For Bob Lederer, creating bargaining Women’s Advocate language at his workplace’s collective agreement was personal.
In 2004, he was a new worker at the paper mill at Resolute Forest Products in Thunder Bay. At that time, the mill was not unionized. He and his co-workers wore headsets for communication and one particular interaction made him aware of the sexism in the heavily male-dominated workforce.
“I remember the acting supervisor ordering the sister to come up on the catwalk – over the radio for everyone to hear – and told her to come undo his pants. Everyone went quiet,” he said.
“I always remembered that story for two reasons – I was just shocked by it, and I had a daughter at home.”
The woman worker laughed it off, recalled Lederer, now President of Local 5025. But the interaction was clearly inappropriate.
In 2015, when the local elected its bargaining committee, all eight members, plus the National Representative were men – with less than six to eight women working in the plant at the time. That’s when a lightbulb came on in Lederer’s head to bargain a Women’s Advocate position in the next collective agreement.
A Women’s Advocate is a specially trained workplace representative who assists women with concerns such as workplace harassment, intimate violence and abuse. The Women’s Advocate is not a counsellor but rather provides support for women accessing community and workplace resources.
“It’s important to have trained workplace representatives who know how to refer members to critical supports when they need it most, providing a service for all members know who to speak to for help navigating community and union resources,” said Tracey Ramsey, Unifor Women’s Department Director. “I come from a traditionally male-dominated sector and I know how much value a Women’s Advocate can bring to the workplace.”
The company argued it didn’t need the Women’s Advocate language, but Lederer said the bargaining committee kept re-submitting the issue.
On the last day of negotiations, Lederer sat across the table from three company officials – the now head of HR for Resolute, the Ontario Regional HR manager and the Thunder Bay mill manager.
“So, I told them that story. I said, ‘I made a mistake that day and I felt guilty for not speaking up,’” he said. “I pointed out the mill manager and said, ‘That man promoted [the supervisor].’ And the room went silent. The next day, they came back and were signing the contract and they gave us the Women’s Advocate language.”
Lederer said he went home after than win and told his wife about what happened.
“I told her, ‘I never want my daughter to come home from a job and say, ‘Dad, this is what happened to me,’” he said. “It was my opportunity to do something.”
As a result, Melanie Forget has been the Women’s Advocate at the local since 2015.
“I feel a lot of pride being the Women’s Advocate,” said Forget. “I’ve been in the mill for 20 years so I have experience dealing with all kinds of situations in this male-dominated industry. I hope I can help the younger sisters so they feel supported and respected.”
Forget says they have a great network of sisters in the Thunder Bay area, who gather and support each other often.
“There aren’t many of us women in the mill so it’s important that we stick together. We connect with other bigger locals’ women’s committees and community groups, and it’s great,” she added.
When Local 5025 entered negotiations with Resolute Forest Products again in Dec. 2022, they had the opportunity to build upon the Women Advocate language.
At that time, the company informed Lederer of offers they had done with other mills, providing a maternity leave top-up for workers and also incorporating Women’s Advocate language in all of their collective agreements in its other locations moving forward.
Lederer’s advice to other locals who want to create this change in their workplaces:
“If you have daughters and wives, they’ll tell you how they’ve experienced this,” he said. “Enough is enough and it’s time to make change. Don’t stop fighting during negotiations and you can achieve this.”