Hal Draper & Stephen F. Diamond

The Hidden History of the
Equal Rights Amendment

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The California Experience

Anne Draper

Appendix (A)
For a “Labor E.R.A.”

(January 1972)

This article was published and widely reprinted in the labor press of California around the beginning of 1972. [1] Anne Draper was the chair of the Union Women’s Alliance to Gain Equality (Union W.A.G.E.), as well as a frequent speaker at almost all trade-union conventions in the state. It was one of the best summaries of the E.R.A. situation at that point in time.

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The Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution, as passed by the House a few months ago, is a serious threat to the wages and working conditions of women workers. Unless it is amended in the Senate to include a provision that existing labor standards shall not be destroyed but extended to all workers, men as well as women, the E.R.A. may well destroy the remaining state protective legislation now applicable to women only.

The proposed constitutional amendment would wipe out a host of discriminatory laws against women – laws that should be repealed – such as the prohibition against women bartenders in various state laws. But, unless amended, E.R.A. would have the disastrous effect of also nullifying a large body of truly beneficial legislation covering women workers achieved after decades of struggle. The state of California has the largest body of protective legislation, covering two and a half million women workers and minors.

The state’s Industrial Welfare Commission [IWC] was created by legislation passed in 1913 to promote the health, safety and welfare of women and minors. The IWC has issued fourteen industry orders, setting a minimum rate of $1.65 an hour. [Other provisions are summarized here ...]

Such provisions, unless extended to men as demanded by women unionists, are in jeopardy because of alleged conflict with Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Act prohibits discrimination because of sex, and it has been used in some 17 [later 20–21] states already to strike down all or substantial parts of women’s protective legislation.

The EEOC administering the Act joined in the assault on the trade-union movement and workers generally by chopping down as “discriminatory” any regulation of the hours a woman may work or the weight she may lift. They did not propose reasonable regulation of hours and weights for both men and women workers, which would have ended any discriminatory use of such regulations. Their interpretive guidelines did not say: Extend protective legislation to men – an approach which would have protected the benefits and gains made by woman workers.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled, in a case filed by Mrs. Leah Rosenfeld against the Southern Pacific Company, that the state laws limiting the number of hours a woman may work and the weight limit (fifty pounds) were invalid. The state’s Division of Industrial Welfare prevailed on the judge not to declare all of California’s laws regulating the employment of women invalid, but we are clearly living on borrowed time.

The Rosenfeld decision stands as a terrible warning of what may happen to the minimum wages and working conditions of millions of women workers and minors in this state – the most discriminated against, most depressed, and weakest sector of the working class. Loss of protective laws would be a heavy blow against most of these women workers. It would open the door to cuts in wages and a return to sweatshop conditions, such as we see today in the sweatshops of Chinatown or in the blue-sky sweatshops of California’s largest industry, agribusiness.

Only one woman out of five is unionized in this state – a higher average than the national average. Union women could fall back on the protection of a union contract on wages, hours, and other conditions of work. But over 80 percent of the women workers, clustered in low-paying jobs, would face inhuman exploitation and substandard conditions. The federal minimum wage is $1.60 an hour, against the state’s $1.65, and for those employed in intrastate work there would be no minimum wage. For farm women, with only partial federal coverage of $1.30 an hour, they could face a 35-cent hourly cut in wages, and more.

The bitter struggle to include farm women and minors under an IWC order took seven years, and it required several more years to obtain the same minimum pay for them as for other women workers, inadequate as it is. What has N.O.W. to say to 100,000 farm women who will suffer a cut in pay and working conditions because N.O.W. insists on what it calls a “pure” amendment?

N.O.W. leaders boast about their “victories” in destroying protective legislation. But such victories are paid for by the blood and sweat of working women. Professional, business and career women don’t toil in the fields and orchards of California when temperatures rise over 100 degrees. But for farm women drinking water, washing facilities, and sanitary facilities are vital. Too often the laws are not enforced, but the solution is enforcement, not elimination.

The last few years have witnessed the steady erosion of beneficial state legislation; labor standards for women have been wiped out rather than extended to men workers. Two years ago, and again in the current state legislative session, bills to extend the Industrial Welfare coverage to men have been defeated. Men workers are more highly unionized than women workers, but there are millions of unorganized workingmen partially benefiting by the fallout from women’s protective legislation. Should the “pure” E.R.A. pass, the door would be open to equal exploitation – in a depressed economy with rising unemployment.

Employers and corporate interests are in an unholy alliance with business and professional women; the former want to destroy protective legislation since it is costly; the latter are indifferent, if not hostile, to the needs of women workers. N.O.W. is in the contradictory position of saying that they support extending protective legislation to men on a state-by-state basis, while they oppose any amendment to their version of the E.R.A. to guarantee the extension of such legislation to men on a federal level.

Working women want equal rights, equal pay, and equal opportunities, but they do not want to give up any benefit or gain they struggled to win. Extending these benefits and gains to men – and opening up campaigns to improve them – on a state and federal level would unite men and women workers on the basis of equal rights for all.

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1. This article, written December 1971, was published in various California trade-union papers with slight variations; and also in the Forum section of the Bay Area Guardian, April 12, 1972, to criticize that paper’s endorsement of the Pure E.R.A. position.

Last updated on 11 September 2020