Women Into Mining Jobs at Inco: Challenging the Gender Division of Labour – Jennifer Keck and Mary Powell (Part 5 of 5)

Submitted to the Inord Working Paper Series, June 30, 2000

Jennifer Keck, Ph.D. Associate Professor – School of Social Work

Mary Powell, Ph.D. Associate Professor – Department of Political Science

Laurentian University, Sudbury, Ontario

Getting Active in the Local ‘we were part of a generation that stood up for our rights’

Like most of the men they worked with, the majority of the women were not radical. They were prepared to challenge conventional gender prescriptions to earn a man’s wage but few of them considered themselves feminists or were interested in broader political struggles. Still, few of the women remained untouched by the militancy of mining work culture and the impact of women’s movement in the 1970s. It was not long before a small number of women emerged who were willing to hold the company and the union- to the original promise that they would be treated the ‘same as men’ and receive ‘equal treatment and opportunities.’

Women became active with the union under much the same conditions as new male workers. They were recruited early, often after complaining about conditions on the shop floor, and put on health and safety committees at the various plants. The first two women union stewards took office in 1975; women were also elected as delegates to the Ontario Federation of Labour convention the following year. While the union gave early support for the women to become active, there was generally more support for the women working on traditional union issues than there was for their attempt to challenge differences based on gender. This was probably not surprising given the large number of male workers and the union’s traditional support for the family wage.

A women’s committee was established in 1977 to address this problem. One of the organizers challenged the company and the union in an article that appeared in the union’s newsletter, The Searcher: “Over the last three years women have had to prove themselves to the company and the union. As women workers we share and support the concerns and struggles of our brothers… Now we want to be active so we can have a voice in our local… that is not our privilege, it is our right.’(22)

The strategy of separate organizing based on gender met with mixed reviews from men active in the local. While the committee had the support of the union President and other key activists, many men wondered why women needed a special committee to represent their interests when the union represented the interest of all workers. Even some of the women disagreed with the need for a separate committee. One woman who was active at the time remembered being accused of being a ‘women’s libber’.

Activists with the committee remained convinced that there were problems ‘peculiar to women’ that needed to be addressed including ‘maternity rights, child care, job opportunities, company attitude towards women and the aspects of health relating specifically to women.’(23)

One of the first issues the committee tackled was maternity leave. The women were concerned that pregnant women workers did not receive ‘same treatment’ as workers who were injured on the job. Under section 11.29 of the collective agreement the company could ask a pregnant employee to leave on unpaid leave of absence at such time as she could not in opinion of company perform her normal duties. This meant that a woman would be without income for nine or ten months if she was asked to leave.

This was in sharp contrast to section 11.23 that obliged the company to find alternative employment for employees who were unable to perform their regular work owing to age, disease or occupational injury. The fear of being laid off led a number of women who became pregnant in the first few years to not tell managers that they were pregnant as long as they could manage the work. The women’s committee proposed changing the policy to be more consistent with policy for injured workers. While this proposal was rejected by management during bargaining that year, the presentation marked the first time the union had addressed issues specific to the women in bargaining.

The profile of the women increased dramatically during the 1978-79 strike. In September 1978 the local rejected Inco’s latest contract offer and began the longest strike in company history, lasting eight and a half months. At first the women were assigned to work with the strikers’ wives to turn out a daily quota of 800 to 1000 sandwiches in the kitchen at the steel hall. But kitchen work was not for everyone and many of the women rejected the assignment to traditional women’s work to join their brothers on the picket line. Women also played a prominent role on committees responsible for distributing vouchers, general information and aid to striking workers and their families.

The strike became a politicizing experience for many of the activists. One of the women was on the emergency drug and benefit committee and helped organize the workers in the kitchen. She remembers the first time she went on a speaking tour: “They wanted someone to speak in B.C. to the University of British Columbia students and another group for International Women’s Day… I told Harvey (Wyers) that I couldn’t do it. I didn’t know anyone there… Here I was from a small town and I’d never done that kind of thing… I ended up going there for five weeks.”

