May Day– a feminist issue

What to read, what to watch and what to listen to for May Day

Update: Today, May 1, PSAC the union representing federal government workers have agreed to a tentative agreement for 120,000 members, while the 35,000 members at CRA remain out on strike. 120,000 are going back to work today. I wrote this article a few days ago.

155,000 Canadian public sector workers are out on strike, the largest strike in at least 30 years.  Sixty percent of the union members are women. I see them – in front of my MP Andy Fillmore’s office; I see them at the Maritime Centre; I see them opposite the ferry terminal in Dartmouth, and I saw them at a rally at Parade Square on Wednesday. I rode with two women strikers on the ferry across to Dartmouth and we talked.  Both are university grads, both speak French in their jobs, and both are worried about being ordered back to work by the government.  One works for CRA; her union is demanding a 30% increase. “I know that seems a lot,” she told me, “but that will at least catch us up with inflation.”  The other woman agreed, but was dispirited because her union only asked for 13.5% over three years– the government is offering 9% over three years.   


With strikers Jennifer Arsenault (left) and Elizabeth Larouche Paquet (centre), at Alderney, Dartmouth.

Wednesday morning I heard Dawn Ferris, the Executive Director at Cumberland County Transition House Association in northern NS.  She was interviewed on CBC-Radio One’s, The Current, about the federal government pulling the extra funding of $300 million that went to 600 women’s shelters across Canada during Covid .  During the worst of Covid, “family violence” –read male violence against their wives and children — reached extremely high levels.  Women had nowhere to go.  Their social supports disappeared as did their jobs in retail and service sectors; bars and restaurant were closed, and children were confined to home because schools and daycares were shut.  At the same time, the women’s male partners—despite suffering less from layoffs than women – went from going out to work every day to staying home.  

The feds gave womens’ shelters $130,000 to $400,000 each, which helped provide steady staff employment, good quality food and improvements to shelters’ space during Covid.  In September 2023, the special federal grants will come to an end. However the need is still great, and the risks are often all too tragic, as we’ve seen most recently in Nova Scotia.

By dint of the Nova Scotia Mass Casualty Commission’s final report which referenced male violence against women in Nova Scotia, the report’s findings stated, “We agree that recognizing gender-based, intimate partner, and family violence as an epidemic is a valuable first step[toward eradicating] these forms of violence.”

Clearly the Trudeau government feels that their recent budget allocation of $53 million for its “Women’s Program” is enough – though there is no new money committed to fund women’s shelters.

This May Day, let’s think about women, women’s work and women’s history of work and struggle for unions. 

For May Day: What to Read

I just read On the Line: A Story of Class, Solidarity, and Two Women’s Epic Fight to Build a Union by Daisy Pitkin.  In this 2022 book, she details her life as a union organizer in commercial laundries in Arizona.  Factory laundries are a “thing” across the US.  Many laundries operate three shifts seven days a week to clean hospital, nursing home and hotel linens.  These are huge plants with up to 1,000 workers, some illegal and many new migrants to the US.  Wages are rock bottom.  Pitkin details the dangers in sorting the mountains of dirty laundry –including getting cut by scalpels and sharp instruments left in sheets from operating rooms, plus occasional body parts, feces and worse covering linens and sheets.  The laundry companies give workers one pair of gloves a week.  When the bedding jams in the giant washers, a worker has to crawl inside to dislodge the bedding.  

Fresh out of college, author Daisy Pitkin had only been involved in campus campaigns for international human rights.   In 2002, UNITE hired her for a new organizing drive.  That in itself was a novelty, she asks in her book, how many US unions even tried to organize the unorganized?  She made friends with Alma, a leader in the plant, and for more than two years the women fought to organize Alma’s Sodexo plant, and then another in Arizona.  Pitkin not only had to learn excellent Spanish, she also was the only paid union organizer who agreed to stay on to continue to organize, though UNITE sprung for little more than her rental car and a motel room. 

One of the ways she connected with the Spanish-speaking women at the plants was to tell the story of the tragic fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York in 1911.  In On the Line, Pitkin traces the story, but more joltingly, she reproduces part of the transcript of the trial of the two negligent factory owners.  Spoiler alert – the male owners, who kept the doors on the ninth floor of the Asch building locked, were not convicted.  For the workers, seamstresses, sewing machine operators and ironers there was no chance to escape  the flames and smoke. One hundred and twenty-three  women (and 23 men) died – many, many jumped to their deaths.

This was the beginning of the huge push to establish unions in the needle trade, and ILGWU  (International Ladies Garment Workers Union) attracted tens of thousands of members – mostly women — over the next four decades.  Pitkin was proud to tell the Sodexo laundry workers that ILGWU was the forerunner of UNITE. 

