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Mary Bell

War Heightens Problem of Wages
of Feminine Workers

(15 December 1941)

From Labor Action, Vol. 5 No. 50, 15 December 1941, p. 5.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

A little-noticed, two-day strike occurred a few weeks’ ago at the plant of the Kelsey-Hayes Wheel Co. in Detroit. It was Inspired by the hiring of women machinists at a lower rate than was paid to the men.

Kelsey-Hayes employs 1,500 men at $1.00 per hour. These employees, members of UAW-CIO, struck when the company hired women at 85c per hour, this rate being recognized as the prevailing one for female machine labor in the region. The union charged that the company hired the women in order to cut down the payroll, and sanctioned the walkout officially. The company countered that it hired the women because a male labor supply was not available.

After a two-day strike, the union men returned to the job, with the issue left in the lap of the National Defense Mediation Board. But it demanded the women be removed from all machine jobs.

Why the Women Worked

Now, whether the company was telling the truth about the availability of male labor, or whether it was using the women to save in labor costs, I believe the union engaged in a reactionary strike in asking that the women be fired. Those women got their jobs because they had to make a living and had families to support. The union should have demanded “equal pay for equal work” and put the onus on the company where it belonged.

As the country moves to war, expanding industry will not only take the able-bodied men off the unemployed list – there is almost no unemployment in war-time England – but will also grab those unaccustomed to factory work, the youth, (and the Workers Party) must have an active program of equality for women, as they do in part for youth and Negroes. It is generally true that women are harder to organize into a union than men, are less active when they do join, and less in struggles. It is also generally true that they are discriminated against, even under union contracts, by differential wage schedules – and this is a contributing factor to their social sluggishness.

To meet the threat to their wages caused by underpayment of women workers, the Amalgamated Engineering Union of England, whose members work in the metals and munitions plants, signed an agreement in May 1940 with employers and the government which gave to women employees “equal pay for equal work”. The Vultee contract has the same provision. The CIO unions elsewhere where women are employed should do no less!

Working-class women, from time immemorial, have been accustomed to household drudgery at no wages at all, or, if they work outside the home, to dirty jobs, long hours, low pay. They have been doubly exploited by capitalism, as a part of the working-class and as a sex. They, like all oppressed groups, are often willing to work for scab wages. And the employers will always be on the in order to squeeze more profits out of low pay envelopes and to threaten the higher standards of organized workers. Therefore, let the unions learn the lesson of the Kelsey-Hayes strike.

Women will be a social drag on the progressive gains of the labor movement until they are brought into the unions, treated as equals, and taught to fight shoulder to shoulder with their class brothers for EQUAL PAY FOR EQUAL WORK!

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Last updated: 13 September 2014