Sisters and Sisters? Labour Movements and Women's Movements in (English) Canada and Australia

Article excerpt

The promise of trade unionism demands that you take risks but that then makes you vulnerable (Canadian unionist, 1998)

Union women inhabit the territory where the cultures of the labor movement and the women's movement collide [1]

Feminist politics always struggled to have effect in labour movements, but it is also the case that union politics have rarely been given much space in women's movements. Both may be concerned with liberation, justice and equality, but their different standpoints produce, at least, ambivalence. Divisions among feminists also mean that some see labour movement politics as (irredeemably?) male dominated; others see it is materially important to women's interests; for others again, it is simply irrelevant. Women's movement politics are also seen variously as benefiting middle-class white women, as always hostile to all males, or as a limited project, 'a politics of partiality'. [2] The sharpness of these divisions among feminists have become blunted, or appear far less urgent, perhaps because as feminist theorising travels away from its materialist political concerns of the 70s and 80s, those earlier sites recede from view as well. And yet, in parallel with the problematising of the political within feminism, th e possibilities for generating feminist politics from within the labour movement seem to have grown in recent years.

This article looks at women unionists' perspectives on sexual politics within unions, and how this connects with wider women's movements. Women unionists are challenging male dominance in labour movements, on an international scale. Women at times may be welcomed and encouraged by men in unions, but they are frequently confronted by men's trenchant resistance and hostility. Much of this is invisible or subsumed by union research and political strategies that marginalise women's interests as irrelevant to the central men's business of trade unionism. How then do women's movements and feminisms grapple with the issues and effects, discourses and practices of this sexual politics?

The discussion draws on a larger comparative study on (English) Canadian and Australian labour movements I am undertaking over a number of years, on women unionists who occupy positions in unions that cover workers in a wide range of industries and occupations, as well as positions in related organisations, such as Working Women's Centres. I have conducted semi-structured interviews and made observations at discussions, debates and forums in each country. [3] There are longstanding patterns of gender relations in common, but the circumstances in each country have differed, in part, from the differences between their centralised and decentralised industrial relations systems and the related distinctions between their labour movements. However, both labour movements are now facing similar and serious challenges. Increased attacks by the state and the restructuring processes of globalisation are changing labour markets, eroding welfare states and reconfiguring the relations between public and private spheres. U nions in Canada and Australia come to share more common characteristics as they grapple with these difficulties.

One of the striking similarities between the Canadian and Australian women's movements may be found in their approach to the state. Australia had women's advisers to government departments and government Ministers, change through legislation and some funding for relatively autonomous women's services at the same time as the Canadian women's movement regarded the state as responsive to their concerns. In Canada, this partly grew out of the implementation of some of the recommendations of the report of the Royal Commission of the Status of Women in 1967. Agencies such as the Women's Bureau in the Department of Labour and the Office of Equal Opportunity in the Public Service Commission sound familiar to Australian feminists. Likewise, the Canadians had no difficulty in recognising our 'femocrats'. …