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Susan Green

Women in War Industries

A Crucial Problem for Labor

(May 1942)

From The New International, Vol. VIII No. 4, May 1942, pp. 116–118.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The influx of women workers into war industries is not just a timely topic for a magazine article, after reading which the reader may yawn and go to bed. It poses problems to labor as a whole which labor must honestly face and solve. What organized labor does right now about the mass of new women workers will determine, to a great extent, the strength of the workers during the war and most certainly in the post-war period.

What is the normal women’s labor force in this country? Before this war women workers in all kinds of employment numbered around eleven millions. Their fields of employment primarily included clerical, laundry, domestic, food and canning, office, restaurant and hotel, textile and clothing, i.e., light industries and light trades. Also included are auto and metal, chemical and rubber, electric, radio and firearms. But the figure that concerns us here is that, according to the latest census, there are twenty-four million employable women entirely outside the labor force of the country, a vast reservoir of labor power that is beginning to supply the production lines for World War II.

How much labor will the war program of the United States require? There is no clarity on this subject, since estimates change from day to day. when the military experts figured that the high point of the war would be reached in 1943, one set of figures were given. Now that the summer of 1942 is considered crucial, the old figures no longer hold. Yet a general idea can be gleaned. At the end of 1941 there were something over five million workers in war industries. At the end of this year it is expected that there will be fifteen to seventeen millions in those industries. Where will the additional ten to twelve million workers come from?

Many millions will be supplied from the “non-essential” industries, from the priorities, from the regular army of unemployed, from the farms. But these sources will not be able to supply the requirements. The balance of needed labor for 1942, it is estimated, will be made up of perhaps three million new workers who will join the labor front. By the end of 1944 some 6,500,000 such new workers will have been added to turn out the weapons for war.

A New Source of Labor Supply

Many of these new workers will come from the youth and from the adolescents. This is evidenced by the number of working papers issued, by the reports from technical schools that students are being snatched up by industry long before they are graduated, and also by the number of youngsters in every factory.

The balance of several millions of factory rookies will have to come from the reservoir of employable women, numbering twenty-four millions. Aside from the advantages to the bosses in hiring unorganized workers at lower wages, the employment of women tends to facilitate the war labor problem for two reasons. Women are not subject to military draft. Thus they constitute a steady labor force. Again, employing local women helps alleviate the acute housing problem created by migrating workers.

To summarize this point: At the end of 1941 there were a mere 500,000 women in war production plants. By the end of 1942 great numbers of women workers will have been transferred from “non-essential” industries to war production. But more significant, a large part of the three million new workers employed this year will be women not previously employed anywhere. By the end of 1944, an even larger part of the 6,500,000 new workers employed in the next two years will be women not previously employed anywhere. As the war continues and the manpower of the nation is increasingly fed to the dogs of war, womanpower will come even more to the fore on the production front.

It is customary these days to make comparisons with England. It can be said, then, that Washington appears to be much more serious about tapping available womanpower than London was when it entered the war. Pictures of women in overalls, spread over the pages of American newspapers, have been deceptive. Actually, while British women have replaced men in the “sissy” jobs, they have by and large stayed out of war production. Only after Singapore and the realization that the war will be a long one did the British government go to town to get out its womanpower. A program of corrective measures has been launched. It involves such steps as the establishment of nurseries and play schools, serving meals in schools and in communal feeding centers, and other services to ease women out of the home and into the factories. The perspective of the British government is that within a very short time the majority of industrial workers will have to be made up of women.

The Germans, of course, had this perspective a long time ago. The latest available figures, which are old stuff, put the women workers in Germany at 50 per cent of the entire labor force. This was before the Russian campaign.

Washington, it seems, has learned from both London and Berlin. The establishing of nurseries and the other required services to release women from the home is getting into full swing. Government agencies and women’s associations are implementing plans of wide scope. Women are going places, they are going into the basic units of war production.

Experiences of the First World War

In this country, during the First World War, one million women quit housework and school-teaching alone to take industrial jobs. At the close of that war 23 per cent of the employees in forty airplane factories were women. During the present war these figures will become completely obsolete for any purposes of comparison. An idea of the rate of increase of the female contingent in the automobile plants alone is contained in the following figures. Whereas in the past years there were, at the peak, no more than 20,000 women in the automobile industry, the Auto Workers Union, CIO, now estimates that the converted automobile plants alone will employ up to 150,000 women before the end of the year, or seven and a half times as many.

