The trade union movement in Canada has long held pro-choice policies and was extremely instrumental in the campaign to overturn the federal abortion law that took place in the nineteen eighties. The Canadian Labour Congress, provincial federations of labour and most national unions were strong supporters of the abortion rights movement.
When the Ontario Coalition for Abortion Clinics was formed in 1982 and began to work with Dr. Henry Morgentaler to challenge the federal abortion law and open a freestanding clinic, one of the first outreach approaches was to the Ontario Federation of Labour. Resolutions were passed at local union meetings and submitted to its convention. A major organizing campaign took place and when the resolution came to the floor it was widely supported and passed with a strong majority. This was a huge boost for the movement and showed the broad popular support that existed.
This was the first step on the way to many unions taking up the cause and standing shoulder to shoulder with the women’s movement in the fight for reproductive rights for all women. It was very important that the definition of “choice” was broadened to include a whole range of women’s issues: the right to birth control in our own communities and our own languages, the right to childcare, the right to a decent job, the end to coerced or forced sterilization, the right to live freely and openly no matter what your sexuality and, of course, full access to free abortion. All of these were necessary if women were truly to have choices in this society.
This reproductive rights perspective was instrumental in building strong support and allowed us to organize a broad and rooted movement that could change the balance of forces in the country to overturn the federal abortion law and legalize freestanding clinics performing medically insured abortions.
Once again we have to fight to defend reproductive rights in this country. There are still no abortions performed in Prince Edward Island and women have to pay for procedures done at clinics in New Brunswick. The federal government refuses to allow abortion to be part of its maternal health policy and will only provide money for International Planned Parenthood in countries where abortion is illegal. Private member bills are being introduced in the House of Commons to create barriers for women’s access and attempts are being made to defund abortion services in Ontario and other provinces.
When an anti-choice caravan recently drove across the country from British Columbia to rally support to ban abortions, the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) rallied its women’s committees. They joined with reproductive justice activists to counter the anti-choice activists in cities and towns in every province on their way to Ottawa. In most instances, turnout for the pro-choice actions outnumbered that for anti-choice actions, and the fact that the CAW made this a priority was very important to the success of the pro-choice counter protests.
Recently the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada called a Pan-Canadian Day of Action for Reproductive Justice and Equal Access. In Toronto once again the CAW provided a speaker for the event and the vice-president of the Toronto and York Region Labour Council also spoke strongly in support of women’s rights.
We are in the process of organizing once again a movement for reproductive justice that will push back the attacks and make further progress in the long struggle for women’s liberation. The ongoing support of the labour movement is critical to its success and the fact that trade unionists as individuals and through their organizations are once more rallying to the cause is very positive. The austerity agenda is attacking our rights and our services at every level and the attacks on abortion funding and the support services women require to bear the children we choose to have are part and parcel of this and must be fought at every level.