Women’s Auxiliaries: An early example of whole worker organizing

In the 20th century, some unions had parallel organizations called women’s auxiliaries. These were led by women, and did crucial support work for the union and its workers. They also organized around broader issues in the community.

Today, there is a renewed interest in workplace-adjacent organizing, sometimes called “whole worker organizing,” and these women’s auxiliaries are worth reexamining as an example of how this has been done in the past.

Marianne Garneau spoke to Elizabeth Quinlan, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Saskatchewan, who has conducted extensive research on the women’s auxiliaries of the Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers (MMSW) union in Canada. The interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

(Image: Two-mile demonstration of support by wives and children of striking Kirkland Lake miners, City of Greater Sudbury Heritage Images, Solski Collection, ID# MK2344)

Tell me about these women’s auxiliaries. When did they form, and with what purpose?

They formed at a time when women were not generally involved in the paid labor market. They were the wives, daughters, mothers of the workers. And their purpose was, for the most part, to support the work of the union. In my research, I’m investigating the Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers’ union. They represented most of the miners and smelter workers in British Columbia, and had locals in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Ontario, including a very large local in Sudbury, and a couple in Quebec.

There was an auxiliary almost everywhere there was a union local. I would guess their membership was about a tenth that of the union’s.

What relationship did they have to the union?

The auxiliaries were affiliated, but were independent organizations. They had their own constitution, collected their own dues, held their own conventions, wrote and debated their own resolutions, and conducted their own fundraising. Each group, or local as they were called, of auxiliary members held its own charter. And they had their own political agenda: they were mobilizing around broad social and economic justice issues still pertinent today, like childcare, health, housing, and world peace.

They were front and center of what we now call “health and safety” issues. Because there were no paid jobs for them as women, they recognized that the survival of the family was completely dependent on the single income of that miner or smelter worker. So if there was an injury or fatality, it would be totally devastating to the family. The auxiliaries lobbied politicians, wrote letters to the mainstream media and held marches to raise public awareness of these issues.

They also pressed for things so simple as the pasteurization of milk, because that’s a public health issue. They set up an Arthritis Car, which would move from house to house, with a public health nurse offering care to injured miners and their family members. They pressed for a universal health care system. Many of the things these women lobbied for eventually came to be. People often point to the doctors’ strike in 1962 in Saskatchewan as the event that triggered the birth of our universal health care system, but if it wasn’t for the kind of activities and organizations that we’ve just been speaking about, important social programs like that would not have come about.

What was the union’s attitude towards the women’s auxiliaries? Were they formally recognized by the union? Did they get financial support?

Yes, absolutely. Officially, it was recognized that women played a very important part in the union’s work. They were given time on the union conventions’ agenda. They were given financial support. But the financial support flowed both ways: the auxiliaries would hold fundraising activities and send that money to locals that were on strike.

It sounds like the women’s auxiliaries provided support the union couldn’t have functioned without. At least the strikes couldn’t have lasted as long.

Yes. The bulletins that were issued by the national office would not only go out to the union locals, but to the women’s auxiliary locals as well. So they were apprised of everything that was happening in the union. For instance, the bulletins might have said: “Negotiations have failed in Kimberley, BC. They will be in a strike position in two months, so stay tuned for news.” Then the word would go out to the women in Kimberley: “what help do you need? You can count on us to send it.” The auxiliaries had their own network across the country and communicated regularly.

What they accomplished was remarkable. Especially in those days when there wasn’t the internet, or the sophisticated mail system there is today – so, to get a truckload of kids’ clothes showing up at your union hall, when you’re out on strike, recognizing the effort it would have taken to collect all of those clothes, package them up, and ship them out across the country… it really meant something.

Are there any anecdotes that stand out to you?

I have a photograph — it’s an archival picture of an all-women’s march, in the winter of 1941-2, in Kirkland Lake, Ontario. It was a picket in support of the striking miners, who were striking for union recognition. And it stretched two miles long. That was one of the worst winters in Kirkland Lake. It was 40 below (it doesn’t matter what scale you’re working in, Fahrenheit or Celsius, 40 below is where they meet).

The miners did not win recognition. But that strike is credited with the eventual introduction of labor legislation in Canada that’s similar to the US’s Wagner Act of 1935. So it’s a very important strike. And it’s another lesson of the need to take the long view in history, because for so many of those on the line, the men and women, they thought their strike was a failure. But in actual fact, without that, and the many subsequent strikes in the year and a half following, we wouldn’t have the legislation that forces employers to recognize unions.

Although their history is virtually unknown, the auxiliaries played an important part in the development of the Canadian labor movement.

What other kinds of activities were the auxiliaries involved in?

They would organize all kinds of community events. This played a dual role – social unionism not only raises the profile of the union, but it also cements social relationships and provides cohesion within the community. So for instance, the large local in Sudbury ran a summer camp for the children of the workers. They ran a dance school and had an amateur theater troupe that regularly won awards at theater competitions.

They recognized the cultural aspects of people’s lives were just as important as putting food on the table. These values are expressed in the well-known expression “Bread and Roses”: we need to nourish not just our physical being, but also our emotional and spiritual being.

All of that sounds pretty harmless. Yet the RCMP investigated them. Tell me about that.

In 1993, after 40 years, the RCMP admitted that they had surveilled these women. When I read that news coverage, I thought, “there’s a story here,” because on the surface, of course women holding bake sales does not seem to be threatening enough for the RCMP to be surveilling them.

The RCMP framed it as: these auxiliaries are affiliated with what we consider to be a communist-led union. In those days of the Cold War, all you needed to do, to be investigated, to be on the watch list of the RCMP, was to have your license plate seen in close enough proximity with one or two other people who were on the list.

But the women’s auxiliaries did bring to their work a critical analysis of the power structures that stood in between them and a better life. “Yes, we offer help to one another, for the sake of equalizing the distribution of goods and services, but ultimately, what we are working towards is a dismantling of the entire system that creates the inequities.” So their day-to-day work of what we might consider now to be “charity” work was fueled by an understanding of the conditions that create the need for that charity work in the first place.

How did the women’s auxiliaries end? What is their legacy?

In 1967, the entire [MMSW] union in Canada merged with the United Steelworkers. But there was a renegade local that carried on under the MMSW banner, and kept the contract with the Falconbridge mines in Sudbury until they too merged with the Canadian Auto Workers, and that women’s auxiliary local carried on until they officially disbanded in the early 1990s.

It’s very hard to speak specifically about their legacy, because the history is so little-known. Like any history, labor history has been written by men, for men, and about men. Some of these women had mountains of archival materials, but when family members went to the Archives to make a donation, oftentimes they were refused. “Well they’re just the women, how important can it be?” So the historical record is patchy. Ironically, one of the best archival sources on the women’s auxiliaries of the MMSW is the RCMP collection in the national archives.

But, we can be inspired by what those foremothers did in the face of enormous challenges. The kind of courage and strength of purpose they had — the unity and the caring for each other. They help us recognize that while we may be living in very dark times now, there have been very dark times in the past, as any progressive person who lived through the Cold War will tell you. And yet people like the members of the women’s auxiliaries, who had a vision of a better, more fair and equitable world, were able to work together to surmount some of the obstacles they faced.