Discrimination case reminds us all how much more needs to be done

For as long as there has been a women's movement in Canada, there has been an active campaign to both highlight the ways in which women are discriminated and change the conditions that allow that discrimination to exist. The labour movement has played a major role in changing those conditions by using the power of the bargaining table and collective agreements to ensure that contract rights trump discriminatory practice in the workplace.

As much as we might like to think that we have succeeded in eliminating the discriminatory conditions that women face in our post-secondary institutions, events at local campuses serve as another reminder that the struggle for change is a continuous one. Those events also reinforce the important role that our activists and advocates play in reversing discriminatory practices.

A good example of all this was a grievance that recently went through a lengthy review process before finally being resolved last week. It involved a non-regular faculty member who was on the path to regularization. Her department had ongoing work for her, a condition that helps make the case for regularization. Prior to the end of her non-regular contract, she told her employer that she was pregnant and would be taking maternity leave during the following semester. That's when things fell apart for this member.

The employer took the position that her pregnancy meant she wasn't available for work next semester and as a result she would not be awarded the appointment she was qualified to receive-a non-regular teaching position in her department. Adding to the problems for this faculty member was the fact that in taking the position that the member wasn't available for work and therefore unable to be awarded the available non-regular teaching assignment, the employer was also denying her access to the full benefits associated with her maternity leave which would have included a top-up on her Employment Insurance benefit. It left her with only one month of benefits.

With the full support of her local faculty association and the assistance of FPSE Labour Relations Staff as well as FPSE's legal counsel, we launched a grievance to address this discriminatory action. Months of fact gathering and research of labour relations case law finally forced the employer to acknowledge what they should have recognized at the very beginning: their actions were discriminatory and they had to fully compensate the faculty member for what had taken place. The settlement reached on behalf of the woman included full compensation for the loss of full maternity coverage as well as the loss of additional salary increments and related benefits that she should have received.

While it is certainly heartening to know that our system of local and provincial advocacy, along with strong provisions in our existing contracts, meant that we had the ability to correct a blatant case of discrimination, the very fact that an employer would assume that their earlier interpretation of both the current contract and the institution's labour relations policy on this matter was the correct one to take shows just how much we still have to do. Women still face significant economic barriers in the workplace, barriers that need to be dismantled and can be eliminated as long as we maintain a vigilance to fight the discrimination that puts those barriers up in the first place.

Success builds on success. The victory in this woman's case has significance for women across our post-secondary institutions. The teachable moment in this instance? Working together, we are making a difference, a point this women knows all too well.

About FPSE

The Federation of Post-Secondary Educators of BC is the provincial voice for faculty and staff in BC teaching universities, colleges and institutes, and in private sector institutions. FPSE member locals, represented by Presidents' Council and the Executive, represent over 10,000 faculty and staff at 18 public and 12 private sector institutions.