Hal Draper & Stephen F. Diamond

The Hidden History of the
Equal Rights Amendment

* * *


The California Experience

Hal Draper

(Appendix B)
The California Campaign
for a “Labor E.R.A.”


After Anne Draper’s death in March 1973, material was prepared for a memorial publication. The following was written as a story of the work that she had done in this field as chair of Union W.A.G.E. But it is, I think, a useful account of a situation which has now gone down the Memory Hole, along with the rest of the Hidden History, namely, the transitional situation when a fight against the worst consequences of the E.R.A. ploy could still be made. Very incidentally, it is also a record of my own education on this issue. – H.D.

* * *

During the period when the states’ ratification of the E.R.A. was still hanging fire, there was a last effort made by workingwomen to salvage women’s labor laws from the destructive impact of Congress’ action, now super-added to the previous impact of Title VII. This effort was most significant in California.

1. Labor in California

There were two reasons why a special part of the drama was acted out in California, particularly during 1970–1972.

  1. California, with the largest body of women workers (10 percent of the 31 million nationally) also had the most substantial body of protective legislation for women workers left in the country. There was still a big stake.
  2. The effort was sparked by an independent movement of trade-union women, the Union Women’s Alliance to Gain Equality (Union W.A.G.E.). It had been organized by Anne Draper; and while it made some progress in gaining adherents and correspondents in other states, it was seriously active only in California. Based on the San Francisco Bay Area, it had important associates in the Los Angeles area too. This group was the catalyst which moved bigger forces into motion, including (at times) the state labor apparatus as well as individual unions.

The California legislation not yet destroyed may serve as an example of what women workers had lost elsewhere:

These gains, and similar lists of on-job benefits for women workers which had been acquired and consolidated in painful struggles over most of a century, are certain to bore the business, professional and career women who boast about “the victories we have won in removing protective legislation.” This quotation was from the pen of Aileen Hernandez [1], N.O.W. leader and sometime president, who liked to tell critics she was once educational director for a trade union, and who, much more recently, had been celebrated in the San Francisco press as one of the highly paid businesswoman-successes in the area. Her winged words played a bit of a role in Union W.A.G.E.’s campaign.

But these gains look different to (say) the women of the farm workers, who have to labor in the fields without available toilets or drinking water as long as such legislation does not exist for them – or even when it does exist, unless the union can enforce the regulations.

On the other hand, women professors and upwardly mobile businesswomen, fighting for justifiable upgrading in defiance of prejudice, do not usually have to worry about lunch breaks, let alone fight for them. They can afford to think that protective legislation is “insulting.” Some 100,000 women workers of the needle trades in the Los Angeles area alone, largely black and Mexican-American, depend on these hard-won gains for a partial measure of humanization of work.

Even so, little would have happened without the initiatives and intervention of Union W.A.G.E. The California Labor Federation (the state organization), like the national AFL-CIO, would hardly have moved energetically on this issue without prodding. A word on the role of the labor movement is necessary for the background.

The propaganda of N.O.W. and similar feminists, far removed from the life of working women, systematically seeks to represent the trade-union movement en bloc as simply a plot of male chauvinists. In general, the image of trade-unionism which is regularly assumed in Ms magazine, as in N.O.W., is the same as that presented in press editorials about Big Labor, or in sociology classes (where many of these women learned it), or in TV cops-and-robbers serials about corrupt union gangsters. What these people do not understand about the labor movement is its most vital characteristic: it is a house with many mansions, in which all kinds of things happen, apart from what happens at the tops.

All of the worst characteristics of the trade-union movement exist because the unions are embedded in a society where those characteristics are dominant. The top apparatus structures and many unions are, of course, male-dominated and male-chauvinist in tendency: almost all the dominant structures of American society are. And this is exactly why trade-union women have to organize autonomously within the union world; so thought the founders of Union W.A.G.E.

The leaders of the American labor movement are good Americans; that is, they are good and American – being representative of this society. If it is charged that the unions often fail to protect the interests of women workers, the question that has to be answered is this: does the critic understand that the same AFL-CIO protects the interests of men workers only spottily, and that the trade-union tool works for workers only insofar as they take it in hand themselves?

The women who founded Union W.A.G.E. organized from below, and did not expect the state union officials to fight their battles for them. But they exerted themselves to put pressure on these and all officials to fight battles, on the right side. And they did so.

