Women in UE: A History of Fighting for Equality

March 1, 2009

March each year is Women’s History Month, so this is a good time to reflect on the contributions that UE women have made to their union and to the long, continuing struggle for women’s equality in the United States.

Women workers at first played a somewhat marginal role in the life and leadership of UE, though a few notable women like Margaret Darin of Local 601 and Ruth Young of Local 475 rank among the pioneers. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, when electrical industry workers first began to organize their shops and joined together to form the UE, the union was decidedly dominated by male workers and their concerns. In part this reflected the common prejudice of the time. Organizing a union was a battle, sometimes violent, and seemed to be most appropriately the province of men.

Unlike most of the mass production industries, though, the electrical manufacturing industry had always employed a significant number of women workers. Overall, nearly one-third of the workers were women. Women workers were restricted to so-called “women’s jobs” and those jobs were invariably the lowest paid in the plants. Most companies hired only single women and forced them to quit when they married. Companies justified this policy by invoking the prevailing notion that women’s real place was in the home, not the workforce. These cultural attitudes – widely shared by women as well as men – conveniently allowed companies to treat women as temporary workers, keeping wages low and excluding women from benefits like pensions and healthcare where they existed at all.

UE’s arrival set the stage for change. In the past, craft unions in the industry had only organized skilled workers, leaving unskilled workers, including women, unrepresented. But as an industrial union, UE was committed to organizing every worker in every shop – skilled and unskilled, men and women. The structure of the union also contributed to the eventual emergence of women’s issues. UE was organized “from the bottom up” and from the beginning embraced the principles of local autonomy and rank-and-file unionism. UE’s commitment to inclusion and rank-and-file democracy opened the door to women’s active involvement.

The “glory days” of women’s achievement in UE were the years around World War II. In those years, women became a real force in the UE for the first time, as rank-and-file activists, as shop stewards and local officers, and on the UE staff. By 1942, UE boasted 13 women organizers on staff, and in 1944 Ruth Young became the first woman to serve on UE’s General Executive Board. In part, UE women’s heightened participation was due to sheer necessity. Men went off to war, and the nation quickly moved from depression-era unemployment to a labor shortage. Women swelled the ranks of industry. In the electrical industry, women soon numbered in the hundreds of thousands, making up nearly half of the workforce and the union membership. For the first time, women’s issues became union issues, although this definitely involved a “learning process” for the men of UE. As women began to get active in the union, they often found themselves having to deal with harassment from their male co-workers and even union officers. Over time, though, as women “educated” themselves and their union, they won allies among the men.

FIGHTING WAGE DISCRIMINATION

Though women addressed a variety of problems, the question of discriminatory wages quickly emerged as the chief issue. Even before the war, women members of Local 601in the huge East Pittsburgh Westinghouse plant had begun to protest against the wage differential separating men’s and women’s pay scales. Led by Margaret Darin, Ellen Laird and others, the women held plant gate rallies and lobbied the steward’s council to put the issue on the union’s agenda in upcoming negotiations. They succeeded; the new contract included an additional increase specifically for women that narrowed but did not close the wage gap. Inspired by their victory, Local 601 hosted a Conference on Women’s Wages in June 1941. This first official gathering of UE women drew 72 delegates from nine of District 6’s eleven locals.

At the conference, delegates developed a set of resolutions that began with the wage issue and moved beyond it to consider other aspects of women’s status in the shops. With war production burgeoning, women were stepping into jobs formerly designated as “men’s jobs,” and that put the question of “equal pay for equal work” on the agenda. This was not a new demand – male unionists had long feared that women working men’s jobs would undermine the male pay scale – and that sentiment was present in the conference deliberations. But District 6 women also began to question their traditional, previously unchallenged exclusion from better-paid skilled work. They demanded an end to the classification of jobs by sex, and access to training for skilled jobs.

Other resolutions reflected the energy and enthusiasm beginning to galvanize UE women. The delegates called on the international union to draft model legislation on equal pay and to lobby state legislatures to pass it. Most importantly, they wanted to continue and expand the work they’d begun, urging the union to organize women’s meetings in every local, followed by district meetings and finally, a national conference.

The East Pittsburgh conference was the first of many wartime gatherings for UE women. By the end of 1943, each district had replicated the experience of District 6, bringing women members together to address their issues. Each meeting generated more action in the shops. The pay issue remained central, but as women talked about their common experiences, other concerns arose. The wartime labor shortage had evaporated opposition to married women working, so UE women urged their communities to set up adequate day care and to extend store hours to accommodate working women’s need to shop for their families. They also brought up the question of maternity leave, and by the end of the war some locals had begun to negotiate both maternity leave and disability pay for pregnancy.

As women became active in the union, the pay issue gained ever greater prominence and became one of the union’s key areas of concern. In 1942, UE joined forces with the United Auto Workers (UAW) and took the question of “equal pay for equal work” to the National War Labor Board. The two unions won their landmark case, establishing the equal pay principle as official government policy to be applied throughout industry. But as UE leaders dealt with the pay issue day after day in the shops, their understanding gradually deepened and eventually transcended the “equal pay for equal work” concept. By war’s end, the UE no longer argued simply that women on men’s jobs should get men’s pay, but that the companies’ sex-based division of labor into “men’s” and “women’s” jobs was itself inherently discriminatory against women.

