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Leadership, Feminism and Equality in Unions in Canada website


“Trade Unions, Collective Agency and the Struggle for Women’s Equality: Expanding the Political Empowerment Measure.” In Making Globalization Work for Women: Women Workers’ Social Rights and Trade Union Leadership, eds. Valentine Moghadam, Suzanne Franzway, and Mary Margaret Fonow.  State University of New York Press (SUNY), 2011.

In contrast to commonly-used and internationally-sanctioned measures of women’s empowerment which focus on individual agency and representation, often in the parliamentary arena, this chapter argues for the importance of expanding empowerment measures to take account of collective agency.

Undoubtedly ‘making globalization work for women’ will depend on collective organizing. This chapter contends that trade unions are uniquely situated as vehicles for collective agency, especially in the current global context. Unions seek to promote both social transformation and the institutional mainstreaming of equality, and can empower women to act collectively in their own interests.

This chapter considers trade unions as vehicles for changing workplace relations and conditions through collective bargaining;  trade union commitments to equality as expressed in union policy and constitutions/rule books; trade union practice as democratic institutions; unions as equality resources at multiple levels and geographies, that is, at local, regional, national and transnational levels; and trade unions as social movement vehicles.


Prior to coming to York University, I taught at Sheridan College and was active in the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU). Inspired by union women's organizing, I set out (with Lynda Yanz) to document the successes and struggles of union women in Canada. This led to Union Sisters (Women's Press, 1985), and later Women Challenging Unions (co-edited with Patricia McDermott) (University of Toronto Press, 1993). I have a continuing academic and activist interest in the efforts of union women and other equity-seeking groups to transform unions.

“Cross-Constituency Organizing in Canadian Unions.” British Journal of Industrial Relations, Vol. 46, No. 2, June 2008, pp. 221-247.

This article explores cross-constituency organizing inside three Canadian unions that involves dual, parallel and integrated structures. It assesses these approaches with reference to the conceptual frame of intersectional political practice. In particular, this study highlights the institutionalization of intersectionality through constitutional, organizational, and representational intersectionality. The paradigm of autonomy and integration is used to identify effective mechanisms for cross-constituency vehicles. Cross-constituency organizing is a form of coalition-building inside unions  It is a vehicle for building solidarities across identities, and advancing equity organizing in Canadian unions that supports, at one and the same time, union revitalization and the union equity project.

For an earlier and more popular version, see “A Caucus of Caucuses: The Next Stage In Union Equity Organizing.” Just Labour, <>  Vol 6, No. 1, Spring 2006, pp. 101-112. 

"Victimization and Agency: The Social Construction of Union Women's Leadership". Special issue on Gender and Industrial Relations. Industrial Relations Journal, Vol. 37, No. 4, July 2006, pp. 359-378.

This paper interrogates the notion that women union leaders lead differently. Despite significant variation in the  union movements in Australia, Canada, Sweden, the UK and the US, similar discourses on women’s union leadership emerge in all five countries. Based on a materialist social construction approach which supports a recognition of difference without reference to essentialist ideas about women’s nature, this paper seeks to identify what may be common across these countries to explain this phenomenon. The paper argues that the fact that women face discrimination in unions, on the one hand, and organize as a constituency and have access to women-only education, on the other supports the development of transformational leadership among women unionists, even across diverse contexts and cultures. Unpacking union women’s leadership practices in this way reveals a dialectic of victimization and agency.

“Union Leadership and Equity Representation.” For the Union Module of the Gender and Work Database. Posted at  <>, April  2006. (61 pages)

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the scholarly literature on the subject of women and union leadership reflected the push towards increasing women’s participation in top leadership positions, often through affirmative action seats. In the struggle to democratize unions and shift the demographics of trade union leadership, the latter half of the 1990s saw several important and coincident shifts: from a discussion of leadership to a discourse of representation, and from a focus on women to the inclusion of other equity-seeking groups. Simultaneously, unions in all Western countries faced globalization and restructuring which have led to declining union densities and the re-positioning of global, national and local strategies. The paper provides a thematic and analytic framework within which to explore issues pertinent to cultivating inclusive union leadership in the twenty-first century. The paper examines:

