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union activist Grace Hartman

by Ann Farrell | November 17, 2000

“She was small, but mighty” said Marilyne White, wife of Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) former president Bob White. In her time (1918–1993), Grace Hartman fought not only for women’s access to the workplace and for equal treatment in the workplace, but also for the kind of workplace that recognizes that most women are caregivers and housekeepers in addition to their paid work.

Grace was a pioneer in seeking pay equity – paying women the same as men when they do work of equal value. Just in case you think that problem has gone away, Statistics Canada recently released a study that found that women’s work is still only worth about two-thirds of men’s work – women have an after-tax income of only 63% of men’s work. OK, it used to be 52% and the work of women like Grace has brought some gains since the mid-1980s. But there’s more – women are doing more unpaid work than men.

I keep hearing that young women today are not as active in the cause of women as in the last 30 years because they are so much better off. We may be better off if we compare ourselves to women of the past, but we are not better off compared to men. If Grace were here, she would tell us exactly what she thinks. She would tell us to get working on it, to “just do it.”

Hartman was born in Toronto, Ontario, in 1918, the eldest of four daughters of Ray and Frances Fulcher. Grace was only five when her mother died of lung cancer, the same disease that led to Grace’s death in 1993 at age 75. Grace overcome breast cancer in 1948 when her first-born, Warren, was six years old.

Ray Hartman was left to care for his young family in their home on Palmerston Avenue, helped by his mother, Margaret Fulcher. Within two years, he married a much younger woman, Jean Gibbons. Grandma Fulcher stayed on to help with the younger children, and another woman was hired to carry out household tasks that were too heavy for her. Despite the problems that so often beset relationships when a step parent comes on the scene, the children adjusted, helped by the fact that they were spirited and independent by nature. They were also a musical family. All of them read music and played the piano or sang, eventually forming the Fulcher Choir which performed in churches near Elmira in southwestern Ontario.

As a parent, Ray is remembered as fun-loving, egalitarian, fair, and a father who always encouraged his children to do what they thought was right.

Grace met Joe, a stonemason, at a party in 1934 when she was only 16 and he was 23. He lived in the neighbourhood and by the following year their relationship was blossoming. Joe, half German, had emigrated from Scotland with his family, one that was known for its dedication to union politics and progressive causes. Although the couple didn’t marry until 1939 – each of them was committed to seeing their siblings through school first – they were both considered one of the family in their respective homes. During this period, Joe’s mother, Mary Hartman, was a feminist influence on Grace.

Grace and Joe were married for more than 50 years. Like Grace, Joe was a feminist, well ahead of his time as a husband and partner, one who was always 100% behind Grace’s endeavours, never insisting that she stay home to cook supper or look after their two sons, Warren and Bob (back row, right and left). However, the family did gather together for Sunday breakfast, something that was known to go on until mid-afternoon according to son Warren. Grace, though, recognized just how much her husband facilitated her public fight for women’s rights, especially in the trade union movement.

Grace’s 16th year marked another turning point in her life. Her father lost his management job in a paper company, and had to accept welfare before he finally regained financial independence. Grace dropped out of Grade 11 at Harbord Collegiate and went to work to augment the family income. Her grandmother had taught her needlework, a skill that brought her employment with the Oriental Carpet Company on Wellington Street in Toronto, repairing and putting borders on carpets for a beginning wage of $10 a week. It was the Depression and, through Joe, Grace joined the Workers Educational Association and attended its lectures. It led to her questioning the conservative political values of her home. Joe had joined the Communist Party in 1932 and Grace became active in the Young Communist League. His daughter’s political involvement upset Ray Fulcher, especially as he feared for her safety during the violence that marked Communist activities from time to time. In 1936, at age 48, Ray Fulcher died suddenly of a coronary.

While still plying her needle, Grace took secretarial courses that for her were the door to a broader and more ambitious future, one that wouldn’t really begin for several years.

In 1941, Grace went to work for the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers (UE), known for its left-leaning sympathies. While her boss was absent much of the time as a result of his political activities, Grace ran the office and helped with organizing drives at General Electric and Westinghouse, another lesson in trade union organization. However, Grace did not get his job when he left.