The union members at the Phoenix laundry lost the first certification vote  by a mere handful of votes. Then they were forced to wait two years for a “card check” victory.  At that point the union had not only merged with another union to form UNITE HERE, but had also linked up with the SEIU (Service Employees International Union) to form a new union called SWU— Service Workers United.   

But as the book ends, Pitkin notes a number of problems.  Pitkin feels the workers were sold out by UNITE when it merged to become UNITE HERE.  The new collective agreement wasn’t half as good as what the members had been promised; Alma and the other activists were dissatisfied and found themselves hung out to dry. The union went from empowering women like Alma, and building solidarity among members to being a top-down organization, in which organizers built and managed their empires.  The huge union then dissolved into a huge branch of the SEIU, and all hell broke loose.  The new union was not really interested in the laundry workers anymore – the union decided to put its efforts into organizing hotel workers instead.   

Finally, Pitkin writes about two different approaches: there is the approach to build solidarity, leadership and confidence within the membership and the approach that dictates fighting like hell against the bosses.  She thinks what’s needed today is the latter, and she sees little evidence that unions today want to seriously take on that role. 

I suppose why I’m telling you this is because it’s time to think about women, their work and their union experience this May Day.  

We see that PSAC (the Public Service Alliance of Canada) is fighting for all working people in Canada.  From 2017 to  2020, strike activity in Canada was low.  Now with rampaging inflation and peoples’ wages not keeping up, there are more strikes in both the private and public sectors. The 155,000 members of PSAC, mainly women, are willing to fight back. If they don’t get our support – on and off the picket line —  what will stop your employer from offering you a pittance – certainly not enough to cover inflation.  That means, despite a small increase, you are losing real wages—in effect working for less than you were before.

Biographies of Two Union Women

This May Day you might also read Susan Crean’s excellent biography Grace Hartman- A Woman For Her Time.  Hartman was the first female president of one of Canada’s largest unions, CUPE (Canadian Union of Public Employees). She fought for women’s rights inside and outside the union movement.  According to the Canadian Encyclopedia, in 1981, at age 62, Hartman was jailed for two months for “counselling an illegal strike; she insisted that hospital workers, legally barred from striking, must have full collective bargaining rights. In 1965 Hartman was elected one of CUPE’s 5 general VPs; in 1967 she became the national secretary-treasurer, in 1975 the national president, and in 1976 Canadian Labour Congress general VP. She retired in 1983 but remained active in many public interest groups and served a term as president of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women.”

“Communism must be considered the top public enemy, despised and to be despised.”

Québec Premier Maurice Duplessis

Another great read is Madeleine Parent, Activist a collection of biographical essays edited by Andrée Lévèsque.  Parent, was born in Montreal in 1918– the same year as Grace Hartman.  After graduating with a degree in sociology from McGill University, Parent became active in the trade union movement during the most repressive regime in Québec’s history.  Maurice Duplessis, Québec’s premier for 18 years, was a rabid anti-communist and fought against trade unions.   He famously said. “Communism must be considered the top public enemy, despised and to be despised.”

Parent was arrested many times for strikes against some of the wealthiest textile corporations in Québec.  Most of the union members were women in her first big strike at Dominion Textiles in Montreal and Valleyfield, Que.  While the Montreal plant settled, Valleyfield did not.  For organizing the strike, Parent was charged under the notorious Padlock Law.  The law allowed police to literally padlock the doors of any organization if communist activities took place on the premises, or for strike action.  For more than 8 years serious charges were pending against Parent until in 1957 the Supreme Court of Canada struck it down. Parent and her partner Kent Rowley organized first for ILGWU at Dominion Textiles, then as directors of the US-based United Textile Workers of America (UTWA).  Ultimately, expelled from the US unions, they formed a new independent Canadian union in the textile industry which became a cornerstone for the independent Canadian labour centre, the Confederation of Canadian Unions (CCU). 

Madeleine and me

It was at this juncture, in the early 1970s, I first got to meet her and Kent Rowley at their Canadian union headquarters in Brantford, Ont. We got to know each other because of a struggle I had with CUPE back in 1970 or ’71. I was a clerk in a suburban Toronto library branch. Frank Kitchen, an Ontario CUPE rep, discovered I was a “communist” and– in the day– CUPE parroted the US unions — at the time — as its constitution had an anti-Communist clause. Though I wasn’t in the Communist Party per se, my membership in the left wing Canadian Liberation Movement was enough to get me expelled from the union! There was a “trial” set for the next local union meeting. I had enough friends in the union — including one librarian who is still a friend to this day — that showed up, and Kitchen slithered away. My expulsion was dropped. Madeleine especially had a good laugh when I told her about it.