One of the N.O.W. myths is that the AFL-CIO for many years opposed the Pure E.R.A. because of male domination. This is contrary-to-truth. For several decades, it was the Women’s Trade Union League and other women’s organizations sympathetic to labor – but completely independent of and even hostile to the A.F.L. – that spearheaded the fight against the Pure amendment, while the labor federation passed resolutions and did lobbying. [J] In the 1960s, with social-feminism moribund and with the shift to the “New Feminism,” the unions – just as male-dominated as before – came over to the Pure line. Some of the internationals (i.e., national unions) came out for the Pure E.R.A. under various pressures, in particular the pressure of their political alliance with the Democrats. Some interesting things happened ...

The showcase union for the Pure E.R.A. advocates was the United Auto Workers. The reasons have more to do with a different question, viz., what has happened to the American labor movement as its percentage of unionization steadily decreased to 19 percent. The U.A.W., once justly regarded as one of the more progressive unions in the country, is today not a shadow of its former self; its apparatus is increasingly indistinguishable from any other organization of porkchoppers in the great American tradition of Get-Yours-for-No. 1. But aside from this development, there is another and very illuminating consideration.

It is this: the women workers in the Auto Union are in one of the most thoroughly unionized industries in the country. To a much greater extent than the mass of workers, they do not need protective laws, since it is the union that provides for their protection in practice. (This is what led the old A.F.L. of the 1920s to oppose labor legislation for men, in its shortsighted way.) In supporting the Pure amendment which will destroy labor legislation for heavily exploited women workers in fields or factories, these U.A.W. women leaders are saying in effect: The destruction of your protective legislation is no skin off our lasses. They can get by, because the union is their protective shield. This is the old (and ever new) unionism of special interest, with one trade knifing another to get some real or fancied advantage, with the skilled trades knifing the unskilled, ad infinitum, ad nauseam – just as happily as the great American spirit in which one businessman knifes another in the name of free enterprise.

It was Union W.A.G.E. that revived the labor wing of social-feminism. It was not established as a women’s committee of the union structure, hence inhibited by all the institutional hangups of the latter. It was not a group of outsiders assuming to speak in the name of workingwomen (as even the old Women’s Trade Union League had been in part). It was built around a core of women workers who operated as good trade-unionists, acting inside the labor movement or outside as necessary, and at the same time it was organizationally independent.

It happened that the then head of the California Federation of Labor was John Henning, who considered himself a sort of closet social-democrat (at least in that period). This did not mean that he was ready to rush into radical enterprises, but he was susceptible to reasonable pressure, especially for good causes. It is a fact that Union W.A.G.E. did move the state AFL-CIO under Henning into significant support of its campaigns; but there was no control either way. The simplistic view of labor – Evil Male Chauvinists vs. Champions of Equal Rights – was never farther from the truth than it was during this period. “Labor” was not monolithic.

2. The Campaign for “Extension”

The Union Women (as we may call the Union W.A.G.E. people for short) exerted their greatest efforts around this campaign, along the lines explained in Anne Draper’s article, which had received good circulation in the state trade-union movement. Its aim was an equal rights amendment which would preserve women workers’ gains by extending them to men.

The “Extension” idea had been around for a long time, and was not new. N.O.W. propagandists commonly gave the idea lip service by assuring hearers that such extension was what would happen when the E.R.A. was adopted (or “would probably happen,” if they felt like making a concession to honesty). All that the Union Women’s campaign said was: Let’s get that put on the books in black and white.

Against this simple idea the standard arguments of the Pure had little or nothing to say to women workers. When N.O.W. advocates or Pure E.R.A. champions had to confront this Extension campaign in California, they offered a grab bag of arguments that were not always responsive.

  1. They often simply denounced protective legislation per se as a male-chauvinist plot against women’s rights, following the same script that they might have used in any other state. But in confrontation with the Union Women’s campaign for Extension, it ceased to make sense. If you’re ready to reassure worried women that the E.R.A. did mean extension – or that you wanted it to – then why not get it written down?
  2. They often claimed that protective legislation was no longer a problem because Title VII had wiped it all out anyway, or was going to. But this was quite false as a matter of fact, especially in California – as we have seen. Title VII had wrought havoc, to be sure, and we have described what it did; but in (say) 1972 the Pure E.R.A. advocates were over-anticipating the range of destruction. Were they interested in preserving what was possible – through Extension? A single debate was enough to show the Union Women that they were not very much interested ...
  3. Other Pure speakers might argue, on the contrary, that the E.R.A. was needed precisely because Title VII was too limited, or because the E.R.A. would do in one swoop what Title VII might do only after long court battles. But on examination, in the light of the Union Women’s proposal, this could only mean they were in a hurry to wipe out protective laws before Extension could get to work.
  4. Back to the reassurances: they could claim – and did sporadically claim – that the E.R.A.’s one-sentence blast would be interpreted by the courts to require the extension of protective legislation (or some of it) to men. This brash claim hung by two threads.
  1. One thread was the assurance of some pro-E.R.A. lawyer that this court interpretation would (or could, or might, or should) take place. These happy assurances were still being ladled into N.O.W. press statements even after twenty states had totally or partially cut back protective legislation, without extension to men, on the basis of Title VII.
  2. The second thread was a single case in a single state in 1970: in Arkansas a federal court had extended a benefit (time-and-a-half for overtime) to men, the so-called Potlatch Forest case. In the Pure E.R.A.’s propaganda, the Potlatch Forest case became for a little while the sum-total of American jurisprudence, and Arkansas was more important than the Supreme Court.

