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Fourth International, March 1944


A. Keen

British Women In Industry


From Fourth International, vol.5 No.3, March 1944, pp.76-78.
Transcribed, marked up & formatted by Ted Crawford & David Walters in 2008 for ETOL.


Before the outbreak of World War II three-quarters of the female population of Great Britain were dependent or semi-dependent on male breadwinners. Women were engaged in the production of textiles and woollens, food, drink and tobacco; in the laundry and distributive trades, and as clerical workers. A small number of the transport workers were women, mainly employed as bus and tram conductresses. “Trades Barriers” debarred them from the metal, engineering and shipbuilding industries. In these three heavy industries only men were traditionally employed.

An example of the men’s feelings against the entry of female workers into their trade, can be gathered from a small strike which took place in Crewe on April 4, 1939. The management had put some women to work on small capstan lathes. Immediately, the men came out on strike, demanding that women be removed from this work which they insisted was only “tradesman’s” work. The strike lasted two weeks, and the management was compelled to agree to the men’s demands.

Shortly after the outbreak of war hundreds and thousands of women were drawn into munitions, shell filling, etc. On May 22, 1940, the Executive Committee of the Amalgamated Engineering Union agreed to admit women “temporarily” into the engineering industry to replace men, and to do work previously done only by skilled craftsmen Today women are employed in practically every trade in all branches of industry. In the transport industry women have taken over almost completely all the conductors jobs on buses and trams. The railways are employing an increasing number of women porters and clerks. There are women welders, riveters, painters and crane drivers; women are even being employed in blacksmiths and boiler shops and as building laborers. The extent to which women have replaced men can be appreciated in the light of a report in the periodical Economist of June 12, 1943:

“In one firm making tank landing craft in Scotland, two thirds of the labour force are women.”

Wartime Changes

In the early days of the war the powerful craft unions, the AEU refused to admit women into its ranks, with the result that they were organized into the General and Municipal Workers Union and the Transport and General Workers Union, It was not until several hundreds of thousands had been organised into these unions that the AEU (partly as a result of the militant pressure from the rank and file members) agreed to accept women into their union. This decision was made in January, 1943 and by June of the same year the AEU had recruited no fewer than 64,000 women members. This was a big step forward; the pace at which women moved into this union, is an indication of the degree of class consciousness which is being shown by the women workers in their struggle for better conditions.

During World War 1, the membership of women in trade unions rose from 437,000 in 1914 to 1,342,000 in 1920 the peak year in the history of British trade unionism. During the present war two women are being employed for every one during the last war, and the trade unions have grown proportionately. The following table compiled from statistics published by the Ministry of Labor, gives some idea of the tremendous impulse given to the membership of the trades unions during World War II.


in thousands

increase over
previous year

in thousands

increase over
previous year
































Although the membership of the unions has increased to such a tremendous degree, the disparity between the wages of men and women continues. Always the most exploited section of the working class, women continue to be more viciously exploited during war. Women textile workers’ average earnings in January 1942 was 43/3.

The British capitalists boast that the output per head in Britain is the highest in the world, higher even than America, where the proportion of men to women in industry far exceeds that in Britain today, but the wages paid to women workers as compared with men is still maintained at the pre-war levels when men’s wages were double those of women. The following table gives a picture of the degree of exploitation of the women workers in Britain:

Average Earnings


20th July,1940








Metal, engineering and ship-building










Food, drink, tobacco





Paper, printing, etc.





Chemical, paint, oil





Government industrial establishments










When, in May 1940, the AEU agreed to admit women into the engineering industry, the agreement included the rates at which women workers were to be employed.

“At the end of 20 weeks and for a further period of 12 weeks the women shall be paid at a basic rate equal to 75 percent of the basic rate of the men replaced, and a national bonus equal to 75 percent of a national bonus appropriate to the men replaced; thereafter (1) In respect of women who are unable to carry out their work without additional supervision or assistance the rate an bonus shall be negotiable and arranged according to the nature of the work and the ability displayed. (2) Women who carry out the work without additional supervision shall receive the basic rate and national bonus appropriate to the men they replace.”

AEU Agreement

But the bosses interpret this agreement to suit their interests. In one Tyneside factory, the management was making a practice of removing a man from a machine and putting on a boy. After a few weeks the boy was removed and a woman put on the machine. The employer then contended that the woman had not replaced a man, but only a boy, and therefore she did not qualify for the man’s rate. Another familiar way is for the employer to remove a woman to another machine after she has completed the thirty-two weeks qualifying period and make her requalify. The result of these practices is that women’s wages have not risen to the 75 per cent minimum guaranteed in the agreement. Official government statistics prove that the average earnings of women are less than half the average earnings of men.

