The 2018 USW Women of Steel (WOS) Conference in Toronto, Ontario, was called to order on Monday, Oct. 15, with a short ceremony conducted by Valarie King honoring the traditional territories of Canada’s local Indigenous tribes. After a Sister carried sage throughout the ballroom to cleanse the space of mental and spiritual impurities, King performed a traditional song and dedication for the approximately 1,200 attendees.
The WOS coordinators for each of the 13 USW Districts, represented by a massive showing, introduced their delegations with a brief history of their leadership, sector statistics, and passionate chants that nearly shook the chandeliers. By the time USW International Vice President-at-Large Carol Landry took to the stage, the room was fired up and ready to act.
“We are all being called to action here,” Landry said. “This is not a sit-down conference.”
Landry spoke on how the International had to do some soul searching throughout its history, rework its image and its foundation, and find ways to welcome women into the union as they stepped into the workplace. She reminded the conference that this work is far from over.
“We have to re-energize, and we have to recommit,” Landry said. “Today, we are being called to action, and WOS have once again found their voice.”
Landry noted how many women, in both the United States and Canada, are still trapped in low-paying jobs, and most women are still the primary caregivers in the home. When you add in domestic violence and harassment in the workplace, as well as the lack of voice women have in positions of power, that call to action, she said, is needed just as much today as it was thirty years ago, especially in the realm of domestic and workplace violence.
On any given day in Canada, more than 3,000 women seek refuge in a women’s shelter along with some 2,500 children. That number does not include the women who can’t get into a shelter because there isn’t enough room.
“Unions have fought for respect, for civil rights, and freedom from violence,” Landry said, “so there should be no need to ask why we as a union are committed to ending violence against women.”
Landry reminded the delegation that although the political and social climate seems anything but positive, one phenomenon that sparks hope is that as women are being called to action, they’re answering in record-breaking numbers.
As of September, 256 women in the U.S. had won their primary in either a House or a Senate race. There are also 13 women running for governorship, with Stacey Abrams of Georgia on tap to possibly become America’s first Black woman governor. Landry noted the importance of women participating in these races as voters.
“Your first call to action is to urge every woman in your family, in your workplace, and every woman you see in your community to get out and vote,” Landry said. “You can change the direction your country is heading with your vote.”
Following Landry’s rousing speech, the delegates saw a video highlighting the many ways Women of Steel have stepped up throughout their careers and throughout crises to take action, from a Sister who worked on the ground during the devastating Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico to another who refused to allow a male-dominated workplace to hold her down.
Ann Flener Gittlen, director of the USW Women of Steel program, then took to the podium to introduce delegates who highlighted moments when their own locals answered calls to action for their communities. The attendees heard about mentorship programs, Get the Lead Out campaigns, Habitat for Humanity projects, Black labor education workshops, start-up kit collections for domestic violence survivors, and more.
A panel of diverse participants ended the morning plenary with an intense discussion on gender-based violence, which disproportionately affects women. Panelists spoke on the importance of including anti-violence contract language in collective bargaining agreements as well as the implementation of programs like Be More than a Bystander in Western Canada, which aims to give male allies the tools they need to be allies with women.
Women of Steel Take to the Streets for Ontario’s $15 Minimum Wage
Delegates converged on University Avenue in downtown Toronto for the Ontario Day of Action for Workers’ Rights, marching over from the conference waving USW and Women of Steel flags while chanting “Hands Off!” and “Fight Back!”
The women joined hundreds of others calling for fairness for workers at the energetic rally outside the offices of Minister of Labour Laurie Scott. Once the Women of Steel delegates arrived, the rally spilled over into the street.
The action was one of more than 50 across Ontario on Oct. 15 showing widespread support across the province for the $15 minimum wage and decent work laws.
The minimum wage is $14/hour in Ontario, slated by law to rise to $15 on Jan. 1, 2019, joining Alberta as the second province in Canada to have a $15 minimum wage.
Conservative Premier Doug Ford has announced his intention to roll back that increase along with other basic labour rights, a major policy shift that was never mentioned during last June’s provincial election.
“We are here to say to Minister Laurie Scott: Hands off our basic labour rights,” said Deena Ladd from the $15 and Fairness campaign. “It’s not frills. Not luxuries. These are basic necessities! Let’s take it to the streets. We are the people!”
“The minimum wage increase meant we could make plans to pay down debt, get insurance and a winter coat,” said Christine, who works four minimum-wage part-time jobs.
“It’s hard to feel you are human when you can’t pay your bills and are living in poverty,” she said.
USW International Vice-President Carol Landry called for Ontario Premier Doug Ford to “Do the right thing.”
“Sixty per cent of minimum wage workers are women. They should not have to make a choice between feeding their family and taking a day off work when they’re sick,” said Landry.
“The theme of our conference is A Call to Action,” said Landry. “This is our first action – saying to Premier Ford: ‘Hands Off!’”
Steelworker and recently elected Member of Provincial Parliament Jamie West is the Labour Critic for the Official Opposition New Democratic Party.
“Any time labour is in the streets is a good thing. It’s time for power of the people,” said West.
“This law is already in place. The Premier and the Conservatives are telling you that you deserve less – that workers have it too good,” said West. “I’m here to tell you that Andrea Horwath and the NDP will fight Ford every step of the way. We are with you shoulder-to-shoulder.”
“The union movement is standing with the community, those who have led this fight,” said Carolyn Egan, President of USW Local 8300 and the Steelworkers Toronto Area Council, co-host of the rally along with the Toronto and York Region Labour Council.
“We can win. Do not give up!” Egan said.