts even when working in the same industries and filling
identical positions.  While these
discrepancies have yet to be entirely removed from the workforce, progress is
being made. Legislation promoting pay equity, and guaranteeing maternity leave
and harassment-free workplaces have all come into being in large part because
of union activity.

In our world today, people often forget the link
between International Women’s Day and organized labour. On March 8, 1857,
female garment workers in New York City marched and picketed for improved
workplace conditions, a 10-hour workday and rights equal to men. Fifty-one
years later to the day, on March 8, 1908, 15,000 female garment workers marched
again. The 15,000 garment workers were demanding the right to vote and an end
to child and sweatshop labour.

These actions inspired the recognition of
International Women’s Day on March 8. With the legislative strides that have
been made to ensure women’s rights, the unions have a lot to be pleased with.
However, there are still strides to be made and although 100 years have passed
since the garment workers marched this has not been enough time to correct all
of the problems. With the seemingly endless attacks on workers’ rights, unions
are as important as ever and women continue to play a crucial role in unions,
sometimes at great personal risk.

Last year, for example, Greek trade union leader,
Konstantina Kouneva, was seriously wounded after acid was thrown in her face.
The attack came on the heels of escalating tensions between Kouneva and the
employers. The tensions came from Kouneva’s demands for basic rights for
workers in the cleaning industry.

Kouneva was known to speak critically of practices her
employers used to exploit workers. Such practices included delaying the payment
of workers’ salaries for up to five months at a time. Other practices included
not paying social insurance for their workers. According to Amnesty
International, the union Kouneva headed reported that workers who demanded
rights were subject to employer reprisals, often threatened and reassigned to
jobs with worse conditions. Kuoneva was no exception to these reprisal tactics.

After taking up the position of union leader, she
received threatening phone calls and her employers put pressure on her to leave
the company. Much to the employers’ chagrin, Kuoneva didn’t back down. She
stands as one of many sterling examples of the contribution women have made to
workers’ rights[1].

Here at home women’s rights have been attacked in
the guise of austerity. Ontario public sector unions have recently come under
fire from various corners, from the Liberals enacting the infamous Putting Students First Act to the
Conservatives loudly denouncing union security clauses.

The public sector is where female participation in
the unionized workforce is highest. Women who belong to a union earn on average
10% more than women in the private sector. Female workers who do not belong to
a union are approximately eight times more likely to earn poverty level wages
and are half as likely to have a pension from their workplace[2].
Despite the gains for equality made since 1908, the recent political
denunciation of public sector unions in this province threatens to roll back
the clock and is apt to have a disproportionately negative impact on women. It
is much to the credit of teachers’ unions in Ontario that they have not taken
the legislative assaults on their constitutional rights lying down. Across the
province, teachers’ unions continue to protest and to negotiate for their

With all the gains women have made, perhaps it would
be more appropriate to have an International Women’s Week rather than a day. Comedian Mary Walsh recently gave a
tongue-in-cheek statement on the matter, saying:

And we’re still
celebrating something called International Women’s Day. International Women’s
Day? For God’s sake, even root vegetables get a whole week: April 16 to 23 is
International Turnip Week. And the entire month of April is National Pecan
Month. A whole month for nuts, and women still only get a day[3].

They say that behind every joke is some truth. That
is certainly accurate in this case.

You may also like

Lufthansa Flights Canceled Due to Strike

Lufthansa Flights Canceled Due to Strike

We Have a lot to Thank Unions For

We Have a lot to Thank Unions For

This Week in the History of the International Labour Movement Wagner Act

This Week in the History of the International Labour Movement Wagner Act
{"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}

Subscribe to our Bulletin now!