Her years in and out of jail, in and out of the courts and stellar union organizing did not diminish her interest in larger struggles.  After retiring from the union movement, she continued her fight for women’s rights, for pay equity, for immigrants’ rights, and rights of Indigenous people, as well as women’s right to abortion.  

As feminist, activist and writer Judy Rebick said of Parent on her death in 2012, “She was fierce, courageous, and determined. Somehow, I don’t think we will see the likes of her again.”

Jonathan Rosenblum poses some tough questions in his article There Is No Future for a Labor Movement that Fails to Organize at Amazon.  Statistics reveal that of its  1 million plus workforce, 48% of Amazon workers are women, 52% are men and 27% are Black or Hispanic This article was published in April 2023—you can read it in The Nation here  

What to Watch

Of course there is Norma Rae, a 1979 feature film about a union organizing drive at a textile plant in the southern US.   It’s on Crave, and Prime Video.  Or you can borrow it on DVD from most public libraries. 

Nominated for the Palme d’Or prize at the 2000 Cannes Film Festival is Bread and Roses (2000 film) by British filmmaker Ken Loach.  It’s about poorly paid and exploited janitorial workers in California and their struggle to unionize with the SEIU. Most of Ken Loach’s films he has made available to view online for free.

The Negotiator is a 1995 film made about negotiations between the Canadian Autoworkers and DeHavilland Aircraft in Toronto.  Buzz Hargrove, ex-president of the union, is the negotiator but the interesting parts are the actual bargaining sessions between two bargaining units inside DeHavilland. One unit represented by the men on the factory floor, and the other by women from in the plant offices.   The pits and traps of collective bargaining are evident.  Another film of this genre is Final Offer, you can see it on the NFB site here.

Watch ‘Strike in Town’

In 1955, the National Film Board made a very good film called Strike in Town.  In this 37- minute film, only the main characters were paid actors, the rest of the cast were the men (I do mean men) who worked in a furniture factory in Hanover, Ont. The actual people in the town of 4,000 provide a colourful backdrop to the labour struggle. Strike in Town starts just before midnight when workers at the town’s main employer are set to go on strike.  It’s here and well worth watching.

From top: cartoon from time of Triangle fire, by American cartoonist Thomas Aloysius Dorgan (see below); Triangle Asch Building burning (National Geographic); Sally Field as Norma Rae (1979); portrait of Clara Lemlich circa 1910 wearing a shirtwaist; photo of Jane McAlevey (credit: Scott Buchanan).

Podcasts to Listen to…

A good 25 minute podcast on Madeleine Parent is by Craig Baird on Canadian History Ehx.  It just came out in March 2023.  You can listen to it here . A little known fact about Parent was that she travelled with a small group on a study tour of China in 1956.  One member of the  tour group was Pierre Elliott Trudeau –who 12 years later –would become prime minister.

The Dig features a good interview with Jane McAlevey, former union organizer for the SEIU. Now she is an academic and public intellectual.   This 90 minute interview, How to Build a Fighting Labor Movement is very good.  McAlevey has also written two formidable books on the power and pitfalls of unions and how to organize mass struggles and necessary change inside the union movement.  Her two books that I have read are critical and excellent:  Raising Expectations (and Raising Hell); My Decade Fighting for the Labor Movement and No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age.


In 1912, Clara Lemlich who became a primary organizer of ILGWU in the aftermath of the Triangle fire, wrote a fascinating column The Inside of a Shirtwaist Factory:  An Appeal to Women Who Wear Choice and Beautiful Clothing about the fire and conditions at the plant r an issue of the US women’s magazine, Good Housekeeping.   Here it is.

Of course these conditions are ever-present today in factories in Bangladesh, Cambodia, Viet Nam and more.  The collapse of Rana Plaza in April 2013,  10 years ago,  here and here proved that employers knew how dangerous the seven-year-old building was, yet told no one, and fixed nothing.  1134 workers died, and 2500 were injured.  More than 60% of the workers were women.

Feature Image at the top: “This Is One of a Hundred Murdered. Is any one to be punished for this?” The editorial cartoon shows a woman’s body on the sidewalk surrounded by smoldering fragments with a sign nearby that reads “Operators Wanted. Inquire Ninth Floor.” Artist TAD Thomas Aloysius Dorgan, 1911. Here is a promotion photo of Dorgan (1877-1929):


  1. I’m sorry but a 30% increase to keep up with inflation? What about those of us on a fixed income who are going to have to pay for this increase? Even at 14%, the citizens have to pay for this. Disappointing in my opinion.


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