Byers, Barbara (1951–)

Barbara Mary Byers, born in Saskatoon in 1951, became one of the most influential women in the Saskatchewan and Canadian labour movement, beginning in the 1980s and moving into the 21st century. 

Byers began her career as a social worker for Saskatchewan Social Services, where she worked for over seventeen years. She became active in the Saskatchewan Government Employees’ Association prior to their major strike in 1979, and became the first Woman president of the union in 1984. As SGEU President for five terms, she effectively fought for members against the anti-labour policies of the Grant Devine Progressive Conservative Government. In 1988 she became the president of the Saskatchewan Federation of Labour (SFL); during her tenure she continued her opposition to the Devine government’s initiatives such as the “Fair Share” program, which would have decentralized the provincial civil service, and fought against privatization and in support of public services. Byers even spent a day in jail after demonstrating in support of Massey Ferguson workers for a better contract. Her convictions and principles ensured that the Saskatchewan media paid attention to labour issues and that the Saskatchewan public associated her as the voice of workers, unionized or not.

She was a defender of women’s rights and advocated on behalf of other disempowered groups —gays and lesbians, men and women of colour, and Aboriginal people—and encouraged young people to get involved in the labour movement. She sought to build links with farm groups, churches, students, women’s groups, and other social justice groups.

During her term in office at the SFL, Byers helped in the development of a summer camp sponsored by SFL/CLC (Canadian Labour Congress) to introduce the sons and daughters of union members to the principles of social justice and the labour movement. She served as president of the SFL from 1988 to 2002, when she was elected executive vice-president of the Canadian Labour Congress, the first Saskatchewan woman to hold this position in the history of the CLC.

Doug Taylor