The claim itself was always either phantasmagoria or demagogy, usually the former. The latter possibility received institutional support from the E.E.O.C. in April 1972, when it issued new “Guidelines” purporting to further the Extension pattern. For a while N.O.W. announced that the whole issue was now solved, everyone could support the Pure E.R.A. with an easy heart. When Anne Draper unearthed the actual text of the Guidelines (with interesting difficulty), the reality turned out to be quite different. Mostly the heralded extension was simply left up to the individual employer: if “employers can prove [to whom?] that business necessity prohibits extending them [the benefits],” then they “shall not provide such benefit to members of either sex.” Employers were here being instructed on the grounds for dropping such benefits for women as well as men. (We all know about “business necessity.”)

There was a slight difference in the treatment of wage and overtime provisions, but the sentiments expressed in the Guidelines were neither laws nor enforceable regulations, and bound nobody. They were supposed to “guide” attorneys general and courts, but no one ever found an attorney general or a court that extended benefits because of the Guidelines. On the other hand, the instruction that “the employer shall not provide these benefits” was automatically enforced with ironclad efficiency – by the employers.

It was a typical Washingtonian bureaucratic fraud, its only point being to dislocate the fight for Extension, which was threatening to become a popular watchword in some quarters.

3. Another View of the Debate

Let us turn to another account of the California debate on this issue. It was provided by an article, published in Society in 1974 by Miller and Linker [2], which gave a fairly evenhanded summary. The authors explained four arguments which the E.R.A. proponents used to counteract the concern about protective legislation. These are summarized below; and to these we append comments reflecting the replies given by the Union Women.

(1) Some of the protective laws are beneficial to women, to be sure, but some do represent restrictions on women.

This statement was true, and the truth had been noted in Anne Draper’s For a Labor E.R.A. What remained unexplained by the E.R.A. proponents was why this reasonable statement justified a one-blast E.R.A. whose sole virtue was that it aimed to indiscriminately destroy every sex-differentiated law, including every possible beneficial one. The Union Women argued: Let’s keep the good ones, and knock out the bad ones only.

In short, if the argument was that there were “some” over-restrictive laws, the one kind of solution that was not indicated was a one-blast destroy-it-all E.R.A.

(2) E.R.A. proponents “pointed to the injustices created by this so-called protection and relied on examples used by Martha Griffiths, chief sponsor of the amendment, in the U.S. Congressional debates.”

Representative Griffiths’ much-used examples illuminated the issue, but not in her light. One of her favorites was this: it is hypocritical, she charged, to protect certain women workers against (say) night-work hazards, but to leave charwomen and women entertainers uncovered by these laws. Hypocrisy, yes – but whose?

Charwomen should be covered by the protective laws, and the Union Women would not only advocate this but also go out and organize them. It was Griffiths’ pro-E.R.A. majority, with much help from the others, who for decades had kept charwomen and the like in their place – the same Congressional majority that kept voting down Equal Pay bills. It was not Griffiths’ organization, the Business and Professional Women’s federation, that ever fought to cover the disadvantaged and poor with labor legislation. So – whose hypocrisy was Griffiths showing up?

Anyway, how was Griffiths’ example an argument for her E.R.A.? The implicit argument was this: since charwomen can still be overexploited by employers, then the women of the needle trades workers and farm workers and others might as well be sweated too ...

As for entertainers: the Union Women agreed that they need not be automatically covered by the same laws as the mass of wage-workers, precisely because their conditions were often so different. Indeed, Griffiths never actually proposed that existing protective laws should all necessarily cover entertainers. But it was she, not the Union Women, who proposed a law that had to fit indiscriminately everybody in sight.

