Practising Social Activism


Joining the union and the women's movement

To learn how labour unions operated, Nancy joined her union and chaired the Women's Committee to organize events for the women members. Faced with the patriarchal attitudes and entitlements displayed by the men in charge of NAPE, Nancy determined to increase her efforts for change. At a deeper level, she was also analyzing the political contexts that would influence her chances of success:

I was outraged by it all and it led to two things: my getting involved in the union and the women's movement at the same time, but sort of connected. Somewhere, without sitting down and saying this out loud, I must have decided that my role to equality for women was through the labour movement, that there was a doable path because you had a system in place to negotiate. It wasn't like changing all of society or trying to get new legislation, it was getting on the negotiation team, getting in there and doing the knockdown, drag-out activity. Of course, I didn't realize that I had to convince the union.

It was very early days regarding public debate on equal pay for work of equal value and Nancy and her union colleagues, to say nothing of politicians and the general public, had no coherent framework for developing this principle. As she said, "Women weren't talking—those words were not in our dictionary at the time". It was only years later in the early 1980s that the pay equity discourse came into focus. Nancy went to a conference in Minnesota, which was the first place in North America to apply the principle of equal pay for work of equal value. In Canada, the first province to bring in the legislation was Manitoba, under a New Democratic Party government.

Broadening the base of activism

It's a constant political battle.

Nancy could see that the whole structure of NAPE must be shaken up if equality was to take hold. After a long and arduous effort to move her union forward, she finally won childcare for women who wanted to participate in union activities. But it came about because one young husband explained that he would benefit from a childcare policy to pay his babysitter so he could attend union meetings while his wife worked. Nancy's reaction was, "I got it because of a man, so I take no credit—except I gave him the idea".

When her committee secured its own budget was when they achieved an important measure of freedom from the male bosses. It was then that another strategic lesson was learned as she saw the need to work in a broader arena and build negotiating power:

I knew that if I only worked on women's issues, they wouldn't pay attention. So I consciously got myself on the constitution committee, which I dearly loved. I chaired the convention committee because I knew that to get respect on women's issues, I had to gain respect on issues that were not seen as women's issues. Even then, people saw me as the women's person on the board, which didn't bother me. I said, "I'm a trade unionist, a feminist, and a socialist, and I think all three are synonymous—I never tried to hide that throughout my entire career. This was important to me since the President of my union had suggested that I would not get elected to anything on the mainland if I mentioned women in my campaign speeches.

Canadian Labour Congress (CLC)

No-one would dare take it away from me!

In 1986, it was decided that Nancy was the right person from the right labour movement, with proven union successes to her name, to stand as the credible, gendered choice in the vote for a new Executive Vice-President for the influential Canadian Labour Congress based in Ottawa. Many lively years of "relentless and principled activity" ensued when the CLC president assigned her to the women's department—a position she held for 16 years. Working with several women who were highly skilled leaders of powerful labour unions, Nancy did the organizing to get two women elected to the CLC Board in 2002. How this "coup" occurred was a puzzle to the men:

First of all, we didn't tell them we were doing it. Second, these men had no understanding that women in leadership who are presidents of their national unions had the same sway over their members as men who were presidents of their unions. We met by conference call every Sunday morning and by the time I was heading out to [the] convention, I knew almost exactly what the results would be.

Human rights issues and research were also under Nancy's control. One of her accomplishments was to establish a new department of the CLC that was named, "Anti-Racism, Women, and Human Rights". She fought hard to keep the word "women" in the title when colleagues wanted it changed to "equality". When the CLC had set up a Women's Department in the 1970s, they had hired only at the assistant director level in the organization. Nancy made sure that the position now was raised to director level and she hired a second woman as deputy to manage PRIDE matters. Because this new woman was a lesbian, Nancy's principle of hiring from the focus group proved that her department was indeed representing the affirmative action groups under the Charter. Nancy became Vice Chair of the Women's Committee of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) in Brussels, serving under a "fabulous" woman from Burkina Faso, Mamounata Cissé, who she later supported to become the first female Assistant General Secretary of ICFTU.

Growing more political

Learning to act politically (as distinct from procedurally) was key for Nancy's work at ICFTU, as well as to her work in the Canadian labour unions. Seeing that "women were not encouraged to think strategically, or small-p politically", it was crucial to push them into leadership positions and promote more effective discussions in their home countries on matters to bring forward for discussion and voting at formal ICFTU meetings. Being political for Nancy became a priority for strategic planning and she worked at it overtly, covertly, sometime with humour, and always with solid, respectful collegiality.

At one time in a speech, I said, "We've added up all the money that the women give as part of their dues and we are not getting representation—it's taxation without representation". The men didn't like it. I wanted the women's committee of ICFTU to be political. It meant that every affiliate had to be represented on the committee and every woman on the committee had to be in a position to go back home and lobby her leadership so when the issue hit the ICFTU Council table, the support was already done. The women went back home and lobbied for the position we took.

Being political also meant plotting strategy well ahead of meetings and ensuring that evidence would be adduced during meetings to support the cause. Nancy determined that a certain sequence of information provision was critical: "Get them onside about the issue before you tell them what it's going to cost".

A women's caucus proved effective in much of Nancy's organizational work. At each caucus and before the formal meeting of the whole, the women would examine all the resolutions listed for open discussion and encourage women to broaden their attention, particularly to the economic issues. Women such as staff researchers and lawyers were enlisted to help the women delegates analyze the resolutions. The goal was to have more women speaking on the convention floor about all matters before the congress or meeting.

When the meeting began in formal session, a second strategy was applied that cleverly used math, microphones, and a "swat team":

It was so much fun! When we had a women's issue that we weren't sure about the vote or it was 50/50 whether it would pass on the floor, we would organize women. We would arrange that the "pro" microphones for people in support of the issue we wanted support for would have line-ups of women. They just stood there, giving the impression particularly to the media that there was overwhelming support for the issue. Well, if we had 16 speakers with eight mikes, that's twice around the floor, that's all the time we were going to get. So those women knew they were never going to talk; they just stood there.

Of course, Nancy said, it would help tremendously if their top union leader walked onto the floor and spoke in support of the women's position on a resolution. She had learned in her NUPGE days to identify who would carry the most persuasive power during votes, but this did not mean she denied her own sense of power and credibility. "You've got to be secure in yourself, which I was, and the women knew that," she said, explaining that it was an accomplishment to get the male president to speak on an important issue and therefore she deferred to him because he carried more sway.

Two highlights

Nancy remembered receiving unexpected recognition during a top-level meeting. Sitting at the table, she overheard a man say, "As Nancy said…"; it was a highlight to have her intellect publicly acknowledged rather than covertly appropriated. "I almost stood up and said, 'Hold it! I've just been quoted!'".

A second highlight emerged during a difficult time when planning a women's conference on violence. Their committee had no authority to exclude men, and so they had to find a way to make the conference safe for women attendees to speak confidentially. They solved it by putting all the men in one workshop designed for them to discuss male violence towards women from the male perspective. There were objections from some traditionalist women and Nancy was called in to settle the dispute, which only grew more polarized. It was time, Nancy, said for her to defend the exclusion of men from some of the CLC workshops. Having only informal support and no pre-figured strategy, she was "just scared to death" when faced with possible defeat at the Council table. But things turned around:

Thank God for the sisters—all six women holding the Affirmative Action seats spoke out loudly and emphatically. At the end of the discussion, you could sense that even the most seasoned of traditionalist men were showing a better understanding of the issue—a defining moment! The meeting concluded with the decision that the Women's Committee now had the right to decide if men had to be included in women's events.