From 1919 to #MeToo: A century of progress, but still 'a long way to go' for women in the workplace

On May 15, 1919, 500 telephone operators known as the "Hello Girls" were the first to walk off the job as part of the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike. A century later, there have been significant gains for women in the workplace — but some things haven’t changed.

As labour parade marks 100th anniversary of Winnipeg strike, women reflect on gains made and work still to do

Charlene Matheson, Unifor's special events co-ordinator, sits at an original switchboard used by the telephone operators known as 'Hello Girls.' They were the first workers to walk off the job in the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike. The switchboard is part of Unifor's float in the May 25 Solidarity Forever parade. (Karen Pauls/CBC)

When the Unifor float joins the Solidarity Forever parade in Winnipeg Saturday morning, it will both honour the role women played in the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike and call for equality in today's workplace.

"I think it's very powerful. I think it keeps us women going and fighting for our rights and keeping within the labour movement," said Charlene Matheson, Unifor's special projects and campaign co-ordinator, as she helped decorate the union's parade float Friday.

"Now we're branching off into different kinds of trades and stuff, and I think that all started by women being involved way back in 1919 and set the stage for it."

The float for the parade and community concert, intended to mark the famed labour strike's 100th anniversary, features an original telephone switchboard, on loan to Unifor from a group called the MTS Pioneers.

It also includes a steam engine, a streetcar backdrop, a bench from Via Rail and an original printing press from the Winnipeg Free Press.

"We're hoping to make people aware of exactly what happened in 1919 and the solidarity that was just unbelievable," Matheson said.

Unifor Local 7 represents 1,300 Manitoba workers in clerical and operator services at Bell MTS, Yellow Pages and AAA Alarms.

Telephone operators, commonly known as 'Hello Girls,' were the first to walk off the job as part of the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike. (Western Canadian Pictorial Index)

On May 15, 1919, 500 telephone operators — known at the time as "Hello Girls" — were the first to walk off the job as part of the strike, even though they were not union members. The 7 a.m. shift simply didn't show up for work, many of them angry about abusive working conditions.

"It was kind of a fluke that they were the first ones out there," said Julie Guard, a history and labour professor at the University of Manitoba.

"Although women were often thought of as not being as radical, not being as pro-labour and needing to be brought along by their own menfolk, quite often they were, in fact, just as radicalized as the men — just as enthusiastic."

'Pay them less and exploit them more'

About 30,000 public and private sector workers joined the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike, which lasted six weeks and culminated in what is known as Bloody Saturday — a clash between strikers and police that resulted in two deaths.

In many respects, women in 1919 faced even worse hardships than their male counterparts, says Guard.

"The expectation was that women could live on less, that somehow they were going to be living with their parents or living with a male partner and they didn't have any dependants," she said.

A telephone operator class is seen in this archival 1911 photo. The contributions of women in the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike have often gone unrecognized, says historian Julie Guard — evidenced by the fact very little is known about the 'Hello Girls' who played a significant role in the strike. (Archives of Manitoba)

"That was not the case. Lots of women were working independently," she said, adding they worked predominantly in the textile and garment industries.

"They were just paid less and more exploitable. Employers actually wanted women to work for them because they could pay them less and exploit them more egregiously."

During the strike, women were on the picket lines, making food for strikers and operating free soup kitchens.

However, they haven't always been recognized for their efforts — evidenced by the fact very little is known about the Hello Girls.

University of Manitoba labour historian Julie Guard says movements like #MeToo and #NotMyStellas give legitimacy to women who speak out about sexual harassment and other abuses in the workplace — and may be the most significant advance since the gains made in the Winnipeg General Strike 100 years ago. (Brett Purdy/CBC)

"No one interviewed them. No one collected their papers. They've just disappeared," Guard said.

Another factor, "chilling to a labour historian who cares about women," Guard says, is that women sometimes disposed of documents that might have shed light on their roles in historical events.

