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Susan Green

Of Special Interest to Women

(11 May 1942)

From Labor Action, Vol. 6 No. 19, 11 May 1942, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

If the working class housewife has breathed a sigh of relief because of Leon Henderson’s price fixing order to go into effect on May 18, she is a bit premature.

Putting teeth into such a price fixing order involves the kind of widespread and honest enforcement impossible in a society based on the sacred rights of private profit.

Think of the tens of thousands of manufacturers, wholesalers, jobbers and retail corporations, all dedicated to the cause of making profits and to hell with sacrificing. The driving motive of corporations and business men will not change between now and May 18. Judging by precedents, the ingenuity of those who obey the law of “grab” will not be unequal to the task of circumventing the price fixing order.

Remember that the minor job of enforcing prohibition was a major flop. And in England today the black market is more virulent than price control – which has managed to keep the prices of food climbing up to 72 per cent above pre-war levels – according to the British Board of Trade.

Indeed it is a bit too soon to heave that sigh of relief, especially since in Washington itself – from where Henderson’s order came – it is expected that prices will be 10 per cent higher by the end of the year, and less conservative economists put the expected increase at 15 per cent. This is what the Kiplinger Washington Service advises its paying business men clients.

Resignation to “a certain amount” of war profiteering and to the continued rise in prices may be considered altogether fitting and proper in Washington. For the working class housewife, however, resignation is too expensive a luxury.

If Washington expects Mr. Henderson’s price fixing order to be so toothless a thing that prices will go up from 10 to 15 per cent within the next few months in spite of it, working class housewives themselves must do something about price control.

Labor Action has been urging the women of the country to organize themselves into neighborhood housewives’ groups. This step can no longer be deferred.

One woman may grumble about what she knows to be illegal prices. She may even speak up and give an innocent store clerk an argument. But she is only one and her action is ineffectual. By herself she cannot reach the manufacturers, wholesalers, jobbers and big retail corporations responsible for profiteering.

But suppose a committee representing all the housewives of a district demand of a certain dealer that profiteering prices stop. That is a horse of a different color. Suppose a picket line decorates the sidewalk to give substance to the demand. That is a bird of a different feather. Suppose this committee goes to the local rationing board or to the local OPA office to insist on the revocation of the licenses of manufacturers, wholesalers, jobbers and retailers who war-profiteer. This would have a most salutary effect on all concerned – even on the moguls in Washington where orders are issued but not expected to be enforced against the upper-classes.

Workers on the production lines have learned that in organization there is strength. For working class housewives on the consumption lines there is also strength in organization.

Not only is Mr. Henderson’s order a toothless thing – by admission from Washington itself – but it leaves loopholes through which the war profiteer will have no difficulty at all in passing with his money bags.

There is the matter of quality. This most important element in determining the worth of an article has been completely ignored by Mr. Henderson. Yet every housewife knows that the quality of merchandise is constantly deteriorating. Many products on sale today are decidedly inferior to those of a year or two ago. Store counters are filling up with merchandise of lower serviceability and durability. Of this there is no doubt.

The price of a pair of shoes may remain the same, but it isn’t the same quality of shoes. What about the grade of leather – if it is leather? What about the workmanship? How will the shoes stand up in the rain? Will they keep their shape? How much sooner will they need repair?

Prices may not go through the ceiling, but how about the windows? Mr. Henderson leaves them wide open.

Here is more work for the organized housewives. They can boycott inferior goods. They can find out what manufacturers are responsible for picking the consumers’ pockets by selling shoddy, and bring the weight of their organization to bear against them and against all wholesalers, jobbers and retailers who share in this kind of mass robbery.

That sigh of relief was indeed premature. What is necessary is the gritting of teeth and the determination of the working class housewives of the country to organize in self-protection.

But the biggest loophole in the Henderson order and that which really makes it a laughingstock is the list of exceptions. The following list of everyday food items are not included under the price ceilings:

This list of basic diet necessities was not jotted down by this columnist in a whimsical mood. Mr. Henderson’s order actually lists these indispensable foods as exceptions to which price ceilings do not apply.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics in the middle of March this year reported an increase of 25 per cent in the cost of food above pre-war levels. The rich fruit and vegetable combines, the giant dairy companies, the moneyed poultry and packing houses which have been responsible for the rising cost of living, will be grateful for Mr. Henderson’s thoughtfulness. So will the “law-abiding” wholesalers, jobbers and retailers as they mark up the prices on Mr. Henderson’s list of excepted commodities – which are only foods that other government officials in Washington tell us we cannot do without. But, after all, an honest profit must be permitted under the profit system that Mr. Roosevelt has pledged himself to preserve.

It is thus very easy to understand why, in spite of price control, food prices in England rose 72 per cent – and why Washington economists expect costs here to advance 10 to 15 per cent before the end of 1942. It should be just as easy to understand why Labor Action hammers on the idea that price control is up to the working class itself.

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