Grace Hartman: Paving a Trail for Women in Unions

by Alex Beszterda
"Norm Quan Bursary 2000 winner, CUPE 1975"

Before 1975, not a single woman held an executive position for any major labour organization in North America. Grace Hartman changed that and became the pioneer of women leadership in trade unions. As a trade unionist, feminist, and social activist she was forever committed to women’s rights and creating positive change.

Grace Hartman, maiden name Fulcher, was born in 1918 in Toronto, Ontario. At the age of sixteen she dropped out of grade eleven at Harbord Collegiate and obtained work repairing carpets at the Oriental Carpet Company; this was necessary to help support her family and quite common for young women at that time. Around 1937, she joined the Young Communist League. According to her the organization was "…saying things I wanted to hear. I wanted to see things changed. Other organizations weren’t radical enough…".

Around that time, she attended Shaw Business College and took classes in typing and bookkeeping. On June 30, 1939, she married Joe Hartman who was active in the Workers Educational Association. After several short term office jobs, Grace Hartman started working for C.S. Jackson at the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers (UE). When her employer was interned by the RCMP for anti-war activities in 1941, she ran the office and helped with organizing drives at General Electric and at Westinghouse. She left UE in December 1941 and later started work with another left-wing union the so-called Ontario Executive; the breakaway group from the Steel Workers Organizing Committee.

In 1954, Grace Hartman found a job at the North York civic offices. She had a good grasp of civic affairs gained from her community work. She quickly worked her way up to the top secretarial level where her responsibilities included the minutes of the planning board and listening to community groups’ presentations. The employees at the township office had been organized for some time; originally chartered by the Trades and Labour Congress of Canada (TLC) and later by the National Union of Public Employees (NUPE), founded in 1955. Grace Hartman began attending meetings of Local 373, the clerical, administrative, and technical staff and within a few months was on the executive.

On the job, Grace Hartman had to deal with injustices in the treatment of women. When a new position in her department was posted asking for male employees, she decided to apply anyways because she was already doing a good portion of the job. The man she was competing with for the job had equal qualifications. Management stalled with their decision of who to hire, and eventually decided they did not want the position filled. However, within a few months the job was reposted, but this time asking for a university degree.

Hartman made steady progress through the ranks of the Local 373 executive serving first as secretary, then as vice-president, and finally president. She was soon chairing the bargaining team and negotiating with the township; however, NUPE had no field staff to assist locals in bargaining at the time. Within a few short years, Local 373 had grown from 60 to 250 members and became a predominantly female local. Grace Hartman was elected president of the local in 1959, a position she held until 1967, and both the executive and negotiating committees ended up with a female majority.

Local 373 was reasonably stable and had a good relationship with the Township of North York. At the bargaining table, Local 373 made gains outside of the collective agreement on its own initiative and expanded the bargaining unit. Hartman had a good rapport with the local’s membership and helped organize many events such Christmas parties and Valentine’s Day dances.

The first major undertaking which granted Grace Hartman much publicity was the Queen’s Park demonstration in Toronto in 1966. It was the first mass demonstration of public sector workers; nearly two-thousand CUPE members gathered in protest over Section 89 of the Ontario Labour Relations act.

Formerly Section 78, the clause gave municipalities the right to pass a by-law that exempted civic employers and employees from the provisions of the act such as the right to certification process and conciliation services. This provision actually violated the International Labour Organizations 1948 Convention on Freedom of Association, and was uncommon in many democratic nations.

However, in the 1960 amendment, the government of John Robarts left the provision intact. Ontario had a reputation for aggressively anti-labour jurisdiction and nowhere else in the country were public employees so bordered by provincial legislation. The Robarts government set up a three man Royal Commission in 1963 to investigate legislation for compulsory arbitration in hospital labour disputes. The commission gave the government the recommendation for Bill 41, which was passed into law in 1965 as the "Act to Provide for settlement by Arbitration of Labour Disputes in Hospitals".

Hartman and her Ontario Division colleagues decided against polite press releases; a serious statement had to be made. As Ontario Division president, Hartman was in charge of the mass demonstration. On the steps of the Ontario Legislature, Grace Hartman read a Bill of Wrongs, which listed ten pieces of legislation that explicitly discriminated against public employees. She presented it to Allan Grossman, the Minister of Correctional Institutions, though he offered little response.