This avalanche of womanpower will definitely burst the confines of unskilled labor. Women will also swamp jobs heretofore considered men’s specialties. One British writer on the subject of women entering the skilled jobs in his country, commented: “This movement is without precedent in British industry. Nothing like is was seen in the last war.” This applies with equal force to American industry. Women will do all the jobs they did during the last war and a great many new jobs that will create out of them a corps of new skilled workers.

In airplane factories today women are operating light rivet guns, turret lathes, drill presses, painting sprays. On the power assembly lines they are installing fittings and equipment in fuselages. They do electrical wiring of various kinds. They do spot and arc welding. They have moved into a field of jobs requiring training and skill. Estimates of the likely employment of women in airplane production run to 50 per cent of the total employees, and revision is being made upward. In the assembly of aircraft instruments requiring particular care and concentration, women can do 75 per cent of the work. In the field of instrument-making as such, from which women had been excluded in the past, they have been found very able. Employers in this line sing the praises of women workers for their painstaking skill with details. Already in many plants making instruments, women constitute half of the labor force.

The vocational schools all over the country are encouraging the enrollment of women. Besides training for jobs such as above enumerated, higher skills are taught. Such work as shop drafting, pattern construction, designing of beams, columns, trusses – are becoming less of a mystery to growing numbers of women.

This new female contingent of skilled and semi-skilled labor could constitute the hole in the dike of the organized labor movement through which the enemies of labor may rush in. Three significant conditions make it possible for this mass of new women workers to weaken the whole structure of labor’s gains if labor does not face the problem and solve it: First, the lower standard of wages of women. Second, many of the new women workers will be without militant union experience, if not completely unorganized. Third, at least some enter industry with a decided anti-union bias.

Wage Differentials of Women Labor

The extent of the gap between the wages of men and women is not well known. The conservative figures of the National Industrial Conference Board for November 1941 placed the hourly wages in manufacturing plants at 35 per cent lower for women than for men. The American Federation of Labor declares the difference even greater. The New York State Department of Labor, for example, published the 1941 figures of average weekly wages in manufacturing plants for the state as $35.60 for men and $19.25 for women. The difference here is $16.35 per week, or 45 per cent.

The differential also reflects itself in the rate of wage increases. The above figures for the state of New York represent wage increases over 1940 of 12 per cent for men and only 8 per cent for women. In other respects also women are underprivileged workers. For instance, both law enforcers and bosses – as well, unfortunately, as the women workers involved – assume that the minimum wage law does not apply to them.

A post-war survey of women’s wages in this country made by the New York State Department of Labor, covering 417 factories employing 33,000 women in 1918–19, revealed some gruesome figures. Ten per cent of these women were earning less than $6.00 per week. Fifty-three per cent were earning less than $12 a week. A survey of 117 plants as to the relation of women’s wages to wages of men showed that 90 per cent of the women who replaced men were receiving less wages for the same work – in many instances as much as 50 per cent less – constituting an excellent reason why the bosses were employing them in the place of men.

For the purposes of this initial study, a little information on wage differentials in England is of interest. There, inequality starts with apprenticeship, a woman getting 38 shillings or the equivalent of $7.60 a week and a man 60 shillings 6 pence or about $12.10. One report on wages of English women workers states: “Average earnings for adult women in machine factories today (November 1941) are almost certainly below 50 shillings per week, which is equal to 39 shillings pre-war.” Thus full-fledged women workers average considerably less than the inexperienced male apprentice.

Dangers to Organized Labor

At all times this double standard acts as a subtle drag on the wage structure of the entire working class. In times of widespread unemployment the lower wage levels of the women workers tend to become the norm, especially if large masses of workers are women and more especially if they constitute a considerable fraction of the skilled workers. This will undoubtedly be the case in the post-war period.

One of the most important tasks before organized labor, therefore is to cut out the wage differential between men and women workers. “Equal pay for equal work” is a vital slogan which must be made a reality.