At the end of 1941, Grace left the working world for a seven-year period, doing temporary work. She joined a splinter group, known as the Ontario Executive, in a storefront at Queen and Shaw Streets where she lit the coal stove in the mornings, answered letters and the phone, and distributed leaflets at plant gates. It was a job in which Grace learned a great deal about workers’ points of view, information that was to stand her in good stead as she moved gradually towards leadership in the trade union movement.

By 1954, Grace was ready to expand her horizons and soon landed a job as a clerk typist for what was then the Metropolitan Toronto Borough of North York (now part of the amalgamated City of Toronto). It was an improvement on carpets, but she had wanted to be a lawyer. “I did want to do things and I was frustrated; I always thought I would go back to school – but you don’t go back, at least you didn’t in those days.”

She became a member of Local 373 of the National Union of Public Employees (NUPE). Local 373 represented the “inside” (office) workers who were 63% women. Local 94 of NUPE represented the “outside” workers who were almost exclusively men. There was animosity between the two locals. The outside workers would always bargain with the employer first, and whatever was left over in terms of pay and benefits went to the inside workers.

Grace ran for office in Local 373 and within a couple of years became secretary, then vice president and finally president. Once, when she asked for the same pay increase the city agreed to pay the outside workers, the reeve (mayor) said, “Oh, but they are breadwinners and they have to have more.” Grace asked him if he knew how many women were sole-support mothers. “He hadn’t a clue. But I was always helping out women who needed a hand when they worked late and had to pick up their kids, and I knew.”

In the late 1950s, Grace put up with the demeaning comments women suffered in a milieu dominated by men. Bill Overcott of Local 43 said at a Toronto District Council meeting. “What the hell is she doing here when she ought to be at home with her family?”

By the beginning of the 1960s, Grace had won a good few battles and was on her way up in the trade union movement, already president of Metro Toronto District Council of Public Employees and about to start work as secretary of the Ontario division of the National Union of Public Employees.

In 1963, NUPE and its sister organization, the National Union of Public Service Employees (NUPSE), merged to form the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), one of the largest in Canada (78,317 members). Grace was elected vice president of the first national executive board (again the only woman) and four years later, secretary-treasurer. She was the first woman to serve as a top official within a Canadian union. In an interview with the Windsor Star, she remarked that “more and more women are taking responsibility as union officers despite the demands on their time of keeping house and working.”

CUPE claimed its first pay equity breakthrough on July 1, 1967 (Canada’a centennial year) when female members of Local 101 in London, Ontario, won an end to wage discrimination. The local’s previous collective agreement contained two wage schedules, one for women, another for men. The women identified these differing schedules as a “sore point” and were able to win equal wage rights.

For Grace, work in trade unions and work in the women’s movement were interrelated ways to change Canadian society. In 1968, she served on the Advisory Council of the Royal Commission on the Status of Women. She also attended a third world conference on women workers’ problems. Sponsored by the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, 100 delegates from 42 countries met in Germany. Hartman was the only delegate from North America. Addressing a conference on women’s rights in 1972, Grace asserted: “Unions can be just as discriminatory as employers, just as discriminatory as tax laws, just as biased in favour of men as the rest of society.”

In 1966 she was in the news, along with her colleagues at CUPE, as she led a rally at the Ontario Legislature to present the government with a Bill of Wrongs. Nearly 2,000 people turned out and it was a great success. The document listed ten pieces of legislation which explicitly discriminated against public employees, affecting some 35,000 workers in Ontario. She handed the bill to Allan Grossman, then Minister of Correctional Institutions, who wasn’t happy at having to respond.

The rally showed Grace she could speak in public. She began to think seriously about her appearance on public occasions, and the media began to seek out her opinion on issues. In BC, she gave her first “State of Women in the Union” speech, exhorting women to fight for recognition for their work, and to become active for their cause in unions. In 1971, at CUPE’s national convention in Edmonton, 665 delegates passed a resolution which simply said, “Not enough has been done to protect women workers.”

