Differences in labour and the need for choice


Sometimes I sleep among the dead. Anxiety stirs me in the night, often after I file an obituary with the Globe & Mail.

I can be lost to all worldly cares, softly purring, tucked away all feline-like in bed when suddenly a thought punctures my dreams and chiseled words come to mind; words I’ve erroneously left missing in my piece clamour to slip into my consciousness before a thump lands the paper on my doorstep in early light, boldly presenting me with: ERROR! ERROR!

Last night I managed to scramble my laptop awake and dash the correction in to my editor before the neglected words vindicated me for journalistic sloppiness.

Former labour leader Cliff Pilkey is my subject. He was president of the Ontario Federation of Labour from the mid-80s to mid-90s when a lot happened in this province. Those were the days when abortion clinics were bombed and Henry Morgentaler was breakfast chatter.

I worked for a feminist newspaper in Vancouver called Kinesis back then and covered the clinic from there, not being as familiar with Ontario’s goings-on as I am now, living here. I’d heard of Pilkey but lacked knowledge of the finer points of what was to become his legacy.

During a 1982 OFL convention women delegates lobbied hard for free-standing abortion clinics, speaking across a hall filled with a few thousand mostly male delegates. Some  brothers cat-called and heckled them, ordering the women to sit down and shut up. They said that reproductive rights–get this–that reproductive rights is not a labour issue.

While in Vancouver I missed this news from that notable convention:  In a sudden, shocking gesture, Cliff Pilkey joined the women at the microphones. He spoke in support of a woman’s right to have an abortion.

“It was the time that the labour movement became a feminist movement,” said feminist activist Judy Rebick.

“Pilkey was the president,”  “He could have said, ‘well, I’ll be supporting you girls.'”

But he didn’t.

Instead he spoke about his mother’s several pregnancies, miscarriages, stillbirths, children. He spoke about her poverty and the forced restrictions on her life. His mother, he said, had no choice.

In supporting the women delegates at this labour convention, he was supporting a movement that gave this choice to women, and to hell with all the cat-callers and nay-sayers and hey–let’s throw our weight behind these women.

What I had incorrectly phrased, the seemingly insignificant few words that spiked me awake last night were these:

In my obituary, I had written that Pilkey “stepped down from the stage” to throw his support at the microphones.

I meant to say he joined the women on the floor of the convention.

A subtle but significant distinction.

About Nor

I'm a creative non-fiction writer, with a special interest in memoirs and obituaries--life stories, local histories with flesh & blood anecdotal details. I'm also beginning to create podcasts of people's stories and expanding their audiences. I'm a diarist, an editor, and a political activist. I live in Toronto, Ontario, Canada and spend days tapping keys or staining my fingers in ink.
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2 Responses to Differences in labour and the need for choice

  1. Grand Fromage says:

    oh don’t worry, go back to sleep, I got it! I knew exactly what you meant. He joined the women. But he has to step down from the stage to do so. XX

  2. Love this story. I remember Pilkey, and how major a shift that was – when the labour movement (and NDP!) shifted ‘onside’. It was the proverbial ‘sea change’. We all owe him….

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