Awaiting a conclusion, a serious matter rose up in Sudbury. At Chelmsford Valley District Composite High School, fourteen janitors and clerical workers went on strike after having the school board pass a by-law against them under Section 89 for attempting to organize. Hartman turned all her energy, and that of the Ontario Division to the strike. Though there was serious violence and some arrests of supporting steel workers, the Chelmsford strike ended with no reprisals to the school staff. In May of 1966, the famous section of the Ontario Labour Relations act was repealed.

Though her union work was first priority, Hartman made great strides for the Women’s Liberation movement. She chaired the first Women’s Committee for the Ontario Federation of Labour, set up in 1965. In June 1966, the committee sponsored a conference in Toronto on "Women at Work", which was attended by 140 delegates.

In July, Grace Hartman joined the steering committee of the Committee for the Equality of Women in Canada (CEWC), led by Laura Sabia. By 1967, the CEWC succeeded in getting the government to establish the Royal Commission on the Status of Women. Grace Hartman helped write the CUPE brief to the commission, which made recommendations relating to daycare, equal pay, labour standards, and unemployment insurance. When the Royal Commission completed its report in 1970, Hartman proposed a comprehensive policy on women’s equality within the union. At the 1971 CUPE convention, a statement titled The Status of Women in CUPE was put forward for official endorsement by the delegates. The resolution addressed working women’s issues such as pensions, maternity leave, part-time work, and wage discrimination; it passed with minimal opposition. Interestingly, CUPE was the only major trade union to undertake such an extensive policy on the rights of women workers.

With nearly ten years of involvement in the trade union movement, Grace Hartman’s career continued to lead her on paths women had never walked before. In May 1967, she took over as CUPE’s national secretary treasurer. The position on the National Executive Board (NEB) meant she had to move to Ottawa and be away from her family. She was responsible for a $1.2 million budget, and for administering the finances and staffing of a union with 103 full-time staff and 577 Locals. Hartman’s constant challenge was to calibrate revenues to the needs of organizing and servicing new members.

At the 1969 CUPE convention, she presented a report and discussion of Action 69-71: a strategic plan for expanding the union’s research, service, and organizing facilities. After much revision, the membership finally agreed upon an acceptable increase in dues to fund the undertaking. In 1975, after six-years as national secretary, Grace Hartman was elected as President of CUPE, the first woman to lead a major union anywhere in North America. It was International Women’s Year, and Hartman found herself president of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women (NAC) as well. She had been NAC’s treasurer for three years, and part of the committee that helped establish the group. However, the work of leading Canada’s largest union was time consuming and she resigned from NAC after one year.

Hartman’s first action as president was to address the Liberal National Convention, in November, over the issue of wage and price controls. Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau had announced the imposition of the controls and the establishment of an Anti-Inflation Board, and CUPE’s opposition was adamant. Hartman knew women would be most affected by the wage cuts because they were living on the bottom of the wage scale; some low-income earners would have wages frozen below the poverty line. Grace addressed the Prime Minister with these concerns. As president of CUPE, she traveled all over the country giving speeches, attending the conferences, and walking the picket lines. For her, it was "a matter of principle that national officers be available to speak to members…". Grace was well respected, and she was re-elected in 1977 and 1979.

The climax of Grace Hartman’s union career was the Ontario hospital workers strike of 1981. The controversial strike resulted in a prison sentence for Grace and only a meager improvement in the workers’ wages. In the late summer of 1980, the Central Bargaining Committee (for the 16,000 members of CUPE working in Ontario hospitals) and the Ontario Hospital Association (OHA) reached a tentative agreement over wages. However, CUPE hospital local presidents voted it down in a meeting held soon after. In October, nearly ninety percent of the membership also rejected the agreement. With talks stalled, the two parties were ordered to proceed to arbitration in accordance with the Hospital Labour Disputes Arbitration Act; CUPE refused.

On January 6, 1981, Grace Hartman announced a strike vote for January 15; the vote passed with 75 percent of those present in favor. On January 21, the Ontario Labour Relations Board (OLRB), at the request of the OHA, ordered a halt to strike preparations and called for a meeting of the two parties, with mediation. The meeting over January 24/25 proved ineffective and the strike began the morning of January 26. Subsequently, attorney general Roy McMurtry applied to the Supreme Court of Ontario far an ex parte injunction against the strike, and an OLRB back-to-work order. The injunction was granted on January 30, but Hartman advised the workers to stay on the picket lines. She also sent a message to Premier William Davis, urging him to personally instruct the OHA to begin serious negotiations.

