In 1981 after a 42-day strike, the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW) won postal workers across Canada 17 weeks of paid maternity leave. The concept of longer periods of paid maternity leave than was available through unemployment insurance benefits soon became mainstream and expanded across the country.
Paid maternity leave benefits – a guaranteed period for new mothers to be away from the workplace and then return to their job – had only been established a decade earlier. Before that, a new mother had to quit her job or return to work quickly if her family depended on her income.
Work leave for new mothers was first introduced in Canada when BC introduced the Maternity Protection Act of 1921. This legislation enabled women to take a limited leave of absence before and after giving birth and made it unlawful to dismiss women for these absences. She was also permitted thirty minutes twice a day to nurse her child while at work. Employers not abiding by the legislation were subject to hefty fines.
It does not sound very progressive, but at the time, it really was. It was the only legislation of its kind in Canada at that time, and for many years afterward.
In 1940, the Unemployment Insurance Act was introduced in Canada. It did not cover maternity leave in its early decades. Maternity leave, as we currently understand it, was first introduced in BC in 1966. Five years later, the federal government followed suit, amending the Canada Labour Code.
Under the 1971 provisions, mothers with at least 20 weeks of insurable earnings could claim up to 15 weeks of benefits through the Unemployment Insurance system. It was more than a touch controversial to cover expectant and new mothers under a program intended for the unemployed, and it represented a departure from provincially administered maternity leave to a federally regulated system, as we know it today.
At the beginning of the 1960s, just over 30% of women aged 20 to 30 participated in the Canadian labour force. By the end of the 1970s, the proportion of working women had doubled to just over 60%. Today, over 70% of mothers with children under five years of age are working.
Canada’s unions soon pushed for changes to make maternity leave more accessible, not only in legislation, but also by bargaining for better maternity leave for their members. They negotiated with employers for longer leave times with higher benefits that topped up the portion of the salary paid by UI benefits. Unions also won guarantees that women could return to the jobs they held before their maternity leave, as well as expanded parental leave for new fathers and leave for parents of newly adopted children.
In 1979, Quebec’s Common Front, representing government, education and health workers negotiated 20 weeks of fully paid maternity leave, 10 weeks leave when parents adopted a child, and five days of paternity leave.
But the 1981 strike by postal workers, lead by the CUPW, proved to be the tipping point. The trend was clear: workers and their unions were demanding expanded maternity benefits and they were prepared to strike in order to get them. The following year, federal clerks, members of the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC), and Bell telephone workers, members of the Communications Workers of Canada (CWC), negotiated paid maternity leave.
Unions didn’t stop at maternity leave. Adoption leave, paternity leave, and parental leave – available to either parent – were routinely negotiated with employers. In response, the federal government has continually improved the maternity and parental benefits offered through its employment insurance program.
Today, unions continue to advocate for improved access to parental benefits through expanded access to employment insurance benefits overall and through better access to quality and affordable childcare for all workers. Access to childcare and early childhood education provide economic benefits beyond families with young children. Allowing parents to return to the workforce and to participate fully boosts productivity and delivers proven economic benefits overall.