The Union Women agreed that some protective laws had an important fault, in intruding too much into the province of career women, whose conditions and needs might be different from charwomen and farm workers. They said: Let us remedy these errors by amending the protective laws, not by destroying them.

The inconsistency was Griffiths’, but it was not a matter of hypocrisy. It was a question of a mentality, a style of thinking. When she seemed to say in effect, “If you restrict night work by some women, you must restrict it for every female in the country,” this ultimatistic view reflected her typical career-woman type of sexism: “women” constitute a monolithic group, to be treated monolithically. It is the other side of a coin whose flip side shows us the well-known MCP who likes global aphorisms like “Women are illogical ...”

(3) Suits have been brought against protective laws by blue-collar women. “The involvement of blue-collar women in the campaign for [E.R.A.] ratification was also stressed in order to negate the charge that the E.R.A. was solely a middle-class phenomenon.”

This was a debaters’ point which could appeal only to the “middle-class phenomenon” – feminists who think of workingwomen as a beast with one neck; the monolithic view again. A moment’s thought about the tens of millions of “bluecollar” workers in this country should be enough. The sponsors of the anti-labor “Right to Work” laws, notoriously used to smash trade-unionism, would have no trouble digging up a few blue-collar workers (Certified Proletarians) to testify for them. George Wallace had black supporters. There were German Jews who supported Hitler. Jay Gould used to boast that he could hire one-half the working class to kill the other half; and while this is a polemical exaggeration, it points to a well-known problem – which has nothing to do with the E.R.A.

(4) “They stressed that no constitutional amendment has ever operated to automatically nullify any law.”

In this connection, the semi-liberal lobbying group called Common Cause was cited as pointing to the Arkansas Potlatch precedent. The inflation of this Arkansas case has been discussed. But another word is necessary about the generalization itself.

To say that a constitutional amendment does not “automatically” nullify any law is either a platitude or an irrelevancy. It is a platitude if it is merely saying that a court decision has to be rendered first. It is an irrelevancy if the problem is not any automatism but a realistic appraisal of the impact of a given measure after considerable experience. But Common Cause does not favor a law-by-law appraisal. It is one of the loudest of E.R.A. proponents in insisting (in other sections of its argumentation) that every sex-differentiated law must be destroyed by court decree as soon as the E.R.A. is on the books.

4. The Argument from Technology

Another frequent argument against protective legislation was based on the state of technology. It permits a valuable insight into the thinking of the E.R.A. proponents. It was very common in the literature, but we can give it here from an official source: the above-mentioned E.E.O.C. Guidelines of April 1972:

The Commission believes that such State laws and regulations, although originally promulgated for the purpose of protecting females, have ceased to be relevant to our technology or to the expanding role of the female worker in our economy. The Commission has found that such laws and regulations do not take into account the capacities, preferences, and abilities of individual females and tend to discriminate rather than protect.

Why are protective laws not “relevant to our technology”? The argument was repeated endlessly, rarely explained, and when clarified, largely based on one kind of protective law: weightlifting restrictions. The “argument from technology” sounded much more impressive when it was not explained.

For the large majority of protective laws, the argument from technology immediately points in favor, not against. The possibility of providing toilets in the fields for farm workers was created by modern technology; it was impracticable for thirteenth-century peasants. A good many of the working conditions that protective laws call for – like elevators in multistory buildings – would be unthinkable without modern technology. But let us ignore this fact, and confront the “argument from technology” on the single side-arena where it has some limited point.

The argument is that our technology presumably makes heavy weight-lifting by women workers so close to obsolete that the problem can be ignored. If this were so, then the weight-lifting restrictions could also be ignored, and would be no problem. If no one is lifting heavy weights, then the restrictive laws are simply gathering dust. If they are so important that the E.R.A. proponents like to talk about them more than about toilets in the field, there must be something wrong with the original argument.

The people who wrote this sort of E.R.A. propaganda really thought that machinery did all the heavy lifting in American industry. Someone told them so, and it sounded reasonable to people behind a desk. It suggests that these people literally cannot grasp what industrial work is like. Like Griffiths’ much-repeated conundrum about the charwomen and the entertainers, another brush-off common in E.R.A. propaganda was the following bit: Do those male chauvinists who want to restrict women’s weight-lifting in industry worry about weight-lifting by a housewife who has to carry her baby up and down stairs during a day? It was widely pointed out that babies often weigh more than fifty pounds, the protective-law limit in California.

Let us look at industrial weight-lifting, not in the abstract but with the help of a couple of vignettes that figured in the Union Women’s campaign.