"Sometimes women saved their papers.… And then as years go on, they run out of space to keep both their own and those of their husbands, and they decide that, well we only have space for one and mine are unimportant. So they throw them out.

"So often, what few records there may have been are lost."

Gender pay gap remains

While working conditions for women have improved since 1919, there are still gender pay gaps and other inequalities.

According to Statistics Canada, the gender pay gap — the difference between the earnings of women and men — has decreased by about 21 per cent since 1981. More women are working and they have more education. They also have longer job-protected maternity and parental leave, as well as legislation addressing unfair treatment in the labour market.

However, according to data from Statistics Canada's Labour Force Survey, women in Canada aged 15 and older earned 87 cents for every dollar earned by men in 2018, as measured by average hourly wages.

Working conditions can also be problematic for women.

Staff at two Stella's locations in Winnipeg, including the Sherbrook location seen here, voted to unionize last year following the #NotMyStellas campaign, which used social media to draw attention to a toxic work environment. (Ron Boileau/CBC)

Guard points to the #MeToo movement and last year's controversy at Stella's, a popular Winnipeg restaurant chain, where workers — many of them women — spoke out about claims of sexual harassment and rights violations.

Staff at two of the chain's restaurants voted to unionize following the #NotMyStellas campaign, which used social media to draw attention to a toxic work environment.

Meanwhile, governments and employers need to update laws and human resources policies so perpetrators are held accountable, Guard said.

"Women are still subject to sexual harassment, sexual innuendo, gender harassment and so on," she said.

"So the #MeToo movement really highlighted how normal and everyday this is. Women just put up with this all the time. I don't think you could ever talk to a woman who honestly couldn't tell you she's never had that experience."

Union movement sexist?

Unions are not immune to sexism.

Earlier this year, a senior Canadian union official made jokes about a female federal cabinet minister's buttocks during an announcement about federal assistance for women who want to work in building trades.

Robert Blakely, the Canadian operating officer for Canada's Building Trade Unions, later apologized to Minister of Employment Patty Hajdu for saying she did not look fat in her pants.

Unions also sometimes use gender-based language, referring to members as "brother" and "sister."

However, the head of the Manitoba Federation of Labour says that's both a historical protection from spies and an indication of how union members consider each other as family.

"The role that we have in the workplace as a worker producing something, and someone else making the majority of the profits off that, makes us a family in that we have the same interests together," said MFL president Kevin Rebeck.

"And when I'm fighting for a pension plan for us all to have, I want it for all of us. It's not just about me."

Manitoba Federation of Labour president Kevin Rebeck says the use of the terms 'brother' and 'sister' in unions has a historical basis, and reflects the familial nature of unions. (Karen Pauls/CBC)

It was also a way of protecting union members from company retribution, he added.

"Historically, there used to be union meetings … and there would be someone from the company kind of spying on or outside the hall listening," he said.

"And while Kevin Rebeck may be the one giving the speech. the room was, like, 'Oh thank you, brother. Sister, what do you think about that?' And it made it very hard for people listening in to know, well, who was that?"

Back at the Unifor float, Charlene Matheson acknowledges there's still work to be done when it comes to women in the workforce, but she firmly believes women do better with union representation than without.

"We have the avenues now to deal with all of these issues," she said, adding more women are now doing what was traditionally seen as "men's work."

"You never saw [female] plumbers and pipefitters and electricians, and it still astounds me when I walk into a washroom and I see a woman doing an installation for lights.

"We've come a long ways in some ways, but in some ways we have a long way to go."

'Hello Girls' first to walk off the job during 1919 Winnipeg General Strike

2 years ago
On May 15, 1919, 500 telephone operators — known at the time as "Hello Girls" — were the first to walk off the job as part of the strike, even though they were not union members. The 7 a.m. shift simply didn't show up for work, many of them angry about abusive working conditions. 2:38

With files from Brett Purdy


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