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Susan Green

AFL and CIO Conventions Fumble
Problem of Unionizing Women

(22 November 1943)

From Labor Action, Vol. 7 No. 48 (should be 47), 22 November 1943, p. 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

According to the figures of August 1943, out of the total civilian labor force, of 54,800,000 workers, 17,100,000, or almost one-third, are women.

Of the 17,100,000 women workers, around 6,000,000 are new workers coming from homes, schools, etc. Also among them are many women, who have shifted from office to factory, from unskilled labor to skilled labor; from low-paying to better-paying jobs.

There is still an untapped supply of womanpower in the country, from which will come perhaps another million workers.

New Phenomenon – New Problem

Due to the demands of war production and the vacancies left by drafted workers, women are now doing every kind of work done by men with the exception of the few jobs where physical strength required is beyond a woman’s capacity.

Women operate traveling cranes and weld plates with arcs and gas flames. They thread and cut pipe. They wire electrical machinery. They use every imaginable tool. They drive trucks and buses and trolleys. They throw switches for trains. And these are only some of the varied jobs that women are now doing. Perhaps fifty per cent of war workers are women.

Women workers in these numbers and in these jobs constitute a new phenomenon in. industry and a new problem for the labor movement.

To suppose that the seven million or so women workers who will have been added to the wartime labor force will return to the proverbial woman’s place – the home – is fantastic. Some will, of course. But many millions will not be able to, even if they should want to. For grim economic necessity will demand that they earn a living. And not only in the ordinary sense in which this is always true. But more so because the casualties of war run into millions, inevitably leaving families deprived of male bread-winners. The women workers must, therefore, not be the outstanding victims of post-war unemployment. On the other hand, because they will need jobs badly, they must not become the underpaid tools of the bosses to knock down the wage standards of all the workers.

The problem, therefore, is to organize the women workers on the basis of obtaining for them equal pay for equal work and on the basis of an adequate post-war unemployment program projected by the unions to get employment for all.

How did the two great organizations of labor in their annual conventions just concluded approach this very important problem? Neither the AFL nor the CIO faced it squarely.

AFL Delegates Hear a Good Speech

At the AFL convention, Miss Rose Schneiderman, president of the National Women’s Trade Union League, an organization which has done – in its limited sphere – some good work in educating women to the need for trade unionism, honestly posed to the delegates the urgency of the problem of women workers.

Following is a significant part of her speech:

“It is impossible to try to deal with the gigantic problems of women in war industries without looking ahead to what women’s place will be in peacetime industries after the war. Obviously it is too early to see the whole pattern, but even at this time certain basic things are clear. Equal pay is not only necessary, for women’s morale now, but if women are not paid for the same jobs that the men they are replacing were paid, the value of the jobs will go down and will be down when the returning soldiers come hack into industry. We must definitely resist the trend to pay women less, or the standard of living for all workers, both now and in the post-war period, will be lowered.

“The right of women to work at any sort of a job where they have established their capacity must be recognized now and in the future. It must be assured in an orderly and equitable fashion, applying equally to all workers and apart from sex considerations ... That many women, war workers will return to their homes, there is no doubt. On the other hand, economic necessity underlies most women’s desire for a job and this necessity should he treated with as much respect and consideration as is given to men.”

Miss Schneiderman urged the AFL to undertake an organization drive and predicted that if this is done in earnest, the AFL would be able to boast ten million members at its next convention instead of its seven million. President William Green thanked Miss Schneiderman for her address.

However, a careful scrutiny of the proceedings of the convention does not reveal a single resolution passed to implement the ideas expressed by Miss Schneiderman.

The only measure taken bearing on the general problem of women workers was the acceptance by the delegates of the report of its executive council favoring a bill by Senator Thomas of Utah. The bill provides for an allotment of $20,000,000 annually for the care of children of employed mothers in war areas. This is really a trifling sum for such a task. But, this aside, the important point is that the AFL in its 1943 convention did practically nothing to draw to the organized labor movement the army of women workers.

Action Taken by the CIO

The CIO acquitted itself better, although not as well as the situation demands.

The CIO also passed a resolution on child care, but related it to the realities of child delinquency, the drafting of fathers and so on. Whereas the AFL was concerned with child care only for the duration of the war and for six months after, the CIO asks for a PERMANENT program, including federal funds to cover all costs except food.

The CIO delegates, looking into the future, passed a resolution calling for a dismissal wage for men and women. “disemployed after cessation of hostilities and during the period of conversion of American industry to production of peacetime goods.” This demand is to be presented to the government with the object of having such a clause included in war contracts. CIO unions are to attempt to include a dismissal wage clause in all collective bargaining contracts.

Such a measure, if carried out as it should be, will provide a little protection and will surely meet with the wholehearted approval of both men and women workers to whom the post-war period looks pretty gloomy. But, again, this does not go far enough on the specific problem of women workers.

Another resolution of the CIO on organizing the unorganized directly recognized the problem of the women workers in the following clause.

“We must direct special attention to the new problems arising from the influx of millions of workers into these industries such as the women workers, Negro workers now being employed in other than unskilled jobs, to the number of former white collar professional workers who are now working on production jobs, and to the farm workers finding factory work for the first time.”

The same resolution continues:

“We must also demonstrate to our membership that the new problems which face labor today because of the war situation can be effectively solved through the strength of organized labor.”

Plan for Women Workers

This is exactly what the CIO – and the AFL – must prove to the mass of women workers. And these great unions would have gone a long way towards arousing the eager interest of women workers in organization, if they had faced squarely the issues involved and stated clearly a plan of action.

Such a plan would have to include a fight for equal pay for equal work for men and women, Negro and white – a fight that means business and would actually remove inequalities. A real plan of action would also have to adopt far-reaching measures to combat unemployment and provide jobs for every man and woman, Negro and white, who will want a job:

A demand for a thirty-hour week at the same weekly pay – a demand for the nationalisation of government war plants to provide jobs for peacetime production instead of giving the plants to big business for a song so that they may stand idle – a demand for a peacetime scheme for housing, public buildings and public welfare comparable to the huge expenditures made for war purposes.

This was the time for the CIO and the AFL to put forth such demands. Such a serious program for equal pay and on post-war unemployment, such determination on the part of the unions to protect women workers, would make their organization a foregone conclusion. For the sake of the women workers and for the whole. working class, drawing them into the unions is of primary importance.

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