(a) In the early 1970s, women members of an independent union, the Association of Pulp and Paper Workers did pioneer work with an interesting form of organization they had devised themselves, called “Women, Inc.” Its president, Hazle Perry Hill of Antioch, California, was a worker at Crown Zellerbach of 23 years standing. In the union she was not only a vice-president but editor of its paper (though the union as a whole was male-dominated as usual). She was also a mother with four children, and had to earn a living by working. The women workers in this industry had fought for equal pay, and had won this demand in 1968. They had had a significant part in the fight to get the provision “sex” added to the state Fair Employment Practices act.

When Hazle Perry Hill discovered Union W.A.G.E., she applied for membership, and in her letter incidentally mentioned that she had a problem:

Right now, I’m attempting to do a job that has a history of being male. It is hard physical labor, and after two weeks, I wonder if I’ll ever make it! The spirit is willing, the flesh is weak. I must push 2,000 lb. rolls of paper about ten times a day.

I must climb a ladder and rethread this huge machine several times a shift. I think I’m trying so hard to prove that a woman can do this that I might fail. I’ve never been so tired and hurt in so many places as I do now. I want to give it back but I’m too damned stubborn and determined to succeed to prove a point. Wish me luck – I need it.

Right now, we have no state laws – they were pitched out over a year ago. Some of them, you must admit, need to be revised.

Crown Zellerbach is a giant corporation, not a fly-by-night operation, and presumably understands the state of technology. Aren’t there machines that can push tons of paper around? There are. They represent huge capital investments. Why spend this money if you can hire workers to do the pushing at a fraction of the investment cost? (This, of course, applies to men as to women.) We see immediately that the argument from the level of technology has little to do, necessarily, with how that technology is used to produce a maximum profit. And the smaller the company, the less likely is it to make maximum use of available technology where another solution is immediately more profitable, given a certain level of wages. Economists will tell us that overexploitation of labor is a factor that inhibits the full exploitation of technology; and the spread of labor legislation is a factor that compels the economic system toward maximum modernization – however reluctantly.

If the protective law limiting weight-lifting for women were extended to men, in line with the Extension Campaign of the Union Women, corporations would be thereby induced to make use of available technology, or at any rate be pushed in that direction. Some day the fantasy in the minds of the E.R.A. proponents might even become a reality, in spite of them.

But back to the case of Hazle Perry Hill. She was not really typical – first, because she apparently could have changed her job if she had wanted to (though there may have been penalties not stated in her letter); and second, we have here an extraordinary woman with a powerful feminist motivation.

(b) The norm was better exemplified by a letter which was reprinted around this time by the paper of the Western Pulp and Paper Workers (reported also by Union W.A.G.E., the group’s paper). This letter was written by a rank-and-file member in the Camas (Washington) local of the union, Mary Mabry. It was written in a spirit of bitterness which will no doubt appall all N.O.W. types who have to carry babies up and down stairs:

I wish to take this opportunity to thank all of you women’s liberation members for what you have done for the women employees of Crown Zellerbach of Camas.

Women were once protected by state law as to how much they could lift, how many hours they could work, and certain machinery and tools they were not to use for safety reasons.

Now that you “wonderful” women have helped liberate us, we are suddenly able to push 1,000-pound carts, lift heavy paper, bags and bales and work 12-hour shifts with nothing but a 15-minute lunch break.

A 61-year-old widow who has worked for years in the bag factory hurt her back on the job. She went to tell “the men upstairs” that she could not do that heavy lifting. They told her if she couldn’t do her job she could quit. She has only one year to retirement and has been a good, faithful worker, yet they couldn’t care less!

Many of us women have complained about the heavy work we are now required to do. The “men upstairs” tell us that we are getting equal pay for men, so we are to work like men. Many women have had to quit. Right now, I am in the hospital in traction because of the heavy lifting I am required to do.

If any of you women’s lib suckers (or other interested parties) want to take a real look at what you’ve done for us, come visit “the snake pit” at Camas and try some of the jobs – if you think you are man enough. [3]

What have we to say to Mary Mabry and to the host of women workers in her position? We can, of course, denounce her as a sexist (unless we assume that “man enough” is satirical), and prescribe a consciousness-raising session with the local housewives – that is, as soon as she gets out of the hospital. If she had to quit her job at management’s suggestion, she would have plenty of time for this activity. Reading the literature on the E.R.A., she would learn that she should not let a little thing like a wrenched back interfere with “the expanding role of the female worker in our economy” (at 64 percent of men’s wages), and certainly not interfere with other women who want to make it up there with “the men upstairs.”

