CAW Policy Letter #19: Inclusive Language

August 13, 1997


LETTER NO. 19 August 13, 1997

Inclusive Language

To: CAW Local Union Presidents, Recording Secretaries and Chairpersons


Committed to Equality

The CAW is a social union, committed to the rights and dignity of all working people. We believe that all workers, regardless of gender, deserve the same working conditions, wages, and opportunities. We know that women continue to face discrimination in hiring, training, wages and working conditions. We are actively fighting to change that discrimination. One of the tools we use to create change is language.

Language is powerful

Language is a uniquely human tool. When we want to express ourselves, we struggle to find the right words. Words can wound, they can soothe, they can explain, they can lie. Words can include and they can exclude. We all know that words can be powerful. Some words are more powerful than others. Over time, words change their meanings, new words are invented, while some words fall out of use altogether.

The connection between language and reality is complex. Language is our filter for understanding the world (just try thinking without using words!). Language, some would say, is what brings things to life - without language, there is no life. So when small children say (and rightly so) "girls can't be firemen!", the logic of language is limiting what is possible.

We need to be using the language of equality if we are going to bring about the reality of equality. We need to talk, listen, and write using words that include everyone.

Collective Agreements

Union bargaining committees spend hours thinking about the arguing over individual words, because we know what a huge impact the words in our collective agreements can have on workers.

When we fight to improve the language in our agreements, we are using words to expand the dignity, safety, and security of workers. We back up our words with collection action.

In the past many collective agreements included language that referred to men's jobs and women's jobs. There were different rates of pay, different seniority lists for men and women. Today, this kind of direct discrimination is illegal. Our collective agreements have been changed to reflect new laws (and in fact, our collective agreements paved the way for new laws to be written!).

These days, more and more of our collective agreements use generic language. Generic means general, and designates words that can apply to, and refer to anyone, whatever their gender. Examples of generic terms include the words "worker", "people", "union member". Words that are gender-specific, such as "workman", "chairman", "man-hour", etc. are not generic. They exclude, and they send loud messages about "men's work and women's work". Gender-specific terms reinforce the idea that women are only an exception to the general rule. We need language that belongs to everybody equally.

Some of our collective agreements still contain language that is gender-specific. They use the pronoun "he" when referring to jobs that can be, and are, done by people regardless of gender. These agreements usually include a paragraph that says that where there is gender-specific language, that language should be understood to include both men and women. This doesn't cut it. It's a bit like saying "I know your name is Ralph, but we're not used to having Ralphs around here. Joe is easier to remember, so I'll just call you Joe. No hard feelings, eh?"

In many CAW workplaces, there have been women workers for over sixty years. Isn't it time that our collective agreements acknowledged this?

Even if there aren't any women in a workplace, collective agreement language should be generic, to show that the workplace is open to all workers. Why should our collective agreement language reinforce the employer's bias? The idea that "we don't need to include everyone in our language because the employer doesn't include everyone in the workplace" is a weak excuse for a movement committed to social change.

Words can give us dignity, they can rob us of dignity. They can send a message that we are welcome, or that we are not welcome. A collective agreement that uses gender-specific language doesn"t represent all workers.

Language is constantly changing. It reflects changes in society, and it can lead to changes in the way things work. If we challenge ourselves and others to use generic language, we are challenging the status quo.

Change is hard. Sometimes people worry that they won't "get the words right", that they'll say the wrong thing, or use the wrong terminology. For others, there's a fear that by using generic language they're letting go of something, or even admitting they were wrong. Some of us are still practicing using generic language - it is taking time to get comfortable. As trade unionists we know that it takes courage to speak out against injustice. But we also know that our voices are stronger when we are inclusive and we use the language of justice.

Inclusive language in our collective agreement is our way of saying the workplace is open to everyone. It sends a message to employers that the dignity and equality of everyone is on the union agenda.

In solidarity,

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