Another activist, remembered meeting the union President for the first time when she walked into his office to complain about kitchen duty. He responded by putting her on the committee allocating aid to striking families. She later became the only member of Local 6500 to join the Wives Supporting the Strike Committee. Like many of the women who became active during the strike, she had never spoken in public before. She found her political voice before 500 people in Toronto where she spoke on a panel with some of the wives about being a woman and a worker on strike at Inco.

By the late seventies women had sufficient experience to begin to challenge gender discrimination on the shop floor with the support of the union’s grievance procedures and human rights legislation. Three cases received high profile in the media. In 1976, Shirley Brown, a worker at one of the company’s mills and an activist with the union, was denied a transfer to a newer facility because there were no washroom and dry facilities for women at that mill.(24) With the support of her union grievance officer, Brown launched a complaint with the Ministry of Labour and in 1978 the Ministry ordered the company to build a new dry or transport Brown, on company time, to the nearest facility with a washroom for women. Brown never did work at the Clarabelle mill but the company was forced to build washroom facilities and a dry for women at that plant.(25)

A second case involved two women who filed grievances after company officials blocked their attempts to transfer to the cottrell area of the Copper Cliff smelter in 1979.(26) Two smelter workers, Marie Emery and Olive Richer, were refused training jobs in the cottrell area of the plant because the company did not want men and women to work alone at a remote location. The company reversed this position in January 1980 after both the union and the human rights commission became involved.

The smelter manager explained the company’s new position in the Sudbury Star: “It was past practice to not allow a man and a woman to work together without additional supervision… However contractually women are entitled for those jobs and we have an obligation.’(27)”

The third case set an important precedent in the area of reproductive hazards. In 1984 Laurene Wiens launched a human rights case over the company’s refusal to let women work at the IPC section of the nickel refinery. Wiens, one of the first three women hired at Inco in 1974, had the necessary seniority and qualifications to bid on a higher paying job as an operator at the Nickel Carbonyl Plant. She was refused the position because of concerns that the chemical that would be used in the event of a carbonyl gas leak posed a potential health threat to a pregnant woman’s fetus.

The policy to exclude women from jobs in this part of the plant had been endorsed by both the company and union. After an unsuccessful bid to grieve the company’s decision, Wiens launched a human rights case in 1984. In 1988 the commission ruled that while Inco had acted in ‘good faith’ in developing and applying the restrictive policy, the risk of exposure to the harmful chemical was small and it was up to individual women to decide whether or not they were willing to assume that risk.(28)

The profile of women’s issues within the union and the workplace declined considerably over the course of the 1980s. This reflected several factors, including the decline in the number of women workers following the layoffs in the late 1970’s. In October 1977 Inco announced that 2200 workers would be laid off. One in three of the women hired in 1974-76 were amongst those laid off because they were among the workers with the least seniority. In 1982 as demand for nickel and copper declined and prices fell, Inco reported its first loss since 1932.

This time the number of hourly rated workers fell below 10,000 for the first time since the 1930s. With layoffs and job security dominating relations between the union and company, there were few attempts to raise the profile of gender issues. Fewer than 25 women remained by the end of the decade.

There was no new hiring until 1988.(29) Ten years later there were 50 women in an hourly rated workforce that had been downsized to fewer than 4200 workers. Nineteen of these women were part of the first cohort of women hired in 1974-76. These women had managed to survive the downsizing and restructuring and now had twenty-five years experience in an industry that was virtually all-male for most of this century.


“Maybe I could’ve got a job somewhere, in a kitchen or something, making maybe what 5, 4, 6 dollars an hour but if it wasn’t for Inco I wouldn’t have what I have right here today… to give what I can to my kids.”

