Q & A: Madeleine

In the business of labor

September 1 1980
Q & A: Madeleine

In the business of labor

September 1 1980

In the business of labor

Q & A: Madeleine

In the past 15 years, the Canadian labor scene has changed as women have joined trade unions in a percentage four times that of men. This has lent their demands a new militancy, as seen in strikes by blue collar workers such as the violent 1978 auto workers' stoppage at Fleck Manufacturing, near Centralia, Ont,, as well as by white collar workers—a strike at Toronto's York University over pay and personal services the same year made it possible for a worker to refuse to fetch coffee for a boss. Right now in the Vancouver area 350 men and women are on strike against Kenworth truck manufacturing company in order to get equal pay for work of equal value for seven women computer operators in their ranks.

Madeleine Parent has played a key role in' strengthening the women's labor movement, beginning 38 years ago as an organizer in Quebec textile mills. Now secretary-treasurer of the Canadian Textile and Chemical Union (CTCU) and a spirited advocate of Canadian-based unions, Parent believes that women have a long way to go in getting their rightful place in the workforce. She has seen the concept of equal pay for work of equal value become federal and Quebec law, and limited maternity benefits become available under the Unemployment Insurance Act. However, Parent would like to see other provinces follow suit on the first breakthrough, and her union is preparing for an appearance before the federal Human Rights Commission to argue that the maternity benefits are unfairly disbursed. Parent was interviewed in Toronto recently for Maclean’s by free-lance writer Roberta Green.

Maclean’s: Why do women earn 58 cents for every $1 men earn?

Parent: The first reason is that women are kept in the lowest-paying jobs. The second is that employers usually give raises in terms of percentages rather than in straight dollars and cents across the board. For example, if the average pay for the women in an office is $5 an hour and the average pay for the men, who are usually better paid, is $8 an hour, a 10-per-cent increase means that the women get 50 cents more an hour while the men get 80 cents. So the pay gap grows and will keep on growing until we can enforce equal pay for work of equal value and seniority rights.

Maclean’s: What, exactly, is the difference between equal pay for equal work and equal pay for work of equal value? Parent: Equal pay for equal work is a hoax. Because women tend to be concentrated into certain jobs that men generally won’t take, such as typists, all the typists in a given establishment will probably be women. If they’re all paid equally badly, they’re getting equal pay for equal work and that’s precious little. Equal pay for work of equal value, on the other hand, means that an employer cannot give lower pay to a person because she is a woman. If she is perform-

ing a job whose skills, effort, responsibility and conditions of work are equal to those demanded of a man in a higherpaying position, she is entitled to equal pay.

Maclean’s: On what basis does the CTCU argue that the present Unemployment Insurance maternity benefits plan penalizes women for bearing children ? Parent: When the federal government amended the Unemployment Insurance Act to provide maternity benefits, it placed stringent conditions on women. It means that women are required to prove a longer work force attachment than is demanded of other people who claim benefits when they’re off work. If a woman misses out by even a few days, even due to a doctor’s miscalculation, she loses all of her 15 weeks of maternity benefits. (She must contribute to the plan for 20 weeks in order to collect, and a woman on strike receives no benefits.)

Maclean’s: What does a lack of maternity benefits cost women in the long run?

Parent: To bear children, a woman has to pay in terms of her job, her seniority rights and her right to retraining and recycling into jobs traditionally held by men. You see, without proper child care services, women still often have the main burden of rearing children, and a 15-week leave even with an additional two waiting weeks just isn’t enough. Without a collective agreement for a leave of six months to two years, a woman may well have to give up her job and lose all her credits. As a result of

having two or three children, a woman may find herself back in the work force 10 or 15 years later as a new worker with no rights.

Maclean’s: Why has the percentage of women joining unions been so high ? Parent: That’s because most of the people joining unions have been public service workers—government workers, teachers, paraprofessionals and professionals—and most of those workers are women. Not only that but they have chosen Canadian unions in order to keep the means of controlling their organization right here in this country.

Control outside leads to bureaucracy and contempt for the rank-and-file Canadian.

Maclean’s: With that upsurge in female union membership, why do women in unions still only comprise 27 per cent of all women workers?

Parent: Those figures reflect the fact that women tend to be in three still largely unorganized job ghettos: office jobs in banks or large corporations, sales jobs in retail stores and service jobs in restaurants and hotels. Maclean’s: Why is it particularly hard to organize workers in trade and fi-

nance, which employ 21 per cent of all women workers?

Parent: One major barrier has been a history of trade unionism dominated by an American bureaucracy with the image of a gangster-type who comes up here to regiment people into unions. Women bank workers didn’t want to be a part of that. Second, bank branches are fairly small units where male managers give women the idea that they’re all friends. That close relationship obscures the fact that the bank manager is a boss just like the superintendent in a factory.

Maclean’s: Why do women still make up only 17 per cent of union executive boards?

Parent: First, women in job ghettos are among the lowest-paid workers and therefore often get less respect and recognition. Second, most women not only work a 35to 40-hour week on the job, but they also do another 20 to 30 hours of work at home, which makes them less free to participate in union activities. Without participating on a consistent basis, women don’t know the general conditions and problems and then aren’t able to argue convincingly about their own problems as women workers. Beyond that, women have to convince their families that they have a significant life of their own and that the others have to do their share so that mother can look after her interests in the wider world.

Maclean’s: What other major issues do you see still facing women?

Parent: For one, we still need public facilities for child care. It’s crucial that these be public facilities because child care provided by private sector employers can easily lead to paternalism and other abuses. Another is sexual harassment, particularly in white collar jobs. Not only should human rights codes prohibit it, but women must organize to protect themselves both against sexual harassment and the demand to perform personal services that demean them. Finally, means must be found for immigrant women workers to learn English where necessary and to learn about their rights under the laws of this country so that they can overcome the fear of unjust discharge and articulate their just demands. By organizing and participating in unions that respect them, these women have a chance to achieve better status and to fight to improve their conditions as well as those of all workers.

Maclean’s: Of all these, what's the most pressing issue?

Parent: I can’t think of anything I feel more strongly about than the cause of immigrant women. We have to be concerned about the people on the bottom of the ladder,