We have previously compared the Pure E.R.A. mentality with the “Right to Work” mentality. Translated into abstract-feminist terms, it says: If we do the same work as men, we ought to get equal pay; and, turn-about, if we get equal pay, then we must not object to working under the same (inferior) conditions as men. But the second proposition does not follow from the first. If the two propositions seem intertwined in abstract logic, it is only because they are taken as static descriptions of a world we cannot do anything about. But the history of the labor movement and its struggles is a history of proving that this academic logic is empty. Where trade-union organization is strong enough, this or that sector of workers continually wins special conditions that begin by being “unfair” to others – as the employers will be the first to proclaim in the name of supernal Justice. All these outcries mean is that one sector of labor has forged ahead for the nonce.

Modern technology, or rather its present-day utilization, has not abolished weight-lifting by either men or women. With the destruction of protective laws, excessive weight-lifting then becomes obligatory for women workers, as the “equal rights” device is used by management to maximize profits, in some cases by pressing women to quit employment. When the state E.R.A. or Title VII destroys protective legislation, a certain vacuum is left, and this vacuum is inevitably filled by the ever-present autocratic power of management over the worker. In its simplest terms, the famous victory won by the destruction of protective laws meant that Crown Zellerbach was itself the administrator of “equal rights” for women and men workers.

We have agreed that, while modern technology has not abolished weight-lifting, it does make it possible to limit excessive weight-lifting, by both men and women, to special categories. This points to the modernization (revision) of protective legislation in given cases, after concrete reappraisals of its operation. Hazle Perry Hill’s letter had made this point, without knowing the stand taken by the Union Women. It was, in fact, the viewpoint of the Union Women.

In a debate on the E.R.A. with the local N.O.W. President [4], Anne Draper, on behalf of Union W.A.G.E., had put it this way:

... In May 1971 the court in California nullified, abolished, any limits on the pounds that a woman worker could lift or the hours she could work. I consider this an equality of exploitation. For example, a woman farm worker can now be told: Take this lug of tomatoes, which weighs 50 to 70 pounds, and run with it – not walk, but RUN with it to the truck five times an hour. We now have equality – no limits on hours or wages. Let me tell you what our position was. We felt that no workers should be treated in the dehumanizing and vicious way that a lot of industry treats them. We are not beasts of burden. If we can figure out how to get a machine to move with 9,000 parts that work beautifully, then we ought to be able to figure out machines that do the weight-lifting for both men and women on the job. We asked for reasonable limitations of hours for both men and women. We don’t want to see women fighting for a return to the ten- or twelve-hour day. We want to see a five- or six-hour day.

By the time of this debate, the bottom-line issue in California was concretized in a way somewhat more dramatic than in other states.

5. Bottom Line: Extend or Destroy?

By 1970 the dispute in California had heated up, as a number of big corporations sought to use Title VII to do what they had been trying to do for decades – namely, save some millions (perhaps billions) of dollars by getting rid of the whole body of women’s labor legislation. At a legislative hearing in February, representatives of six employers’ associations called impatiently for the suspension of all state protective laws that were in litigation. The National Right to Work Committee, coordinating group of the hard-line union-busting elements, stepped up its activity in California as well as in some other key states.

The Fibreboard Corporation in the Antioch-Stockton area took the lead in the drive to return women workers’ conditions to the nineteenth century, in the name of equal rights and Title VII. Around the turn of the year, it announced (on its own say-so) that federal law had voided all state protective laws, and it set January 15, 1970 as the deadline for changing its working conditions in accordance, regardless of California health and safety laws. Women were now going to be forced to work 12 to 16 hours straight, instead of the more expensive three-shift system; they would have to lift as much as 150 pounds a minute; rest periods and lunch hours were cut to pieces. Women workers were played against each other, by allowing some departments lunch breaks and others none. One woman reported that in her plant the workers were allowed three ten-minute breaks in an eight-hour period, with no lunch break, and were forbidden to eat while working.

(On the wall was a notice informing the happy workers that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibited sex discrimination and called for equality on the job. Rejoice! Management was going to enforce “equality” to the last broken back.)

Another well-known champion of human rights, the state Telephone Company, joined the rampant forces of equality with a memo to managers to ignore certain labor provisions which a district court had knocked out with Title VII. Ma Bell started changing shift hours with abandon; for example, one woman’s new schedule put her to work from nine at night to three in the morning, with her second shift starting at six the same morning.