  • barriers to leadership
  • desegregating representation and simultaneously revaluing the local and informal leadership of women
  • two key union strategies for shifting the demographic profile of union leadership to include members of equity-seeking groups: affirmative action and proportional representation
  • gendered leadership styles
  • the contribution of constituency organizing to increasing access to leadership positions and improving the representation of equity concerns
  • the impact of equity leadership, new leadership practices and constituency organizing on union democracy
  • the relationship between feminisms, and the organizing and leadership of union women
  • the impact of union and workplace restructuring, including union amalgamations and enterprise bargaining on union leadership and representation pratices.

This paper assumes that the objective for unions is not simply a numerical increase in leadership participation by equity-seeking groups but rather union transformation and renewal, goals made more salient by the growth in worker exploitation resulting from restructuring and globalization. Within this larger frame, it is clear that even progressive leadership will be no substitute for a multi-layered union program to deepen union democracy, bargain equity, organize the unorganized and institutionalize equity in workplaces and unions for all marginalized workers.        

Toronto: Centre for Research on Work and Society (CRWS), York University, 2006. (112 pages)

Drawing on material from the United Kingdom and other countries of the European Union, the United States, Australia and Canada, this paper considers the following themes relevant to equity bargaining/bargaining equity: labour market shifts, state restructuring and bargaining equity; bargaining equity in the context of equal opportunity and human rights legislation; the equity agenda in collective bargaining which includes an exploration of workplace versus family-friendly flexibility; strategies for challenging the generic worker in collective agreements; the challenge of desegregating the demographics and process of negotiations; and finally, the importance of building union support for equity bargaining and bargaining equity, both inside unions and through coalitions and alliances.

The Resources section of this document includes an annotated list of union documents relevant to equity bargaining, Canadian government sources on equity bargaining, searchable databases, an annotated bibliography of secondary sources, information on the extensive research project on Equal Opportunity and Collective Bargaining in the European Union, annotations of relevant material from the International Labour Office (ILO), and an index by subject.

It is hoped that this document will offer a multitude of ideas about how to bargain on any particular equity issue, facilitate the cross-fertilization of equity bargaining strategies across unions, and provide support to equity researchers in unions and universities. This document also demonstrates a convergence of equity bargaining concerns across vastly differing union movements, and cultural and national contexts. Indeed, much can be learned from the union organizing, government initiatives and research in other countries, in particular, in the European Union.


As a result of restructuring and globalization, Canadian workers face deteriorating conditions of work, loss of jobs to low wage regions, dismantling of social programs, decreases in the social wage and a discursive shift to radical individualism. Have these changes shifted the understanding and practice of worker militancy? Have the gender-specific impacts of the 'new economy' politicized women workers in particular, especially those in the public sector, and brought them to the forefront of resistance? These are the two key research questions guiding this project.

“Gendering Labour Militancies.”(under revision for publication)

This paper explores women worker militancies, and illuminates the practice of gender in an arena where it has traditionally been opaque. Part One of this paper argues that feminization and public sector dominance are radically changing the demographic profiles of work, workers, unions, and labour militancy in Canada, and leading to the feminization of militancy, that is, those involved in strikes are more likely to be women. Against this backdrop, women worker militancies are investigated.

Part Two of the paper maps the gendered text and subtext in strike narratives, and highlights the relational nature of gender as a social construction. It scrutinizes the links between masculinity and militancy, and the traditional images of women’s militancies which are situated within customary gendered discourses of familialism and respectability, on the one hand, and disorderly transgression, on the other. Drawing on numerous case studies, Part Three offers a framework within which women’s labour militancies in Canada, the United States and Western Europe can be studied. It considers the demographics of strikes and strikers, and the significance of industrial, occupational and sectoral profiles. From a materialist perspective, it examines the issues and tactics of women on strike. It documents the frequent absence of supportive unions during women’s labour conflicts and suggests that such absence may shape gender-specific forms of labour militancy. Finally, it reflects on the significance of community support and social movement coalitions to the success of women’s labour actions.

