Labour's Dilemma: The Gender Politics of Auto Workers in Canada, 1937-1979


293 pages
Contains Photos, Bibliography, Index
ISBN 0-8020-2895-0
DDC 331.4'7811629222'0971




Reviewed by L. Richard Lund

L. Richard Lund is a Ph.D. candidate in history at York University.


Labour’s Dilemma is an interesting and well-researched study of the
experiences of female workers in Canada’s male-dominated automobile
industry between 1937 and 1979.

The book’s most appealing quality is its extensive use of interviews
with former auto workers, which not only reveal the extent to which
women were segregated and discriminated against, but also convey
something of the “feel” of the shop floor for women and how it
changed over time. Unfortunately, the advent of the United Auto Workers
(UAW) in the 1930s did little to improve conditions for women. The
union, despite its egalitarian ideals, actually sanctioned continued
discrimination. It is this contradiction that the author characterizes
as “Labour’s Dilemma.”

Like other studies of women who formed part of the paid labor force in
this period, Sugiman’s research reveals that female auto workers at
first accepted their inferior status and the traditional gender
ideologies on which it was based. They did, however, use conventional
attitudes to their advantage whenever possible and occasionally engaged
in small acts of resistance on the shop floor. Gradually they became
more “union-wise” in the 1950s, showing a willingness to use
grievance procedures, but it was the birth of feminism in the 1960s and
the threat to their jobs posed by industry-wide restructuring that
finally prompted a small group of committed female workers to mount a
serious challenge to their unequal status in the industry.

Ironically, they were unsuccessful in their attempts to resolve
“labour’s dilemmas” within the UAW and instead mounted a strong
campaign to have sexual discrimination outlawed by the Ontario Human
Rights Code. Their success in 1970 struck the key blow against gender
inequality in the industry forcing both carmakers and the UAW to extend
equal seniority rights and to transfer opportunities and pay scales to
women for the first time.

This otherwise solid book, however, is marred by a surprising omission.
Increased automation and improved ergonomics over the years reduced the
amount of physical strength required to perform many automotive jobs,
yet Sugiman does not mention whether or not this situation had any
effect on female auto workers’ struggle for equality. She also fails
to explore whether male and female workers had different opinions on the
need for these types of changes in the workplace.


Sugiman, Pamela H., “Labour's Dilemma: The Gender Politics of Auto Workers in Canada, 1937-1979,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed February 21, 2024,