This vanguard of “Everything goes” equality was followed by smaller imitators. A Los Angeles company that farmed out household workers abolished payment of overtime to women working twelve-hour stints, and told a federal court: Title VII “abolished chivalry, at least as far as employment practices are concerned.” The court agreed that chivalry was detestable.

The whole body of women’s labor laws, all that was left of it, was hanging by a thread in the courts, as the court machinery creaked under the pressures to invalidate everything by judicial decree on the basis of Title VII. The juridical front of this drive was taken over by the pro-E.R.A. feminists, who launched a new campaign to administer the coup de grace. The coup, without much grace, was to get a state E.R.A. on the books, since the national E.R.A. might take years to ratify.

It may seem that the proposal for a state E.R.A. was routine; but at this point there was more to it than met the eye. The Union Women were in course of mobilizing support for legislation to extend the protective laws to men. The prospects for this Extension campaign were good; support was being gathered steadily especially through the state trade-union movement. There was a real possibility; or – viewed from the opposite side – there was a real danger ...

At this point, the issue was posed on a knife edge: if a state E.R.A. were adopted before the Extension was won then there would be nothing to extend, for the sex-discriminatory labor laws would all be simply smashed by the state instrument.

The Union Women concretized the immediate issue by presenting the following proposition to N.O.W. and its people: Join forces with us NOW to get the Extension legislation through. Then we – and organized labor, we pledge – will work all-out to put the State E.R.A. on the books.

The key part of this proposition was the following: Do not insist on pushing the state E.R.A. to a quick vote in Sacramento before Extension can be won.

Through a chain of circumstances, never had the focal issue of the E.R.A. been posed so sharply as now, at this point. The E.R.A. activists could get a quick state E.R.A. which might benefit some career women, but only over the backs of the farm women workers in the fields, the needle-trades workers in the Los Angeles sweatshops, the women in the paper mills, and a million other “sisters.”

N.O.W.’s answer was to drive all-out to get the state E.R.A. adopted as speedily as possible.

They also passed resolutions in favor of Extension. Since their hearts bled for their exploited sisters, they promised – whenever queried – that after all the protective laws had been destroyed, they would pass more resolutions in favor of labor legislation for everyone. But first things first: First we get ours, then we’ll worry about you stepsisters.

There were many discussions in this period between the Union Women and members of N.O.W. (discussions that played a more important part in my own education than in that of the N.O.W. people, I’m afraid). One of the things that the Union Women tried to explain, not too successfully, was what decades of work it had taken to win the concessions that N.O.W. wanted to destroy with one document. In the above-mentioned formal debate with N.O.W., Anne Draper tried to make this a little more vivid just with regard to the most recent phase – the adoption of wage orders by the Industrial Welfare Commission (I.W.C.):

Let me give you a personal note on what it took to achieve these [I.W.C.] wage orders. In 1958–1959, after five years of hearings, concluding hearings were being held simply to determine whether a wage order should be issued covering farm women workers’ health, welfare and safety. Five years of hearings!

Arrayed against us were the banks, the insurance companies, and of course the largest industry in the state, agribusiness – a four-billion dollar industry which said it could not afford to pay a $1 an hour minimum wage for farm women. The Industrial Welfare Commission consisted of five people appointed by the governor, and till recently all five came from management, not one represented labor.

After five years of hearings, in which women and children testified to the incredible conditions under which they picked the state’s fruits and vegetables, the Commission finally voted to issue an industry order. That, dear friends, took another two years of hearings. People like Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez and other farm worker leaders mobilized the support of men, women, and children working in the fields, plus allies from the trade-union movement.

Finally, finally we got Order 14 – a miserable one, inferior; they wouldn’t even give the same wage to farm women as to other women workers. Nevertheless, it established the right of the farm woman worker to have drinking water available in the fields (or at least the right to sue in court for it). And it established her right to have a toilet available in the field. It has been easier to get a toilet on the moon than in the fields of California; but nevertheless the legal right now exists in this state.

Every employer group in California has sought to break down these industry orders. Would it not be ironic if they could use as their facade, their front, a women’s group that says it is fighting for equality and equal rights for women?

No use. In this debate the N.O.W. speaker [K] concluded her argument with the following words, which deserve to be preserved, as a high-water mark of utter confusion:

Protective legislation is not the problem. We’re all working to extend protective legislation. I cannot understand why we have to have it tied to the Equal Rights Amendment, which covers a much broader area, which covers women who really don’t give a damn about protective legislation because they’re not working. Why sacrifice the rest of your life? You know, protective legislation is a bone, as it were, thrown to women. We’re protected for eight hours a day and the rest of our lives we can go hang. Now, I don’t think that we have to risk the rest of our lives for eight hours a day. Especially since it’s very simple to keep protective legislation by extending it through a majority vote. It simply does not make sense. I don’t see what this debate is about and I cannot understand the question. Thank you.

