This Magazine

Progressive politics, ideas & culture


Should unions still call workers “brothers” and “sisters”?

The titles adhere to a strict gender binary—and union activists are demanding change

Nora Loreto@NoLore

Have you ever been called “sister” in a union meeting? Did you feel erased or were you misgendered?

The labour movement practice of calling one another “sister” or“brother” clashes with a growing consciousness about the perils of classifying people into a strict gender binary, and many union activists are demanding change. 

“We’re erased in many facets of our lives, and so to not be erased and be visible in the labour movement is important,” says Charlie Huntley, a Halifax-based union organizer.

The common greeting of “sister” or “brother” happens in various contexts: delegates are often referred to as “the brother at the microphone,” union leaders often address each other as “sister,” followed by their name, and speeches usually start with “sisters and brothers” as a broad greeting.

These terms are necessarily exclusive. As more union activists are asserting trans and non-binary identities, many union activists are reflecting on the use of “sisters” and “brothers” and, more importantly, what might replace these terms.

To begin to imagine what could replace calling one another “sister” or “brother,” it’s important to start with why these terms are used at all. These greetings are intended for workers to instantly bond with one another based on their relationship to the bosses. If you don’t know a person’s name and you’re walking on a picket line together, calling them “sister” is a warm gesture. Warmer, at least, then saying “oh, hey.”

But the gender binary doesn’t capture everyone. And these old notions of symbolic solidarity probably didn’t even emerge from the need of a nameless, familiar honorific to separate the workers from the bosses.

The use of brother as a moniker was normal in fraternal societies, popular more than a century ago. Many of these groups were exclusive to men and members would refer to each other as brother. York University professor and labour historian Craig Heron says that this deeply informed how early craft-unions operated. “Brother” was to signify that workers were part of a brotherhood, a nod to the importance of solidarity among the union’s ranks. And many brotherhoods remain to this day, like the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW).

Lindsay Kearns is an electrician and proud to be affiliated with a union, but feels erased by the lack of acknowledgement that women work in the trades.

“When all the textbooks and worksheets and exams and teachers at the trade school use only male examples to illustrate their points, the fact that I was being called a ‘brother’ in the union (and a ‘journeyman’ once fully qualified) fit in with how people like me are considered an mostly invisible side-note in the industry at large,” she writes.

But rather than pushing harder to include “sisters,” Kearns prefers to be called worker, or better, fellow worker.

There’s no doubt that the terms “brother” and “sister” are exclusive. Trans, non-binary, and gender-fluid members who are fighting for visibility, rights, and space are erased and marginalized when a meeting chairperson has no way to acknowledge them at a microphone, or worse, misgenders them. The trouble is, there are few options that could be subbed in for these words and maintain the same reference to a familial network. This means that labour activists need to consider upending the use of these terms entirely.

At the Saskatchewan Federation of Labour’s (SFL) convention in October, a motion was passed that encouraged members to “expand their range of options when referring to each other apart from ‘sister’ and ‘brother.’” The motion was served by CUPE Local 4828, the union representing the staff at the SFL and includes a list of alternative monikers: “fellow worker, unionist, comrade, sibling, or by simply using another worker’s name.”

For Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) members, “fellow worker” is the default. Fellow worker is useful not just because it’s gender neutral, but it’s also more obvious and a better reflection of workers’ relationships with one another.

Many labour activists have called for “sisters and brothers” to be replaced with “comrade,” a word with a radical history that is also gender neutral. But, there are some problems with the term: socialists who use “comrade” to refer to fellow socialists or radicals aren’t likely to feel comfortable referring to a fellow worker as a comrade, especially if that worker is an outward supporter of the Conservative Party, for example.

Huntley isn’t sure that “comrades” should replace “sisters and brothers” in all situations, but is clear that there must be a change: “When I hear a labour crowd addressed as ‘sisters and brothers’ I shudder, feel unwelcome, and erased. When someone addresses a group with ‘sisters, brothers, and non-binary siblings’ or ‘sisters, brothers and comrades’ I feel included and a little proud, because I know that someone took the time to work that out… They had a hard or awkward conversation and they learned a thing about trans people.”

Nora Loreto writes about labour issues for This.

Show Comments