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Labour's Dilemma

Labour's Dilemma: The Gender Politics of Auto Workers in Canada, 1937-79

Copyright Date: 1994
Pages: 294
  • Book Info
    Labour's Dilemma
    Book Description:

    The growth of the United Auto Workers in Canada dramatically improved the lives of thousands of workers. Not only did it achieve impressive bargaining gains, but the UAW was regarded as one of the most democratic and socially progressive of the major industrial unions in North America. However, workers in the automotive sector, who constituted the largest segment of the UAW membership, witnessed blatant gender inequalities. From 1937 to 1979, UAW leaders did little to challenge these inequalities. Both the union and the workplace remained highly masculine settings in which male workers and bosses played out the gender politics of the times.

    Pamela Sugiman draws on archival materials and in-depth interviews with workers and union representatives to explore the ways in which the small groups of women in southern Ontario auto plants fought for dignity, respect, and rights within this restrictive context. During the Second World War, women auto workers formed close bonds with one another - bonds that rested largely around their identification as a sex. By the late 1960s, they were drawing on a growing union consciousness, the modern women's movement, and their gender identity, to launch an organized collective struggle for sexual equality.

    In describing the women's experiences, Sugiman employs the concept of a `gendered strategy.' A gendered strategy incorporates both reasoned decisions and emotional responses, calculated interests and compromises. Within a context of gender and class divisions, workers developed strategies of coping, resistance, and control. Labour's Dilemma reveals how people may be simultaneously agents and victims, compliant and resistant.

    eISBN: 978-1-4426-7655-8
    Subjects: Political Science

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-2)
  4. Introduction Contradictions, Dilemmas, and the Politics of Gender
    (pp. 3-10)

    How do people make changes in a context of social inequality? How do wage-earning women, in particular, secure dignity, respect, and rights in a patriarchal capitalist society? In order to answer these questions we need to understand how people interpret their world, what personal and societal developments prompt them to challenge familiar and longstanding arrangements, and what forces shape the nature and outcome of their struggles. As Cynthia Cockburn suggests, people are constrained by their location in society – as a woman or a man, a worker or an employer, a person of colour or a member of the dominant...

  5. 1 A Gendered Setting: The Southern Ontario Auto Industry and the UAW Canadian Region
    (pp. 11-26)

    The relationship between the ʹBig Threeʹ auto manufacturers (General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler) and the United Auto Workers Union has been the subject of extensive scholarly and journalistic research (for example, Abella, 1974; Cabin, 1990, 1984; Jeffreys, 1986; Lichtenstein, 1989; Meier and Rudwick, 1979; Meyerowitz, 1985; Milkman, 1987; Serrin, 1973; Wells, 1986; Widick, 1976). As one of the largest and most powerful unions in North America, the UAW has been at the forefront of the labour movement.¹ Indeed, the emergence of the UAW was central to the growth of industrial unionism in Canada.

    Unionization was largely a response on the...

  6. 2 The Gender Politics of Men in the UAW (1937–1945)
    (pp. 27-64)

    The influx of women into the auto plants during the Second World War created the potential for fundamental shifts in the composition, structure, and direction of both the union and the industry. However, rather than fully embrace women war workers, UAW leaders regarded them with reservation and ambivalence.¹ Guided by an assumption that women were financial dependents and that men were, and should be, breadwinners, male unionists adopted a family wage strategy that was premised on the notion that, as breadwinners, men deserved and required higher wages and better jobs than other workers.

    Yet despite the centrality of these beliefs,...

  7. 3 Femininity and Friendship on the Shop Floor (1937–1949)
    (pp. 65-97)

    During the war years women workers did not have a strong voice in setting the UAW agenda. The terms and conditions of employment in auto manufacturing were largely negotiated by male unionists and male employers, according to their own interests and understanding of the world. Women workers did, however, informally shape the meaning of gender and the experience of work in day-to-day living on the plant floor. When we listen to their own words and recollections we can clearly see this process.

    ʹWe were a very accepting generation,ʹ said one woman about her work group at GM in the 1940s....

  8. 4 Becoming ʹUnion-Wiseʹ (1950–1963)
    (pp. 98-136)

    When auto manufacturers reconverted their operations to domestic production in the mid-to-late 1940s, many women lost their jobs. However, with bursts of economic growth in the early 1950s and renewed prosperity in the early 1960s, employers recalled some war workers and hired additional women. What were the experiences of this new cohort of female workers in times of relative social and economic stability?

    Predictably, womenʹs responses to auto work were similar before, during, and immediately after the Second World War. In each of these periods, womenʹs gender identity and subordinate position in society strongly shaped their relation to auto work....

  9. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  10. 5 ʹThat Wallʹs Cominʹ Down!ʹ: Industrial Restructuring and UAW Womenʹs Struggle for Gender Equality (1964–1970)
    (pp. 137-170)

    The restructuring of the auto industry in the 1960s had dramatic effects on the sex-based division of wage labour. As auto manufacturers consolidated their operations across North America, many workers lost their jobs. However, because women were confined to a narrow range of classifications and could not exercise their seniority rights throughout the plants, they suffered especially harsh consequences. Hence, this period witnessed a massive retrenchment of the female workforce.

    This structural upheaval prompted a core group of women to challenge their subordinate status in the industry. As we have seen, women auto workers had been experiencing subtle changes since...

  11. 6 Social Change in a Complex Milieu (1970–1979)
    (pp. 171-206)

    Womenʹs gains during the late 1960s significantly influenced gender relations throughout the following decade. Equal seniority rights permitted women to directly compare their shop-floor experiences with those of their male co-workers, and the knowledge they drew from these comparisons gave them the confidence and grounds to assert their discontents more boldly than in the past. The material and ideological outcomes of their struggle also inspired women to broaden their agenda and address their experiences as mothers and wives, as well as wage-earners. Throughout the 1970s challenges to gender divisions and inequalities moved from isolated and individual protests to organized and...

  12. 7 Conclusion: Constructing Gender and Equality
    (pp. 207-214)

    How do people interpret, respond to, and change the society in which they live? In a context of glaring divisions and injustices, how can people hope to secure dignity, respect, and rights? While women auto workers largely coped with the conditions of their employment, they also engaged in numerous acts of resistance – acts that resulted in a transformation of the workplace, as well as important changes in society. Admittedly, few workers sought control of the means of production or promoted a fundamental restructuring of the political and economic order. However, the concept of resistance need not rest on such...

  13. Notes
    (pp. 215-272)
  14. Bibliography
    (pp. 273-283)
  15. Index
    (pp. 284-293)
  16. Picture Credits
    (pp. 294-294)