When intimidation and maneuvering to avoid the application of the 75 per cent clause have failed, when the union bureaucrats can no longer sabotage the women workers’ struggles, the power to transfer labour granted under the Essential Works Order to Government appointed National Service Officers, is used to smash down organization, militancy and established standards. Working in close harmony with the NSO’S the employers arrange transfers to suit their interests, by transferring women to factories where rates are lowest.

Unmarried women are classed as “mobile” and are sent by the government far from their homes to live in cold and cheerless hostels, or to boarding houses with inadequate food and bedding. Not a single case amongst hundreds of girls questioned revealed a transfer to a better paid job; usually they are paid at the lowest rate of 47/− per week, and bonus “if” they can make it.

This freezing of women’s wages at starvation levels is fast increasing dissatisfaction in all spheres of industry. Thousands of women fresh to organization and factory life are beginning to realize the harsh inequalities that exist for them. They are fast finding out the treacherous role of their union leadership, and are demanding that the union should fight for the implementation of the agreements. Strikes which are the workers’ only way of forcing the hand of the boss are of course illegal. In their place the workers are offered endless and interminable arbitration talks.

Precisely because women are coming in fresh to industrial life they enter the trades unions in an entirely different manner to the men. When they go into the unions they have tremendous faith in them as fighting organs and are prepared to put a large amount of work into building and strengthening them. When, however, as so often happens, their militancy and enthusiasm is dampened by the failure of their shop stewards to carry a struggle for them, they identify the rotten reformist and Stalinist leadership with the unions themselves, and turn away from the unions in disgust. They can quickly be won back into union activity under the guidance of a militant leadership, as is evidenced by the influx of 64,000 women into the AEU. Here we see expressed the keen desire of women to get into a fighting union. Because of this constant changing from one union to another in the hopes of finding a good one, the trade union bureaucracy has found it necessary to introduce rules forbidding a woman to enter a new union until she has given 13 weeks notice of her intention to change.

Past experience has taught the women workers valuable lessons. Today, they are electing militant stewards. The old Reformist and Communist Party stewards who were elected only because women lacked experience in union affairs, are being removed, and fresh militants, for the most part women, are being elected. Unlike their male predecessors these women stewards are more susceptible to pressure from the workers they represent. Failure of a woman steward to conduct a militant struggle invariably leaves her open to outspoken criticism.

A new period of struggle lies ahead in which women’s demands will be fought for by a young and vigorous leadership. This new period was ushered in by a recent strike of 25,000 workers in an aircraft factory in Scotland to demand the implementing of the Relaxation Agreement. 85 percent of the girls were graded in the lower section doing work which was specified as specially womens’ work, and thus forced to accept some of the lowest wages throughout the country. Their struggle was sabotaged both by the union leadership and by the majority of their shop stewards who were CP members, and, after 10 days the workers were forced to return to work, their demands unsatisfied. The reactionary stewards have exposed their true role, and there is every reason to look forward to a resurgence of the women workers’ struggle under a new militant leadership, a nucleus of which exists in the Clyde Workers’ Committee.

That women are reacting to rotten conditions and are becoming impatient of all this talk about equality, when in reality they are so grossly underpaid, and have to suffer such rotten conditions was clearly demonstrated at the Womens’ AEU Conference, held during May 1943, which marks a milestone in their progress. The women demanded amongst other things: more nurseries, time off for shopping, better canteens, improved transport and billeting arrangements. The most discussed question of course was wages. Resolutions calling for “the rate for the job” and “equal pay for equal work” were made. Strong denials were made to the stories circulated by the capitalists and their stooges, that women munition workers are making fabulous wages. The Relaxation Agreement came under discussion, and delegates from all over the country gave evidence of the widespread evasion of the clauses dealing with equal pay for equal work.

Freed once and for all from the narrow circle of the home and all its drudgeries, women workers are destined to play a leading role in the struggles that lie ahead; already women have participated with men in the preliminary clashes; already they have found true comradeship in the class solidarity that exists among workers throughout the factories and the shipyards. Tomorrow they will march side by side with other workers to establish a Workers Government in Britain.

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