File Under: Mothers in the news

Leaders of the pack: The Guardian profiles powerful Island women who are at the head of P.E.I.’s largest provincial labour unions


Fighting for rights
Mary MacNeil has been living the labour movement life for more than 30 years. She had her first picket line experience in the 1970s, fought for pay equity in the 1980s and has been regional representative for PSAC for more than a decade. But experiencing sexual harassment was the catalyst for her union interests. “At that time, they didn’t even call it sexual harassment. It wasn’t even coined until the late ’70s,” she says. “Way back, you put up with it. I’d go to my supervisor (who’d say), ‘It’s a compliment. They’re having a rough time at home.’ Everybody made excuses for it. That was the era. I just knew it wasn’t right, it wasn’t acceptable.” MacNeil and a number of other women filed a complaint with the Public Service Commission but were ostracized by co-workers and even union representatives. “I wasn’t the type to run for (anything), but their reaction was so unacceptable that I ended up running for local president,” MacNeil says. “And once you make one step, it’s like, if I’m not going to put up with it here, I can’t put up with it (somewhere else). I didn’t really want to run, it was just, ‘this isn’t the way it’s supposed to be.’ ” MacNeil won the election and has been involved with PSAC ever since. She has made major inroads on some hard-hitting issues, such as pay equity and maternity leave benefits. Still, there are challenging situations, such as being nose-to-nose with managers and police in strike situations. “My personality is I always stay calm. I’ve never lost it. I just don’t have that kind of a temper,” she says. “(Some people) look for the old type of union leader to go in. Some of them have an image of this strong burley guy. But I actually feel my personality is better because I stay calm and no matter if somebody is screaming at me, they’re usually calm at the end because I don’t get on the defensive . . . .” Over the years, MacNeil has been told she doesn’t fit the stereotypical male labour leader mold. “I still have to face a lot of guys that question whether it should be a woman in (this) job. But I’m still alive and well,” she says. “We (women) have made accomplishments but I don’t think it’s over for women. Like some of the younger women say, we can sit back. I don’t think it’s (ever over) for any group. But I do believe it’s a positive sign that there’s acceptance.”

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