Low Wages: the War Against Women

In Nova Scotia, more than 3,200 workers are on strike.  This is the first time in a very long time that thousands of workers in three different areas of the province are on strike.  It’s also a first that the striking workers are the lowest paid employees in the education sector, a sector that is both highly unionized, while at the same time has a big range of salaries. 

More than 1500 part-time instructors and others are on strike at Dalhousie, the largest university in the Maritimes. Strikers are lecturers, lab demonstrators, TAs and markers.  Some of the lecturers are as highly educated and as experienced as the full-time Dal professors who are paid at least 6 times what the part-timers are paid for teaching the same number of courses each year.  Of all the courses taught at Dalhousie, 67.5% are taught by part-time instructors.

What’s more, 55-70% of part-time instructors are female.  It is predominantly women who are staffing the picket lines, organizing the daily marches, the signs, the chants, the strike pay and making sure fellow part-time profs, students and supporters come out to help them.

Part-time instructors at Dalhousie, represented by CUPE (Canadian Union of Public Employees),  currently earn $5232 per three-credit course.  Average pay for instructors at universities across Canada (excluding Dal) is $7160 per three credit course.

What about educational assistants at Nova Scotia’s schools?

Educational assistants (also called teachers’ aides, or EPAs) are on strike in two of Nova Scotia’s regional education centres.  130 are on strike in the South Shore Regional Education Centre and more than 600 are on strike in the Annapolis Valley Regional Education Centre.  They are members of the NSGEU (Nova Scotia Government Employees Union).  Again 70% of the educational assistants are women;  they typically earn from $21 to $23 per hour, which is just about the Living Wage in Nova Scotia.  In fact, according to the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives-NS, the Living Wage in the South Shore area is $22.55 and in the Annapolis Valley, it’s $22.40 per hour.

Below: Members of NSGEU Local 73 walk the picket line in New Minas in the Annapolis Valley (credit: Jane Sponagle/CBC).

In Nova Scotia’s elementary and high schools, educational assistants who are members of the NSGEU, get laid off in June and must apply for federal EI (Employment Insurance) to pay them for the two months over the summer.  The problem is EI pays them only 55% of their meagre hourly wage.  Their salary during the regular school year works out to just over $29,000.  Add to that their EI earnings (about $12/hr over the summer) and it works out to a yearly gross income of about $32,000. 

These women are the backbone of the education system. Teachers cannot effectively teach all the students;  the educational assistants help children who have physical, mental or behavioural needs that cannot be met by any one teacher who has to teach 25-30 other students in the classroom.

None of these jobs in education  – whether at Dalhousie, or the regional education centres — provide full-time, year-round work.  The Dal instructors are paid by piece-work – they can teach four to six courses a year – when the courses are available and posted.  There are no real vacations because if the Dal part-timer cannot get a course to teach at Dalhousie, they apply to teach one or two courses at another local university where the pay is equally dismal. Again, even teaching the maximum allowed — usually six courses a year at Dalhousie University — the part-time instructor earns a gross income of only $31,000 annually.

Women on strike in Ontario

There’s also a major strike in Ontario. If we look there, we see how the women educational assistants have public opinion on their side. The latest poll reveals that 62% of parents in the province support them — not Premier Doug Ford.  CUPE Ontario’s fifty-five thousand education members are on strike; that number includes caretakers, library assistants and educational assistants, but the vast majority are women.

Below, left: Demonstrators protest at Queen’s Park in Toronto on Friday, after the Ontario government passed a law imposing contracts on 55,000 CUPE members and banned education workers from striking (credit Carlos Osorio/CBC), Right: A demonstration outside the office of MPP Parm Gill in Milton, Ont. (credit Nick Iwanyshyn/The Canadian Press)

From 2012  to 2021, they got an increase of only 8.8% (compounded).   Due to inflation and their pay not having kept up in years gone by, the assistants are now facing a pay cut of 17%.  They need to earn an extra $3.25 an hour, but the government is offering a raise of 33 to 53 cents per hour Currently, the Ontario educational assistants earn about $39,000 annually ($10,000 more than their NS counterparts).  The strikers in Ontario need a raise of $4,800 a year just to keep up with inflation.

“If you look at the last three decades in labour negotiations, a 2-per-cent wage increase was considered a big victory. So this was really an ambitious demand. But there’s a strong case to be made that it is justified because we’re talking about some of the lowest paid public-sector workers in the country living through high inflation.”

Stephanie Ross, associate professor of labour studies at McMaster University, Hamilton, Ont.

Where the men are

Over many years, men went on strike, men led strikes and walk-outs.  Now we see something very different.  Women are leading strikes.  Women’s work in universities and schools now has to be considered “real” work– not an ‘extra,’ , not casual, not a job for ‘pin money’.  Today these women do not earn enough to live without taking on a second job, or without a second income earner in the household.  Women are leading the fight against Premier Doug Ford and his rotten government.  Interestingly, seven construction union organizations including the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades (IUPAT), the Plumbers and Pipefitters Union, (UA), the Ontario Pipe Trades Council, the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers, the Laborers International Union (LiUNA) and the Operating Engineers (IUOE, L. 793) all supported Ford in the recent Ontario election.  The members of the seven unions are overwhelmingly male– only 12% are women. Now those seven unions are backtracking.

Above from Ontariopc.ca and below: employees at Stelco in Hamilton, Ont. get a photo taken with Doug Ford just before the Ontario election in June (credit Joshua Best/The Globe and Mail)

Statistics Canada released the average wage across Canada for October 2022 – it’s $32.73 an hour.   In Nova Scotia, for someone not in a union, the average hourly wage is $23.71  per hour or $864.81 a week

We are living on two different planets.  Most women workers in NS do not even earn the Living Wage of $22 plus an hour that education assistants do.  Yet it is women who are in the vanguard of struggles for increasing all workers’ pay. 

While we run the strikes and take the chances, we women don’t run the world.  More’s the pity.

Featured image: by artist and photographer Nino Carè, from Pixaby

Your scribe, on the picket line at Dal.

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