In many respects the story of the move of women into blue collar jobs at Inco is a very ordinary one. A group of workers applied for and were successful in getting jobs that paid them more than they could earn at their previous jobs. With the income they earned the workers were able to support themselves, raise children, buy homes and pay for their children’s education. What makes this story ‘different’ and the lives of the workers ‘extraordinary’ is that the workers were female and the jobs they applied for were historically male jobs in mining.

In going to work at Inco women like Sue Benoit were leaving the minimum wage non-unionized jobs available to women and moving into the well-paid jobs that had in the past been available only to men. In an era when gender ideology was in transition these women found themselves on the frontier of the second wave of the women’s movement.

If the workplace was not radically transformed by their presence, the experience of the women who moved into Inco during the 1970s is significant because it demonstrates that women are both willing and capable of performing industrial jobs and that while it is difficult they can combine this work with their responsibilities for raising children. The women who moved into Inco during the 1970s were willing to confront the gender division of labour to enter men’s jobs in the absence of a local campaign by the union or the women’s movement and despite the fact that there were few role models or supports to help the women make the transition to a male dominated workplace.(30)

Their prominence as activists in the union and on the shop floor belied their small numbers and minority status at the workplace. The experience of the Inco women underscores perhaps the most fundamental of all points about gender discrimination: it is the social construction of gender that has kept women out of these jobs. Male domination in mining reflects factors that are historic and structural. Women were excluded from the mining industry as a matter of law beginning in the nineteenth century, a prohibition that remained in place for surface jobs until 1970 and for underground jobs until 1978. Women were hired for the first time mid-decade, but many lost their jobs during the period of restructuring and downsizing in the 1980s.

The example of the Inco women serves to remind us of the importance of vigilance in challenging the gender division of labour and the occupational segregation it supports. This is particularly the case in the absence of any government commitment to supporting full employment and the current climate of official hostility to employment equity in Canada. The push to get women into working class male-dominated jobs has waned considerably in the trade union and women’s movement in the 1990s.

This is perhaps not surprising given the declining patterns of employment in these industries. Jobs in the blue collar sector have been hard hit by the introduction of new technologies, restructuring and downsizing and more recently forces related to globalization. But these jobs are still important. They pay high wages and benefits, are often unionized and offer a degree of job security that has few parallels for working class women- or men.


Research for this paper has been supported by the Institute for Northern Ontario Development and Research, Inco, United Steelworkers of America, Local 6500, United Steelworkers of America, District 6, the Marion V. Royce Memorial Grant, Women’s Bureau of Human Resources Development Canada.

As authors we gratefully acknowledge this financial support, but we alone are responsible for the content and the views expressed. The authors would like to thank Dr. Mercedes Steedman and Wayne Fulks for comments and guidance in the development of this paper. Our sincere thanks as well to the members of the Research Advisory Committee- Betty Bardswich, Sue Benoit, Cathy Mulroy and Laurene Wiens- for their patience and encouragement. Tammy Roy and Trish Leduc played important roles as research assistants. Last but far from least, we would like to thank the women of USWA, Local 6500 who have generously opened up their homes and consented to telling us their stories.

1) An earlier version of this paper was presented at Genderations: Women’s Worlds ’99, Tromso, Norway,
June 21, 1999.

2) The Ontario Mining Act prohibited companies from employing women to work underground until 1978.

3) Julie White, Sisters and Solidarity: Women and Unions in Canada, Toronto: Thompson Educational
Publishing, 1993.

4) Statutes of Ontario, 1890, Chapter 10, s. 4.

5) Sandra Battaglini,

6) Jennifer Keck and Mary Powell ‘Working at Inco: Women in a Downsizing Male Industry’, In Marg Kechnie and Marge Reitsma-Street, eds., Changing Lives: Women and the Northern Experience, Toronto: Dundurn Press, 1996.