The final section theorizes the gendering of militancy. It recognizes how women’s labour militancy not only transforms the lived experience of gender for individual women but also contributes to the development of the collective identity women. In the context of women’s labour militancy, gender is mobilized, resisted and transformed, altering the meaning of gender in both public and private spaces, and reconfiguring the social relations of gender and the social positioning of women.

"Public Sector Militancy, Feminization, and Employer Aggression: Trends in Strikes, Lockouts, and Wildcats in Canada from 1960 to 2004.” In Strikes Around the World, eds. Heiner Dribbusch, Dave Lyddon, Kurt Vandaele and Sjaak van der Velden. Amsterdam: Aksant, 2007, pp. 86-113.

Canada is a sprawling country of ten million square kilometers (slightly larger than the US), ten provinces, three territories, and close to thirty-three million people. It is also a country of multiple union movements -- at local, provincial, regional, and national levels. Unions are regulated by various labour codes, some in provincial and some in federal jurisdictions. Across the country, then, workers face significant differences in policy, practice, and politics. Given this multi-layered reality, one chronological narrative of strike activity is not possible.

This chapter offers a profile of labour militancies through aggregate statistical data, and identifies some emerging trends in worker resistance. Undoubtedly Canadian workers have been militant – 23,944 work stoppages between 1960 and 2004. They have gone on strike to improve the conditions of and remuneration for their work, and to defend their rights to union protection. They have used the strike weapon to resist not only employer aggression but also regressive government policies.

The paper is divided into four sections: first, a brief overview of  the Canadian industrial relations system including the rules governing industrial conflict; second, a profile of unions in Canada; third, an overview of strike, lockout, and wildcat activity; and finally, a discussion of current economic developments and emerging trends around strike duration, employer aggression, sectoral shifts in strike activity, and the feminization of  labour militancy. The feminization of work, unions, and labour militancy is a theme running throughout the paper.

Although this chapter focuses largely on strikes and lockouts, it does not assume that strikes are the only form of militancy. Rather it distinguishes between labour and worker militancies. The former speaks to the activism of unionized workers, largely through the strike weapon; the latter considers   collective organization and resistance among non-unionized and often marginalized workers, many of whom are women and workers of colour. Worker militancies may be of increasing importance given the transformations wrought by restructured labour markets. The conclusion considers briefly associational bargaining power, community unionism, and social movement unionism.

 “CUPE On Strike.” Just Labour, Vol.10, Spring 2007,  pp. 8-22. Available on line

CUPE On Strike offers a profile of the 1502 CUPE strikes since the union’s inception in 1963 until 2004. In addition to breakdowns by province and industry, it considers strike incidence over time, duration, size of strikes, contract status, results, and the pattern of lockouts and rotating strikes. Like the overall Canadian strike profile, a majority of strikes are in small workplaces and are settled relatively quickly. Not surprisingly, CUPE strikes are clustered in Public Administration, and Health Care and Social Assistance; this demographic might help to explain the fact that CUPE has been involved in fewer wildcats, lockouts and strikes for first contracts than other unions. Although the overall trend for Canada since the 1990s has been a decrease in strikes, a modest shift in the last five years is evident in the data. For CUPE, this means more workers on strike, longer strikes, and more lockouts, all of which suggest an escalation in employer aggression. The Canadian data which highlight increasing public sector militancy and the feminization of that militancy suggest that CUPE will be an key player in the map of labour militancy in the future.

“From Person-Days Lost to Labour Militancy: A New Look at the Canadian Work Stoppage Data.” Relations industrielles/Industrial Relations, Vol 62, No.1, 2007, pp. 31-65.

