Ontario Federation of Labour

Ontario Federation of Labour

March 08, 2011 06:00 ET

Marching for Equality & Workers' Rights

OFL Statement on International Women's Day, 2011

TORONTO, ONTARIO--(Marketwire - March 8, 2011) - This year marks the 100th anniversary of the first International Women's Day (IWD) events. Originally called International Working Women's Day, March 8 is marked around the world as a day to celebrate women and reaffirm women's right to full equality.

In North America, the origin of IWD dates back to March 8, 1857. On this date women garment workers in New York City stopped working and marched to protest their abysmal working conditions, 12 hour days and low wages. Three years later the women garment and textile workers formed their first union.

On March 8, 1908, women garment workers again took to the streets to make the same demands their sisters had made fifty years earlier. Fifteen thousand women garment workers marched to demand shorter working hours, an end to child labour, safe working conditions and equal pay. Their slogan – "Bread & Roses" – rang through the streets. Bread symbolized economic security and roses symbolized social justice and a better life.

Then on March 25, 1911, 147 workers died, 128 women, while trapped in a fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City. These deaths mobilized women workers throughout the US, Canada and Europe.

"For over a century, women have sought to unionize their workplaces as a vehicle to pull themselves out of low wage conditions, secure decent benefits and improve their standard of living," said Sid Ryan, President of the Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL). "After 100 years of fighting for equality it is outrageous that today's provincial labour laws continue to make access to the protection of a union more difficult for women."

In the 90s, Conservative Premier Mike Harris created legislative barriers to thwart the ability of workers to democratically form a union. One of his most appalling acts was to abolish the card certification process that had been in place since the 1950s. This new policy put an end to automatic union certification, even when 100 % of the employees in a workplace sign union cards, and required them to also hold a second vote. Adding this second hurdle to the unionizing process gave employers an opportunity to identify pro-union employees and exposed workers to harassment, intimidation and interference.

Upon his election in 2003, Premier Dalton McGuinty committed to improving labour relations in Ontario and to correct the pro-employer imbalance created by the Harris government's anti-worker, anti-union policies. However, since 2004, the McGuinty government has only restored majority card certification in the construction sector – a sector that is predominately male.

"While a women's signature is honoured and legally binding for a rental agreement, credit card or loan documents, it is no longer sufficient for protecting her labour rights," said Marie Kelly, Secretary-Treasurer of the OFL. "With the Harris legislation still in place, a woman's signature on a union card must be doubly 'tested.' It is a throwback to the 19th century before women were legally declared persons and ensures that the women who are the most in need of labour protection – including Aboriginal, immigrant and other marginalized women – continue to be systematically denied access to union representation."

Economic research indicates that the union wage advantage ranges between 7%-14%. With a union, women's wages can increase by at least $5 an hour – $10,400 a year. However, the union advantage is more than wages. It means better working conditions, real access to health and safety protections, pay equity, decent hours of work, access to training and fair promotions.

Today let's remember that nothing has been "given" to women and that our mothers and grandmothers fought hard through generations to achieve the gains that have been made. Clearly, it's time to redouble our efforts to ensure that social and economic equality truly become a reality. Our mothers, sisters and daughters deserve nothing less.

Contact Information