Wednesday, 13 March 2013

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 rights.

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.