Using the micro-data from Human Resources and Social Development Canada (HRSDC) on the 23,944 stoppages in Canada between 1960 and 2004, this article introduces a labour militancy perspective on work stoppages, that is, from the point of view of workers. It explores patterns of militancy with a focus on strike duration, strike size and strikes for first contracts, and supports re-interpretations which help make visible the significance of such stoppages for workers, unions and communities. A labour militancy frame presents an alternative to the employer perspective on time lost, the government concern to measure the economic impact of stoppages, and the scholarly emphasis on strike determinants. As part of re-examining the HRSDC work stoppage data from a labour militancy perspective, the paper considers the source of these data. It juxtaposes the statistical data with interviews with the provincial correspondents who collect the information for HRSDC. Examining the data in this light underscores the political nature of data collection (what is seen to be germane and not), data presentation (what is made visible and what is not), and data sources (whose voices are heard).


I have a long-standing interest in pedagogies and am currently completing a book titled "Negotiating Power and Silence in the Classroom." It explores the potential for the collaborative negotiation of power between and among students and teachers. Such collaboration offers a vehicle to educate students as political subjects and enhance student agency; at the same time, it provides teachers with strategies for dealing with the increasingly complex and often fraught environment of diversities which exists in many classrooms.

Part One examines classroom power. It explores the systemic realities of power, that is, the macro-structures of race, class, gender, sexuality and ability. It also considers the fluid circulation of power in order to highlight the active construction of identities in the classroom.  A multiplicity of classroom practices are charged with power. Undoubtedly, classroom silence is one of them. However silence has rarely been investigated in this way. This part of the book outlines a typology to nuance understandings of classroom silence and analyses forms of silence through the lens of power dynamics. Based on data from a qualitative survey and a series of focus groups, this section concludes with the voices of students exploring classroom silence. 

Part Two describes my experimentation with establishing classroom groundrules as a pro-active strategy to bring to consciousness through naming, and openly negotiate about the power dynamics in the everyday life of the classroom. This discussion troubles the notion of dialogue (and any ideas of 'sharing' power) and moves toward a model of negotiation which recognizes the complexities of power and problematizes teaching tolerance. It also unsettles the metaphor of the safe classroom and offers up a model of teacher leadership which resists dyadic relations with students. This section also examines some particular groundrules: about speaking and silence; assuming good intentions; resisting unproblematized opinions; and encouraging out-of-character intervention and comfort with ambiguity.

See "Power in the Classroom." In Voices from the Classroom: Reflections on Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, ed. Janice Newton et al, Garamond Press and Centre for Support of teaching, York University, 2001, pp. 25-39.

"The Challenge of Silence." Core: Newsletter of the Centre for Support of Teaching, Vol. 10, No.1, October 2000, pp. 6-7. Available at <>.

"Negotiating Power in the Classroom: The Example of Group Work." Canadian Woman Studies/les cahiers de la femme [Issue on Women and Education], Vol. 17, No. 4, Winter 1998, pp. 23-28.



Reprinted in Voices from the Classroom: Reflections on Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, ed. Janice Newton et al, Garamond Press and Centre for Support of Teaching, York University, 2001, pp. 255-265.

"Using Groundrules to Negotiate Power in the Classroom." In Centring on the Margins: The Evaded Curriculum. Proceedings of the Second Bi-annual Canadian Association for the Study of Women and Education (CASWE) International Institute, Ottawa, 1998, pp. 25-32, 49, 80.


This work-in-progress elaborates a new vision for women's studies. The central argument of this book is that, in these troubled times, privileging agency offers a way to invigorate women's studies programmes and classrooms.  Such an approach can inspire students, a not insignificant achievement in the current context where equity gains are under serious attack and demoralization is often the norm.

The book examines four inter-related ways of putting agency at the centre of how we define the project of women's studies. The first discussion explores the tensions between victimization and agency. The second focuses on women's organizing as a subject of study. The third considers agency-based learning in women's studies reflecting on the practicum, political interventions and protest projects. The final section examines the classroom as a site of student agency, in particular, around negotiating classroom power dynamics.

See “Privileging Agency and Organizing: A New Approach to Women’s Studies.” In Feminisms and Womanisms: Foundations, Theories and Praxis of the Women's Movement, eds. Althea Prince and Susan Silva-Wayne. Toronto: Women's Press, 2004, pp. 343-358.

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