Canadian Journal of Sociology Online May-June 2000

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Gillian Creese
Contracting Masculinity: Gender, Class, and Race in a White-Collar Union, 1944- 1994.
Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1999, 278 pp. $19.95 paper (0195414543)

Gillian Creese’s book offers a new and important perspective on the role played by unions in negotiating and constructing relations of gender, race and class. Starting in 1944, she tells a compelling story of how a white-collar union participated in constructing the job hierarchy at B.C Hydro, over a period of fifty years. It is a rich, detailed study of how gender and race relations were set in place, reproduced and later contested. The main focus is the union’s strategies in negotiating the place of white, male office workers in relation to blue-collar craftsmen, male engineers, a technocratic corporate culture, and women clerical workers. She dissects the process carefully and reveals how power relations between different kinds of workers are inscribed in workplace practices and meaning systems.

Why the title Contracting Masculinity? It is Creese’s argument that the construction of white-collar work is ‘bound up with negotiated meanings of working-class masculinity’ (p.130). Through collective bargaining strategies male office workers actively contributed to the ‘gendering’ of work. In the immediate post-war period they did this by negotiating a ‘family-wage’ and seeking wage parity with blue-collar men. These practices took precedence over union women’s demands for equal pay. Creese documents how in the very early days the union explicitly demanded a family wage for their male members. Then she reveals how this demand was embedded in the job evaluation and classification system, rendering it invisible and giving the appearance of a neutral, technical value attributed to an occupation rather than a gender. Negotiated wage settlements were, therefore, about the value of male white-collar work in relation to working-class conceptions of masculinity ‘embodied in physical labour and breadwinner wages’.

Creese reveals a further facet of ‘Contracting Masculinity’ in her analyses of the male- dominated, technical category. The union spent considerable time and effort negotiating separate technical and clerical streams of office work. They did this by participating in a restructured job evaluation system that redefined male office work as technically skilled because of male clerical workers’ support role to professional engineers.

What did the negotiation of masculinity mean for women and non-white workers? Women in the period from the 1940s to 1980s were constructed as marginal to the main business of union negotiations. They remained in the clerical category, defined as less skilled, shut out from promotions to the technical category. This resulted in women’s occupational segregation, low pay and subordination to all male-dominated categories. Non-white workers were not present in the immediate postwar period. When they were hired later on they remained at the bottom of the clerical and technical hierarchies. Contradictions are revealed in the union’s collective bargaining strategy with respect to women and equality. From the 1940s onward the union consistently argued for equal pay and fought strongly against gender discrimination in the application of the job evaluation system. All these efforts on behalf of women were pursued in the name of equal treatment. Gender inequality, however, remained invisible ‘...buried in organizational systems that the union itself helped to create.’

A shifting balance of power started to occur in 1980s as union women organised through women’s committees. By the end of the 1980s women were represented equally on the union’s executive board and ‘women’s issues’ were on the bargaining table. Women’s demands, however, were seen as pleas for special treatment, whereas men’s demands were constructed as gender neutral. By this time the discourse of the ‘family wage’ had disappeared, but it remained invisibly embedded in the job evaluation and seniority systems. In this way notions of breadwinner rights had been transformed into rights of the general (male) worker. The shift to a gender neutral discourse, however, did not alter the material effects of a gendered work organisation. Contrary to the union’s assumptions job evaluation, technical skills, and seniority systems were never gender-neutral or race-neutral tools.

The value and importance of this history is that it reveals how men’s jobs and benefits were gendered equally as much as women’s and that in this process women’s jobs were defined as subordinate and marginal to the union’s main business. Frequently, in the women and work literature one reads assertions that unions negotiated ‘breadwinner wages’ for men. Here at last is solid evidence of such a system and how the discourse of the family wage was rationalised and rendered gender neutral through the job evaluation and classification system at B.C. Hyro. Furthermore, Creese reveals the contradictions inherent in present day pay equity strategies that focus on comparing clerical jobs with blue-collar jobs without dealing with the entire hierarchical nature of the work organisation. It becomes clear that if there is to be substantive change the entire organisation of work needs fundamental rethinking.

Creese’s study of the job evaluation system at B.C. Hydro is timely. Given that the vast majority of pay equity negotiations are based on job evaluation studies the analysis presented in this book is instructive and will provide researchers and practioners of equal pay for work of equal value much food for thought.

Congratulations go to Creese for the pain staking work in documenting this history. It is a history that deals with the difficulties faced by the union with sensitivity and sympathy, yet it does not shy away from revealing the process in which the union’s collective bargaining strategy fed into the construction of inequality amongst its members, despite it best intentions.

Rosemary Warskett
Department of Law
Carleton University
June 2000
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