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Labour + Industry
Gender + Sexuality

This Women's Work Is Never Done

Although we've won many hard-fought battles, it's not all good news.

Stephanie Smith 7 Mar

Stephanie Smith is president of the BC Government and Service Employees' Union.

This Sunday, March 8 is International Women's Day, a day to celebrate the economic, political and social achievements of women past, present and future.

Labour rights and women's rights have been interconnected since the earliest days of the trade union movement. Back in 1908, 15,000 women marched through New York City demanding shorter hours, better pay and voting rights. The first Women's Day was designated in 1909 in honour of these pioneers for women's rights.

Fast-forward 106 years, and tremendous gains have been made:

The face of labour leadership is changing. Women now lead the top echelons of British Columbia's labour movement. Across the country, eight out of 11 of our National Union of Public and General Employees national union component presidents are women.

I was the first woman to be elected president of the BCGEU last May. This past November, former math and science teacher Irene Lanzinger was elected as the first female president of the B.C. Federation of Labour.

The BCGEU is recognized as a leader in championing women's equality in the workplace and the community, and our union has a long and proud history of representing women and advocating for women's rights in B.C., across Canada and internationally.

In recent years, we've focused some of our organizing efforts on female-dominated occupations, such as health and community social services.

As a result, thousands of B.C. women have realized the benefits of union membership, gains that include job security, a liveable wage, pensions, and health plans.

Our union is strong in numbers, strong in leadership and strong in our commitment to fight for women's equality and women's rights in the workplace, the union, and the community.

At the bargaining table, our demands have been wide-ranging, including a call for equal pay for work of equal value, improved wages and benefits, maternity leave, employment security, and a halt to privatization and contracting out.

In the community, we partner with organizations that work with women, such as the Ending Violence Association of British Columbia and the BC Lions' joint initiative, Be More Than a Bystander. Through this partnership, we are working together towards breaking the silence on violence against women.

Our union's efforts have also taken us to the Supreme Court of Canada. In 1999, the BCGEU won a gender discrimination case involving our member Tawny Meiorin, a firefighter who was fired for not being able to run fast enough (and later rehired after winning her sexual discrimination case). This ruling has had an effect on all working women in Canada.

Moving forward

Although we've won many hard-fought battles, it's not all good news.

Wage inequity between men and women remains a pressing issue. In B.C., women still earn less than men -- 81 cents on the dollar -- and four out of five single parents are women. In addition, we must address the chronic inequities facing women of colour, First Nations aboriginal women, and those within the LGBTQ community.

B.C.'s $10.25 minimum wage is also an equity issue, as six out of 10 workers who earn minimum wage are women. In our ''have'' province, a single mother working full-time in a minimum wage job will still find herself thousands of dollars below the poverty line.

A recent report by the First Call: The BC Child and Youth Advocacy Coalition shows the level of child poverty in B.C. remains unacceptably high, and single mothers are disproportionately affected.

That's shameful and unacceptable.

Now, more than ever, we need our collective voices heard in our call for greater equality.

Raising minimum wage and introducing affordable child care would lift thousands of women and children out of poverty in B.C. These campaigns are critical and we are committed to making them happen in 2015.

Working in solidarity and with our union brothers, the B.C. labour movement will continue to play a key role towards the advancement of women's issues. We must ensure that issues like violence against women, child care and wage equity are kept front and centre in the media, in the public's mind and in election issues.

Let's continue to move forward -- not backward -- on women's rights and equality.

As we celebrate International Women's Day, let's be proud of the significant progress already made and let's work together to renew our commitment to promoting true gender equity and the advancement of women worldwide.

*Photo caption fixed Nov. 4 at 12:45 p.m. The caption previously provided an incorrect year.  [Tyee]

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