Hartman had become a member of Laura Sabia’s Committee for the Equality of Women in Canada (CEWC), joining its steering committee in her capacity as chair of the Ontario Federation of Labour’s (OFL) Women’s Committee. By the time the delegation went to Ottawa later that year to see Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson, she officially represented the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) as well as CUPE. The prime minister backed out 20 minutes before the delegation was due to make its presentation and sent a replacement, Lucien Cardin, who attempted to soft-soap the delegation. Hartman responded by sending a letter to the prime minister severely chastising him for Cardin’s patronizing remarks to the group.

Grace Hartman was acclaimed President of CUPE at a national convention after the previous head announced his resignation in January, 1975. Referring to stringent federal anti-inflation measures put in place by the Trudeau government of the day, she vowed to lead the union into the fight of its life. “We will turn the heat on and melt the wage freeze,” she pledged.

In June that year, the CUPE executive board decided wholeheartedly to support the CLC’s call for a one-day general strike to protest wage controls. When the sun set on October 14, 1976, more than 100,000 CUPE members had joined one million other Canadians in the largest general strike in Canadian history. “We’re out to fight controls!” was the slogan. Speaking at the Winnipeg rally, Hartman warned the government that “the price for political deceit is political defeat.”

In 1981, at age 62, Hartman was jailed for 30 days for defying a Supreme Court order to end an illegal strike by Ontario hospital workers. She said it was a price she was glad to pay to combat what she saw as low pay and a denial of bargaining rights for the hospital workers – mostly women. “I still think hospital workers should have the right to strike. I disagree with the law and I didn’t like my time in jail,” she commented. Bob White said her decision to defy the law “was really a difficult decision for her to make – she put herself on the line.” Son Warren recalled that his mother’s first night in the detention centre was one of the most frightening experiences of her life. “When the doors slammed close behind her, there was nothing she could do. I think she felt very lost and very frightened that night.” But after she was moved to a minimum-security jail, she made the best of a bad situation.

Altogether, 36 hospital workers were fired, 3,442 were suspended, and 5,582 received disciplinary letters as a result of participation in the strike. In the months following, CUPE successfully fought the employers’ actions through arbitration.

In 1983, at age 65, with CUPE’s membership at 294,633, and with eight hectic years as president of Canada’s largest union behind her, Grace Hartman decided to do what most workers do when they reach retirement age – retire.

“The federal and provincial governments have enacted no fewer than 17 pieces of legislation since our 1981 convention that are aimed at crippling public sector unions and suspending their rights,” Hartman said in her last address as CUPE president. “The task we have before us is no less than the preservation of a decent, caring, civilized society.”

In 1984, Grace received the Toronto YWCA Women of Distinction Award. In 1992, she was inducted into the Canadian Labour Hall of Fame and received an honourary doctor of laws degree from York University.

Hartman, who traveled 300,000 km a year attending union functions, was once dubbed “the loving granny.” She was often seen with her needlework during meetings and, although she could be aggressive in pursuit of goals, her manner tended to be quiet during discussions. On women’s rights, a hard edge would emerge.

Current CUPE president Judy Darcy said that Grace Hartman “never lost touch with people. In her 30 year career as a labour activist, Mrs. Hartman walked where no woman walked before. Because of her, thousands of working women began to believe they could make a difference.”

more to consider

Addressing a conference on women’s rights in 1972, Grace Hartman asserted, “Unions can be just as discriminatory as employers, just as discriminatory as tax laws, just as biased in favour of men as the rest of society.” This statement makes me think that Grace was a realist – she looked at what institutions and organizations actually did, how they actually behaved.

When it comes to the treatment of women, we assume that those who talk “rights” deliver rights. History tells us differently. If you want to measure what a government, an employer or an educational institution is doing to advance equality, don’t just look at what they say. Look hard at what they do. Same goes for movements – union, peace, anti-globalization. How are women being treated?

resources for this story
  • Grace Hartman, A Woman for Her Time, by SUSAN CREAN, New Star Books, ISBN: 0921586477 | 1995
  • In Our Time: Memoir of a Revolution, by SUSAN BROWNMILLER, Dial Press, ISBN: 0385314868 | 1999

This feature was first published on’s predecessor site CoolWomen.


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