Labour Views for February 25, 2015
Written by Gayla Thunstrom, Acting President Northern Territories Federation of Labour

History teaches us the importance of remembering and celebrating International Women’s Day on March 8 every year.

The day has its roots in the early 20th century, when labour movements first began to advocate for equal rights, such as pay, for women as they began to join the work force in greater numbers.

Throughout the 20th century in North America improvements in workplace health and safety regulations were slow in coming, forcing workers to organize and fight for decades.

One of the most iconic battles for women’s rights was the 1912 Bread and Roses strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts. More than 20,000 immigrant textile workers went on strike against inhumane working and living conditions. The majority of these workers were women. They took the lead in strategizing and picketing. On the picket lines, women carried banners demanding decent wages (bread) and respect (roses). They faced police brutality, but they drew on their courage and resolve, virtues still found today in women’s struggles.

Every March around the world women organize International Women’s Day events to celebrate the accomplishments of many such struggles and to remind society that much change is still needed.

Women are among those workers who benefit most from union membership. Unions lobby hard to overcome the long-established barriers to equality.  The Union of Northern Workers lead a 12-year struggle finally resulting in a pay equity agreement for its members.  Unions have lead the fight for paid parental leave, and maternity leave changes to employment insurance.

Despite improvements in working and living conditions, some legislative gains that legally enshrine women’s rights, and the platitudes of politicians and employers, women’s rights and equality continue to be limited.  Data on wage inequality throughout the Canadian economy shows that women’s income remains dramatically less than men’s.  In the 20 year period between 1991 and 2010 men with a high-school diploma earned on average $975,000 while women earned $525,000-$450,000 less.  In the same period, men with a bachelor’s degree earned $1,707,000 while women earned $973,000 – a loss of $734,000.

Today,  women’s equality remains under attack from government efforts to weaken unions, through the federal bills C-377 and C-525, from the low-wage economy and the likes of the Temporary Foreign Worker program and from cuts to public services.

Human rights are hard-won.  And once we gain them, we have to work to keep them.  Federal and territorial government campaigns of austerity are attempts to drag us back into hard times.  Women have learnt much from their predecessors and will not cede ground without a fierce fight. The battle lines have changed, but women’s resolve has not.

Across Canada on March 8, women and men will be celebrating International Women’s Day.  Many will be speaking out against proposed policy changes unfolding across Canada that will condemn more women to the growing low-wage economy.

On March 8, please join in celebrations to mark International Women’s Day and carry on the fight throughout the year.