Canadian Unions Fight For Same Sex Marriage

The Canadian House of Commons approved historic legislation recognizing the right of lesbian and gay couples to marry on June 28. Canada joins the Netherlands, Belgium, and Spain in full granting full legal equality to lesbians and gay men by eliminating discriminatory restrictions on marriage rights.

The labor movement in Canada took a strong stand in favor of this legislation. The Canadian Labour Congress issued a statement in support of the legislation, as did most provincial labor federations and many member unions. This cause brought together many of Canada’s unions, in both the public sector (such as the Canadian Union of Public Employees and the National Union of Public and General Employees and the private sector (such as the Canadian Auto Workers and the Steelworkers).


The union support for equal marriage legislation builds on an important legacy of union movement actions to gain rights for lesbians and gays. In 1981, the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW) was the first union in Canada to win collective agreement language prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. At that point, lesbian and gays had human rights protection only in Quebec, while in the rest of Canada discrimination was completely legal. Many other unions soon bargained for non-discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

In 1985, a library local of the CUPE won collective agreement language recognizing same-sex partners as spouses. This opened the door for same-sex partners to win full access to benefits, though it took a long legal battle by Karen Andrews and her partner supported by the union. By the early 1990s, many unionized employees in the public sector won access to benefits for same-sex partners.

In 1992, the members of the CAW the CAMI plant won recognition of same sex relationships as part of the settlement after their first strike. This was one of the first cases of a private sector union winning same-sex benefits. Private sector employers were more resistant to recognizing these rights than were governments and state institutions.




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The labour movement in Canada fought for these gains because lesbian and gays mobilized within their unions to demand changes. This often meant confronting the anti-gay attitudes within the union as well as challenging the employer. In the early days, it tended to be smaller informal networks of activists who would support each other through these fights. It took a lot of courage to stand up in the face of abuse and derision from fellow unions members and inaction from the top of the union.

By 1997, formal caucuses for lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgendered people had been formed in many unions, including the CAW, CUPE, the Ontario Public Service Employees Union and the Steelworkers. The Canadian Labour Congress brought activists together from across the movement for its Solidarity and Pride conference. These caucuses have served as a base for political mobilization as well as a supportive space for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered union members.

Many unions in Canada now actively involve themselves in coalitions to support the rights of lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgendered people. The CAW, for example, played an important role in building a coalition to support Marc Hall, a high school who challenged the school board that barred him from bringing his same sex partner to the prom.

The fight for workplace rights has also been extremely important, providing protection against discrimination and recognition of same-sex relationships. These rights are essential to our ability to live and open and integrated lives as lesbians, gays, bisexuals and or transgendered people. Unions can play a crucial role in this fight for workplace rights, though historically that has only opened when members demand it.

Alan Sears is a gay activist and a proudly unionized professor at Ryerson University in Toronto.