This parting word was sincere, at any rate. It is the voice of one living in another world than that of workingwomen concerned about toilets in the field. Twice it says “I cannot understand,” and it is up to us to understand this incapacity to understand.

The N.O.W. organization in Sacramento, the state capital, gave a different response to the Extension campaign, equally sincere. It wrote in its newsletter: “Not all lawmakers who have co-sponsored the state E.R.A. are in support of extending protective laws to men.” [5] Exactly so. The bloc that was going to put a state E.R.A. on the books depended on the votes of the same creatures of the growers who had voted for decades to keep the farm workers under. (The history of the national E.R.A. should make this pattern clear.)

The political realism of N.O.W. was exemplary, and could not be faulted as an expression of American politics. It could be briefly and bluntly summarized in the following way:

We aim to get our E.R.A. by making a deal with the state’s sweatshoppers, union-busters and corporate profiteers. Not that we like them, but there’s no other way. It’s a matter of making a fair exchange: they, the big economic interests, will be happy because (for example) the growers will no longer be harassed by unreasonable demands like toilets in the fields; and WE will be happy because (say) women professors in the big knowledge factories will find it easier to get ahead. Then after this quid pro quo, we will be in a position to indulge our sentimentality and sincerely pass resolutions in favor of extending protective legislation to men. Although it will be inconvenient if it no longer exists to be extended. You can’t have everything. Just so long as we get ours.

This policy worked out, in the sense that the California legislature adopted a state E.R.A. in 1972.

For a symbol: the first thing that happened next was that the Bank of America announced that it would discontinue the special service for women workers on the night shift which provided taxis to take the women home safely. This was now “sex discrimination” and highly illegal – no more legal, indeed, than muggings. Women could take their chances: men did, didn’t they?

Other corporations followed suit, even though lawsuits were still pending on the issues involved. Labor forces did manage to get the legislature to pass a bill extending the powers of the I.W.C. to men – its powers only, not the existing orders. But the governor, one Ronald Reagan, vetoed the bill, announcing that “all the leading business interests in the state are against this bill.” The N.O.W. people, whose hearts still beat as one for exploited sisterhood, rapidly lost interest in the whole matter.

The work of Union W.A.G.E. in mobilizing the labor movement’s support in the Extension campaign was not entirely without result. Legislation was gotten through to salvage the extension of the minimum wage to men and to preserve the I.W.C. itself. The contents of the various I.W.C. orders went into a sort of administrative limbo. In the end California could not avoid reflecting the national situation.

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J. This has been covered in some chapters of the present book. We may add, in hindsight, that the AFL-CIO leadership began to shift its formal position on the amendment in accordance with the line of the Democratic Party. By the time the Democrat Birch Bayh became the E.R.A.’s floor manager, the AFL-CIO had been brought into line. – H.D.

K. An interesting sidelight: the speaker was Diane Watson, then president of San Francisco N.O.W. As it happened, she was employed as the personnel director of a restaurant chain – which had been recently involved in breaking a union organizing drive. But she was a victim, too: not long afterward, she was fired from her job – for devoting too much time to N.O.W. affairs. A parable for the textbooks.

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1. The quotation is from Aileen Hernandez’s Open Letter to the California Federation of Labor ... dated May 20, 1972, signed by Hernandez as Chairone of the National Advisory Committee of N.O.W.

2. M.I. Miller and H. Linker, State Politics and Public Interests, in Society, May–June 1974. Our summaries here, as indicated, involve some condensation. Miller-Linker add that there was another argument used, based on the technicalities of the 1971 Sail ’er Inn decision of the California Supreme Court, but that the E.R.A. proponents did not “rely heavily” on it; so perhaps we can be spared its legal complications.

3. Mary Mabry’s letter appeared in the union’s organ, The Rebel, February 24, 1971, reprinted from the Vancouver (Washington) Columbian.

4. Diane Watson, president of the local N.O.W. organization, debated Anne Draper in Berkeley on April 1, 1972. Copies of the tape were available from Union W.A.G.E. for a while afterward; the passage given here is cited from this tape.

5. The bulletin of N.O.W.’s Sacramento office was Capitol Alert, March 31, 1972.

Last updated on 11 September 2020