Fighting for feminism — in the workplace and in our locals

By Emina Gamulin

 

As a woman heavily involved in the labour movement, Maryellen McIlmoyle is no stranger to sexism.
 

When the Unifor Local 673 president, who sits on five executive boards and acts as the women’s committee liason at Toronto and York Region Labour Council (while holding down a full-time job and raising three children) is asked about her challenges, she responds: “I’m a woman.”
 

She recalls a meeting in her local where the sexism was particularly blatant.

“Nine out of ten items that were on the list the members identified to accomplish I did accomplish,” she said. “But then I was asked if a man was running against me. I said ‘Why?’ and they said ‘Well, maybe he’d be a bit more aggressive.’ I’m not even kidding you. My face dropped to the floor.”

On the other hand, women who are seen to have a more assertive leadership style are also punished for it.

“Men can be aggressive and assertive, but women are seen as bitches.”
 

It’s stories and insights like these that inspire women and allies in the labour movement to hold events like the recent Sisters of the Roundtable, hosted by Toronto and York Region Labour Council, the upcoming Unifor Women’s Conference being held in Port Elgin in September, and an upcoming Women's Committee meeting for Unifor 87-M in August.
 

McIlmoyle, who helped coordinate the Roundtable, now in its third year, says the initial event was to identify and discuss problems in the workplace, and while those issues remain important, they quickly realized the conversation needed to be broader.

 

“From the first (Roundtable) it was obvious that this wasn’t only in the outside world. It was also within our own union that women need encouragement," she said.

 

“Some unions are not allowed to have women’s committees because it is voted down at the executive. And who makes up the executive? It’s largely still men."
 

The event also grew to have more intersectional discussions with speakers talking about the experiences of women of colour.
 

“Of the workplaces we work in, does our executive board actually reflect our community? Most times no, it’s still a white society in most of our locals.”
 

Speakers at the Roundtable event included Denise Hammond, communications director of Unifor and co-organizer of Women’s March Toronto, Laura Kaminker, who spoke on successful women-led strikes and organizing efforts and Sarah Ali, on organizing against Islamophobia, racism and anti-Black racism.
 

McIlmoyle credits Unifor as being one of the most progressive unions on this issue – for example all of Unifor’s regional director’s outside of Quebec are women.
 

At the Unifor Media Council Conference in St. John’s that wrapped up June 25, a commitment was made to create an equity committee to ensure future conferences have delegates that are more reflective of the community and Jennifer Moreau of Local 2000 in Vancouver was elected as Secretary-Treasurer of Media Council.

Still, there is a ways to go, and McIlmoyle has words of encouragement on how to get there.

 

“Learn your audience and don’t give up. Stand up for yourself and your sisters,” said McIlmoyle. “You can’t go wrong when you look for the positive.”
 

The next meeting of Unifor 87-M’s Women’s Committee is Sunday, August 6 at 11 a.m. at the upstairs union hall at 1253 Queen St. E. All women and women-identifying members are welcome to join. For more information contact 87-M Women’s Committee Chair Gillian Surette-Robinson at bobismommy@gmail.com.