By February, there was still no settlement in sight, and CUPE secretly approached the OHA with a proposal for a return to work if there were no reprisals and if the hospitals agreed to commence negotiations immediately. However, the OHA refused the conditions and sat back as provincial police threatened strikers on the picket line with arrest. The strike lasted eight days; 54 locals and 14,000 Ontario CUPE hospital members, most of them women, walked the picket lines. By the end the reprisals were staggering: 3,400 suspensions; 5,500 letters of reprimand; and 34 dismissals, fortunately these were successfully grieved. The union had no choice but to go to arbitration when the strike ended.

In June 1981, Grace Hartman and eighteen other co-accused CUPE members found themselves in provincial court. They were charged with contempt of court for refusing to comply with the order to end the strike, for staying on the picket line after the injunction, or for counselling others to break the law. Despite the fact that the hospital workers’ strike would have been legal in most of Canada, all nineteen CUPE members were convicted.

Grace Hartman, 62 years of age at the time, was given a 45-day prison sentence. Similarly, Ray Arsenault (a CUPE staff representative in Ottawa) and Lucie Nicholson (CUPE’s Ontario Division president) were sentenced to 15 days each. The other accused members were fined or given suspended sentences. Grace Hartman served her sentence in the Vanier Detention Centre in Brampton, receiving no special treatment.

Grace’s supporters came from all over Canada, and even the United States, to join the vigil outside the jail yard. For Hartman, the reasons for defeat in the strike were the "reign of terror" conducted by Ontario Provincial Police and the intimidation by Attorney General Roy McMurtry. Still today there are mixed opinions about the strike, never the less it was a milestone and for standing up in support of the workers’ rights, Grace Hartman became a hero.

In her last term as president of CUPE, 1981 to 1983, Grace Hartman concentrated her efforts more on projects of personal importance. Within CUPE, she oversaw the emergence of the National Task Force on Women, which held its first meeting in May 1983 in Quebec City.

The last few years of her career also included serious work Public Service International (PSI), the coordinating body for public sector unions. She had previously attended PSI conventions during her term as secretary treasurer, as part of a delegation from Canada. In 1975, she was the first woman elected to the PSI executive. In 1981, she became a vice-president with the executive.

Throughout the early eighties, she was the chairperson for the Women’s Committee of PSI, as well as the steering committee set up to plan the second "Women in Public Services" conference. Grace Hartman was the chairperson of that conference held in New York in 1984. Furthermore, she chaired PSI’s Inter-American Committee until 1985. Hartman was attracted to work in the Third World in defense of workers’ rights. She participated in education and assistance to unions dealing with repressive legislation and attended numerous seminars in Latin America. She helped organize the first Inter-American Women’s Seminar in Mexico in 1986, and conducted women’s seminars in Bermuda, Kenya, and Singapore. Although her term with PSI expired in 1984, she remained active on the Women’s Committee until 1989 at the request of new CUPE president Jeff Rose.

Grace Hartman continued work in the women’s movement well into her retirement. She joined the Voice of Women organization and was president from 1988 until she died in 1993. Her work included raising money, going to demonstrations, and chairing the administrative committee. She also became active on NAC’s Survival Committee. Apart from work in the women’s movement, she joined the Council of Canadians, a grassroots citizen’s organization, and was elected to its first board in 1985. In addition, in 1985, she accepted an appointment to the Ontario Press Council where she arbitrated public complaints against daily newspapers.

Grace Hartman also branched out into the labour arts field. She worked for several years with a committee planning a labour museum and was part of a group that lobbied the Ontario Art Council to institute a program of funding for arts projects in the workplace.

Grace Hartman was truly a great labour activist and feminist. Her leadership opened the door for women in unions. Her commitment to various organizations, not only CUPE, demonstrated her fervor for progressive causes. Her prison sentence showed her courage in defending workers rights. Over twenty-five years she never lost an election for an executive office. Grace Hartman will forever be a model of active, intelligent, union leadership.

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