Grace Hartman: a woman for her time.
TO AFFIRM THAT the advance of women in so many areas of life in Western countries has been one of the 20th century's most important legacies it is only necessary to recall the times when jobs were posted according to sex. The role of Grace Hartman, president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees during the turbulent years from 1975 to 1983, was seldom determining in this process, although significant to varying degrees.
Aware of her subject's strengths and weaknesses, writer Susan Crean has judiciously cast Hartman as "a woman for her time." Crean is sensitive to context and as she attempts to establish the environment she notes the findings of such labour historians as Ruth Frager, Craig Heron, Joan Sangster, and Wayne Roberts. While there is much to be learned about Canadian public service unions in this biography, surroundings sometimes overtake subject because evidence pertaining to Hartman is thin, deriving mainly from oral testimony. Crean's account of Hartman's life nevertheless unfolds smoothly in a well-crafted account.
Grace Hartman came late to labour activism and to prominence as an advocate of women's rights. Born into an ordinary family in Toronto in 1918, she left school early for manual labour following the early death of her mother and the failure of her father's business activities. She was influenced by communist ideology and activities during the 1930s, but marriage and children created a Willowdale suburban housewife who did not venture back to paid employment until 1954 when she secured a secretarial job with the municipality of North York. Landing in a pink collar ghetto, she joined the local of the National Union of Public Employees (amalgamated with the National Union of Public Service Employees to form CUPE in 1963) and became its president in 1960 when she was forty-two years old.
Grace Hartman's ascent within CUPE was rapid during the next decade and a half. She was a good listener, well-organized, steady, and non-threatening -- essential qualities during the stormy early inner life of CUPE as related here, particularly when it was headed by the mercurial Stan Little. A co-operative non-aggression pact with another rising CUPE star, Shirley Carr, removed what might otherwise have been a barrier. Hartman's personal experiences and trade union role sensitized her to women's issues, particularly in the workplace, at a time when even in a public service union "`a woman at a convention was looked upon as a piece of ass'." (54) Her union credentials lent themselves nicely to the largely middle-class women's movement of the 1960s. Hartman helped to found the National Action Committee on the Status of Women and lobbied for the Royal Commission established by the Trudeau government. Throughout she retained an intellectual independence based on her identification with working women. While adverse to the more arcane debates within the women's liberation movement, she was no less critical of unions, declaring in 1971 that the "majority of working women will continue to turn their backs on unions until union leaders begin to treat them as persons with equal status." (136)
When Hartman assumed the helm of CUPE in 1975 it had become the country's largest union, though it was viewed suspiciously by the industrial unions and individuals like the vituperative Dennis McDermott of the Auto Workers, with whom Hartman sparred. Hartman's chief accomplishments, Crean emphasizes, remained in the promotion of women within the workplace, union organization, and Canadian society more generally. Hartman rose to the occasion in the 1981 Ontario hospital workers' strike when she vehemently pointed out the inequities of the province's labour legislation and paid the price in a two-month jail term.
Other than the constancy of Hartman's advocacy of women, there was little ideology that governed her conduct in office, perhaps because the range of issues that today command the attention of union leaders detracts from a more coherent approach. Susan Crean rightly concludes that Grace Hartman was viewed generally "as a traditional trade unionist, neither bureaucrat nor expert, an unrepentant democrat, a modest and decent person. She was a woman other women liked to work for; a leader who habitually urged workers to reach beyond their jobs, to grow with their work. If labour historians and journalists said that she made her mark as a woman but not as an innovative leader in the movement because she lacked clout with the inner councils of labour, they weren't exactly wrong." (220-1) Susan Crean gets her subject right in an informative and balanced biography.
University of Guelph
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|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 1997|
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