7) Employment figures based on the company’s annual reports. See also Jennifer Keck and Mary Powell ‘Working at Inco: Women in a Downsizing Male Industry’ and Dieter Buse, ‘The 1970s’ in Carl Wallace and Ashley Thompson, Sudbury Rail Town to Regional Capital, Toronto: Dundurn Press, 1993.

8) Barbara Cameron, ‘From Equal Opportunity to Symbolic Equity: Three Decades of Federal TrainingPolicy for Women’ in Isa Bakker, Rethinking Restructuring: Gender and Change in Canada, Toronto:University of Toronto Press.

9) Lawrence Welsh, ‘Mining executives claim labor shortage now at critical stage’, ‘Mines turning to women for work in operations’, The Globe and Mail, January 23, 1974, B1.

10) ‘May welcome women in area mines’, Sudbury Star, January 25, 1974, A1.

11) ‘Ladies/ First Ladies’, Inco Triangle, August, 1974.

12) Based on interviews with the women who were hired in 1974-76.

13) ‘Ladies/ First Ladies’, The Triangle, August, 1974. Also ‘May Welcome Women in Area Mines’,Sudbury Star, January 25, 1974.

14) Inco, Ontario Division, Inco Report of Operations, 1974, 33.

15) Mick Lowe ‘Hard Rock Women’, Financial Post Magazine, January 1995, 24.

16) Wage Rate Survey, 10 October 1974, Regional Municipality of Sudbury, Community Profile, 1975, p.11-17. See also J. Keck and M. Powell, Women’s Work in Northeastern Ontario: Preliminary Findings about Women in the Mining Industry, INORD Research Grant Series #3, Sudbury, p. 14.

17) Meg Luxton and June Corman, ‘Getting to Work: The Challenge of the Women Back Into Stelco Campaign’, Labour/le Travail, 28; Cynthia Cockburn, Brothers: Male Dominance and Technological Change, London: Pluto Press; Paul Willis, ‘Shop Floor Culture, Masculinity and the Wage Form,’ Working Class Culture: Studies in History and Theory, ed. J. Clarke et. al. London: Hutchison.

18) See Marat Moore, Women in the Mines: Stories of Life and Work, New York: Prentice Hall, 1996.

19) Mick Lowe ‘Hard Rock Women’, Financial Post Magazine, January 1995, 24.

20) H. Hartman, ‘The Unhappy Marriage of Marxism and Feminism: Towards a More Progressive Union’ in L. Sargent, ed. Women and Revolutino: A Discussion of the Unhappy Marriage of Marxism and Feminism,Boston: South End Press, 1981.

21)Meg Luxton and June Corman make a similar in observation in their study of workers at Stelco. See Hard Times, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, in press.

22) The Searcher, 1977.

23) ibid.

24) The Clarabelle Mill was a newly constructed facility where it was possible to be assigned steady day shifts. This was important for workers like Brown who was a sole support parent at the time.

25) ‘Jobs shut to women at Levack’, The Sudbury Star, July 10, 1978.

26) The cottrells are huge vessels that accumulate dust and gases from the furnaces that lead to the superstack. The cottrell jobs were ‘cleaner’ and paid a higher rate that the women’s regular jobs.

27) Tony Van Alphen, ‘Moms work in smelter following lengthy struggle’, The Sudbury Star, January 25, 1980.

28) Lorne Slotnick, ‘Barring women from refinery illegal, Inco told’, The Globe and Mail, March 7, 1988, A1 and A2.

29) Jennifer Keck and Mary Powell ‘Working at Inco: Women in a Downsizing Male Industry’, In Marg Kechnie and Marge Reitsma-Street, eds., Changing Lives: Women and the Northern Experience, Toronto: Dundurn Press, 1996.

30) Educational programs promoting the move into non-traditional jobs did not emerge in most Canadian cities until the late 1970s. See Meg Luxton and June Corman, ‘Getting to Work: The Challenge of the Women Back Into Stelco Campaign’, Labour/le Travail, 28.