Review in Our Times

Cracking Labour’s Glass Ceiling

Transforming Lives through Women’s Union Education

by Cindy Hanson, Adriane Paavo and Sisters in Labour Education  

More than 15 years ago, I came across an old, undated article written by a male trade unionist in response to the question,” What is a trade Unionist?” In its time, it would have been considered an inspiring, courageous account of a labour activist with strong union principles. Reading it a decade or more later, I found it to be a striking testament to old-style male union leadership.

“There are no 9 to 5 Trade Unionists,” he wrote. “Days off, weekends and evening away from his family is a price he is prepared to pay… The Real Trade Unionist does all that is required of him and then looks around to see more he can do.”

Considering that most women already work a double day at work and home, it is difficult to imagine women in the union being eager to take on any more, or being prepared to sacrifice their families.

Today unions have become increasingly female and diverse. While the percentage of men in unionized jobs dropped from 42.1 per cent in 1981 to 27.9 per cent in 2018, the share of women in unions increased from 31.4 per cent to 32.3 per cent over the same period.

Despite this gender shift in union membership, today’s union leader is still more likely to be male. Although there are many examples of strong, dynamic women union leaders, their numbers do not come close to reflecting union membership. And Women leaders from equity-seeking groups? Even more rare.

This theme underlies Cracking Labour’s Glass Ceiling: Transforming Lives though Women’s Union Education, By Cindy Hanson, Adriane Paavo and Sisters in Labour Education – the latter group of union women who came together specifically to contribute to this book.

It’s 10 chapters outline the importance of women-only union education in Canada and the United States, and how transformative that education can be. The book’s contributors discuss five education programs initiated between the late 1980s and the early 2000s to promote women’s leadership.

• The Women’s Institute for Leadership Development (WILD) was founded in 1986 in the state of Massachusetts to increase the number and diversity of women in union leadership. • The Prairie School for Union Women (PSUW) was initiated in 1995-96 for women trade unionists in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. • The Regina V. Polk Women’s labour Leadership conference began in 2000 in collaboration with the University of Illinois Labor Education Program. • Two unions with predominantly female memberships, the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario (ETFO) and the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), both developed courses to expand women’s leadership skills in the early 1990s.

We learn why these education programs were developed – in almost every case to address the dearth of diverse women leaders in the union movement – and how the crafting of education for union women was deliberately feminist, inclusive and transformational.

The book also shows us that the way we create learning environments matters, especially for women workers. The founders of the courses had a lot at stake in ensuring the experiment of women-only education succeeded. I found it fascinating that, without exception, they all chose popular education as the foundation. Popular education has its roots in the work of Brazilian educator Paulo Freire. The approach begins with the participants’ experiences, develops a critical analysis of their conditions and empowers them to create social change.

The contributors to the book, who are all educators, also consider popular education integral to a feminist approach. As Hanson and Paavo explain, the Prairie School for Union Women “places diverse women’s experiences at the heart of all its course, a feminist approach that some argue is missing from labour education and union renewal.”

Not only were courses developed in the style of popular education, but both the Women’s Institute for Leadership Development (WILD) and the Prairie School ensured that all facilitators were also trained in the techniques of popular education.

One of the joys in reading this book lies in observing the constant critical reflection engaged in by the contributors. The feminist educators across borders discuss how they revisited their vision and goals, conducted feminist participatory research with participants to understand the impact of the schools, and revamped or even discontinued some courses. They constantly challenged themselves to examine internal power relationships and to model a feminist leadership style.

Just as the feminist’s educators and activists got involved to push against “labour’s glass ceiling,” they also acknowledged that most of them were white and so took steps to increase the diversity of their directors and facilitators. The book includes a chapter with reflections by Indigenous union activists Sandra Ahenekew and Yvonne Hotzak, who together facilitated the course “Union Women on Turtle island” at the Prairie School.

Says Hotzak, “…we don’t just stand up and talk, talk, talk. We want as much participation as possible from the audience… We also use an opening circle and closing circle, the talking stick. We bring a lot of cultural values into what we do, and prayer…smudging…There’s a lot of healing that happens within our circles and within our course as well.”

In another chapter, Saskatchewan activist Donna Smith, who facilitated a Prairie School course called “Inside and Out,” traces the history of LGBTQ2SIA activism in the labour movement and its profound impact on labour education. That labour education in turn spurred many unions to take on the fight of queer and trans rights.

So, what has been the impact of women-only union education? Are there many more diverse women in leadership positions in the labour movement?

Five of the women’s education programs analyzed the impact of the schools, and the results of those analyses can be found in the book. Some of them found that many participants took on the leadership roles in or outside their union. In all cases, the school content was not meant to train women to run actual leadership campaigns, but rather to focus on leadership approaches that were collaborative, inclusive, and feminist. Women from the across the schools said the programs transformed their lives, gave them in-depth analysis of women in society and the union, built their confidence and their ability to speak up, and showed them how to better support other women. The safe and welcoming environment of women-only schools was critical to women’s transformation.

At the same time, Helen Worther, who wrote the chapter about the Regina V. Polk women’s leadership conference, tells us that “education that has a strong impact is a threat.” Popular education is political because it can challenge the status quo and motivate participants to push for change. The chapter on “The Wall,” a visual and participatory methodology which social-movement educators Bev Burke and Suzanne Doerge began in Canada, and which then spread to Latin America and other regions, focuses on empowering women for social change.

So do we still need feminist union education? Barb Byers, former SFL president, co-founder of the Prairie School, and former secretary-treasurer of the Canadian Labour Congress, answers this question in her foreword to the book: yes, because women do not have equality yet. “Without women-only schools,” she writes, “where else do we provide spaces for women to discuss their status and role inside their unions and about how their leadership will be acknowledged? At this point, it is easier to be a woman leader, but it is not easy enough.”

This book provides unions, union educators, feminists and union leaders with lessons and challenging questions on how to create environments that truly stimulate women’s education and empowerment. I have had the privilege to working and learning from many of the incredible feminists who contributed to the book, and I immensely enjoyed reading their reflections on the challenging work of feminist union education.

— Cheryl Stadnichuk for Our Times (Fall 2019)



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