In the early 1970s, a worker sweeping the floors of the Canadian General Electric (GE) factory in Nogojawanong/Peterborough, Ontario, earned a higher wage than a skilled machinist — if, of course, the sweeper was male and the machinist was female.
Jill Jones was a feisty young woman who had trained at Sir Sandford Fleming College in Peterborough to be a machinist, and, in 1973 at age 19, was hired at GE . . . and she didn’t much care to see a sweeper take home more money than she did.
So, she did something about it. She joined the union.
“I saw that my work mates, women, could be in trouble and lose their jobs. It really didn’t seem fair to me that women were being treated differently than men,” she said in a recent interview with JOURNEY Magazine.
“That’s why we needed to go in and make that change.”
A year after starting at GE, she became a union steward with the plant’s United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers of America. “People thought we were communists!” she said.
It was the beginning of a life of political and social activism that, 47 years later, still holds her in its grip. That activism, she said, can be summed up in three words: “It’s my life.”
“I just thought I could do anything men could do, and I pretty much did. I still believe that.”
It led her from the GE shop floor to influential jobs in the Ministry of Labour and the Labour Council Development Foundation in downtown Toronto, and to positions as a community college instructor and on to her final career with the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) in Peterborough, from which she retired last year at age 65.
“I just thought I could do anything men could do, and I pretty much did. I still believe that,” said Jill.
Throughout, there were years of staunch advocacy for numerous causes — affirmative action and employment equity for women, health and safety, child care, Take Back the Night, housing co-ops, older women’s issues, the training of women to be union leaders “to get our issues front and centre” — and much more.
“And the wage gap still occurs from the moment a woman leaves school, no matter what kind of job. Isn’t that something?”
“It hurts my heart, these things.”
Jill was born and raised in the lumber-mill hamlet of Burnt River, near Kinmount, Ontario, a middle child of nine. Her mother was a war bride from England and her father had been to Burma during the war.
“My parents brought the world to us, and shared their experiences – ones we didn’t have,” she continued.
At the end of high school, Jill won a bursary to attend Sir Sandford Fleming College for business administration. “That sounded way too boring,” she explained. “A machinist sounded a lot more exciting.”
For the first time since the war, employers were looking for women to do non-traditional jobs, and Jill took them up on it.
Her activism can be summed up in three words: “It’s my life.”
Her first political demonstration was in Ottawa in 1973 against Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s wage and price controls.
And back at GE in those years, there were little health and safety precautions, she said. She remembers a worker operating an over-head crane on the evening shift who was crushed to death, due to lack of training. The ambulance could barely get through because the lane ways were jammed with items. It resulted in her first wild-cat strike where workers dropped their tools and spontaneously walked out in the middle of the day.
“It was an example of management not caring.”
“We had to withstand the anxiety of our union brothers. They didn’t think we could win, and they were not used to working on women’s issues. We had to stay strong against our brothers who wanted us to cave, as well as against management.”
But she is proud of how she and the women in the union fought for health and safety reforms. At one point, they held a “sit-down strike” for four hours over an issue — and won.
“We had to withstand the anxiety of our union brothers,” Jill explained. “They didn’t think we could win, and they were not used to working on women’s issues. We had to stay strong against our brothers who wanted us to cave, as well as against management.”
It wasn’t until 1978 that legislation regarding health and safety, and equal pay for equal work was enacted. Her union tested the equal pay legislation with a case at GE, but lost, only because there were no men doing the same work.
In the same year, she decided she wanted to run for a leadership position in the GE union.
“I was invited to a meeting, and told that somebody else was running, and told I would’t win. I ran and won. I swept it,” she said.
It was around this time that her union brothers thought she was “too articulate for a working class woman” and encouraged her to concentrate on education and labour issues.
It was good advice, she said, because it led her to become a learning and development consultant and helped her get known within the wider labour movement.
In 1982 she was laid off from GE, but because she was known, she landed a job with the Women’s Bureau of the Ministry of Labour in Toronto – and loved it. In 1985, she was hired by the Labour Council Development Foundation in Toronto where she developed housing co-ops “sponsored by union members, for union members, built by union trades”.
“I am so proud of that work.”
She was also president of the Office and Professional Employees International Union, Local 343, in Toronto, “an important union”, she said, because it was a union for employees of unions.
In 1995, Jill moved to Fenelon Falls to be near her elderly mother, who died in 1999. Then, at age 47, she found herself looking for work once again, and soon began a 19-year career with MNR back in Peterborough.
And, naturally, her activism continued.
She had been a member of the Toronto Older Women’s Network, and she soon founded the Peterborough Older Women’s Network (POWN). It’s a group of women who meet weekly for coffee to support each other and champion older women’s issues, especially economic insecurity and housing. She said she was inspired by the hardship her mother experienced after Jill’s father died and before she was eligible for government income support.
“Those five years for her were tough. I don’t want women to have to go through that. Before the age of 65, women are poor. It hurts my heart, these things.”
In 2001 the POWN group sponsored the establishment of Glebe House in Peterborough, which housed older women. “The other shelters were full with mothers and children. There was no place for mid-life and older women to go,” Jill said. It operated for five years.
And now, nearly 20 years later, POWN is once again working on a plan to provide affordable housing for mid-life and older women by creating a housing co-op – something dear and familiar to Jill. Both a developer and a funding corporation are willing to work with the group, she said, and it is looking forward to the participation of many women, also.
“This project is really touching people’s hearts. We need to be able to live together, share our resources, care for each other like we do at our coffee circle, make sure we’re doing okay, cheer each other on. We’re all aging, and we want to age well together.”
Jill Jones: still feisty after all these years; still caring; still stickin’ to the union.
By Melodie McCullough