There are today tendencies toward equalization of pay. The United Automobile Workers are supposed to have wage scales for women on war production equalling the pay of men for equal work. But is the union insisting upon this equality? When the Consolidated Aircraft Co. opened its new gigantic plant it announced it was going to pay equal wages to men and women. Whether, and to what extent, this principle is actually carried out is not yet known but, it seems to be a fact that recent contracts, including wage increases in rubber, auto and auto parts, airplanes and firearms, while also increasing the wages of women workers, did not accomplish equality.

A militant drive for equalization of wages, therefore, must be undertaken by all unions affected by the influx of women workers. On the basis of such a drive to end the under-privileged status of women workers, the organization of the millions of practically green women workers who will enter industry must forge ahead.

The Vinsons and Smiths in Congress are very wide-awake to the interests of big business in pressing so hard for legislation to “freeze” the open and closed shop. The use of the word “freeze” in this connection is inaccurate and misleading. Such anti-labor legislation will make it illegal to organize the 6,500,000 new workers who will be entering war production. It will inevitably result in the melting away of union strength in relation to the sum total of workers. It will allow the capitalists to obtain company-union domination over a large portion of these 6,500,000 new workers to be sent to the labor front. Labor must prevent the passage of such legislation and proceed with the pressing business before it, namely, an organization drive.

The Task of the Labor Movement

Veteran women workers who are also veteran trade unionists have a grave responsibility on their shoulders. They can do much to educate the new women workers. The women who in automobile, steel, rubber, textile, etc., directly participated in the splendid CIO organization drives have a tradition of militancy that must be and can be preserved only by imparting it to the new workers. Those women who, as wives and daughters of strikers, joined in great CIO struggles (such as the automobile sit-downs and the New York City bus strike) and will now be on the war production lines themselves, can and must do their part in arousing inexperienced workers to an understanding of working class solidarity.

The problem posed by the influx of women workers into the skilled trades will not be solved in the way attempted by British workers and to some extent by American workers also, namely, neglecting these new members of their own class. This method will be as ineffective in this day and age as the attempt to smash the machines was in solving the problems created by their introduction during the Industrial Revolution. War conditions compel women to become industrial workers. The production of war material requires the employment of skilled workers, and women will be trained as skilled workers. Once they have acquired skills, they will be part and parcel of the labor force of the country to a much greater extent than was the case after the last war when two and a quarter million women workers were permanently added to the labor force.

The way to solve working class problems is, now as always, to build up working class strength through organization. The new workers must be gathered into the union fold.

It must be borne in mind that many women will enter industry with anti-union prejudices as a result of anti-union propaganda in the press and on the air waves. Some of the anti-union propaganda has stuck. There are housewives who believe that high wages are responsible for high prices and that unions are rackets anyway. Besides all this, the capitalist press, the radio, politicians and other speechifiers will be flattering these women workers and playing them up as “the women behind the machines behind the men behind the guns at the front.” And very carefully cultivated by the above elements will be the anti-union propaganda that “this is not the time to join unions – this is the time for national unity.” All this is grist in the mill of big business.

Labor must also fully realize that new workers who join the unions, both men and women, simply as a matter of bookkeeping, are sitting on the fence. If they happen to get work in a closed shop and are required to join up, they do so – for a time, anyway. But they have been through no union struggles. They have not learned the meaning of unionism as a weapon and offensive and defensive might. Furthermore, the appeasement policies followed by the union officialdoms incline new union members to the belief that there is no particular advantage in belonging to a union. These workers will easily fall off the fence – on the wrong side – unless the rank and file makes up its mind to a program of labor militancy that will grip and hold new members.

It is definitely up to the rank and file. Union leaders are yielding up labor’s power and labor’s standards. Demanding better ones is not a wartime fashion. Organization drives are also not in style. The rank and file must be old-fashioned – in the CIO way. The CIO, which since its inception has stood for labor militancy, must again push on to militant action.

What organized labor does right now about the mass of new women workers will determine, to a great extent, the strength of labor during the war and most certainly in the post-war period. Equalization of wages will prevent the undermining of wage standards. A unionization drive will prevent the bosses from getting their claws on the green workers and “protecting” them in company unions. Finally, a well organized labor movement will enable the workers to carry out a progressive program for employment for all in the postwar period.

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