In September of 1945, UE took a new grievance to the National War Labor Board (NWLB), charging both GE and Westinghouse with discrimination against women. The union’s brief called for the complete elimination of sex differentials in pay rates, the abolition of so-called “women’s jobs,” and their reevaluation in relation to men’s pay scales. In essence, the UE was calling for what, in the women’s movement of the 1970s, came to be known as “equal pay for work of comparable worth.” At the time UE raised this demand, it was a revolutionary concept, a real breakthrough in the thinking about women’s work and compensation. And UE won the case! The War Labor Board ordered GE and Westinghouse to eliminate “men’s” and “women’s” job classifications and to establish a fund to correct the glaring inequities in women’s pay.

Unfortunately, the board’s decision came at the very end of the war, shortly before the NWLB was disbanded, and the companies simply ignored it. But UE women had succeeded in putting the pay issue squarely on the UE’s agenda, and it carried over into peacetime. In the 1946 nationwide GE strike, UE workers stayed on the picket lines an extra two weeks to gain an additional raise for women workers.

World War II was certainly a watershed moment for women in the UE. For the first time, they stepped into active participation in the union and made “women’s issues” union issues. But the momentum toward equality was disrupted after the war when UE came under attack during the McCarthy period. The unprecedented attempt to destroy UE – by a powerful unholy alliance of the corporations, the federal government, Republicans, Democrats, news media and other unions – nearly succeeded, and for several years UE members were almost completely preoccupied with the struggle for sheer survival. UE’s promising work on women’s issues was at first relegated to the back burner. But the need to fight off raids required real rank-and-file involvement, and this kept the door open for women to participate. By the early 1950s, even though the union had been seriously weakened and was still under relentless attack, UE women were once again on the move.

In 1951, UE women again began to organize meetings to talk about their situation and to bring their issues back into the spotlight. The next two years featured a flowering of activism among UE women and new pressures on the national UE to once again take up the fight for women’s rights in the shops. The national UE responded with a new, union-wide “Women’s Wage Campaign.” To educate both UE members and the general public on the issue, the national office produced a remarkable 40-page pamphlet called “UE Fights for Women Workers.” The pamphlet analyzed the basic exploitation of women workers and set out a strategy for locals to launch campaigns to end it. To aid the campaigns, UE designed five radio scripts dealing with wage discrimination and sent them out to the locals to adapt for use in their communities. One script began with a play on the old nursery rhyme: “Jack and Jill worked in a mill/And their skills were on a par/Sad to say, not so their pay/For Jill earned less, by far.” Armed with materials like this, UE locals began to analyze and address wage discrimination in their shops.

In May 1953, UE convened the first National Conference on the Problems of Working Women in the history of the American labor movement. Over four hundred delegates attended the two-day event in New York. Delegate after delegate rose to report on the work in their locals, ranging from success in narrowing wage differentials to new training classes to upgrade women into skilled jobs. But that was only the beginning. Fired-up delegates returned to their locals and carried the work to new levels in the following year, attracting more women to the cause and into active leadership. One local, Local 301 at GE’s Schenectady, NY plant, won rate increases on 373 job classifications affecting 1,300 women!

It seemed as though the soaring campaign for women’s rights was unstoppable, but that was not to be. In late 1955 and early 1956, UE sustained a series of devastating blows, consequences of the continuing Cold War against progressive unionism. With the CIO poised to merge with the AFL in 1955, several district presidents yielded to calls from outsiders that UE should “join the mainstream,” and led most of the locals in their districts into other CIO or AFL unions. These moves robbed UE of nearly half its membership. It was the beginning of a very dark period in UE history that severely handicapped the union’s work on women’s issues.

SINCE 1970s: RESURGENT ACTIVISM

The deindustrialization that began in the 1960s and 1970s further set back the women’s movement in UE, since many of the shops that relocated to the anti-union South, to Mexico, and to countries in Asia were assembly shops that employed high numbers of women. Still, the movement of the 1940s and 1950s had brought many women into activism and leadership, and through the decades women continued to serve as shop stewards, local and district officers, and members of the UE staff. In the 1970s, the women’s movement that brought such dramatic change to the nation also inspired a new generation of young UE women. UE women joined the fight for the Equal Rights Amendment and for reproductive freedom, and they led the fight to embrace those issues as official UE policy. In 1985 Amy Newell, the daughter of UE organizers and herself a long-time staffer, was elected to the office of UE Secretary-Treasurer and became the first women to hold top office in an American manufacturing union.

Women’s role in UE leadership has continued to grow. From the 1970s on, several UE districts were led by women, and women hold a variety of leadership posts in many locals, including the presidents of many UE locals. Today a third of UE’s General Executive Board members, and nearly half of its international representatives and field organizers, are women.

Most recently, the UE’s turn to organizing service and public sector workers have brought more women into active roles in UE. In large public sector locals such as UE Local 893 in Iowa, Local 222 in Connecticut and Local 150 in North Carolina, women predominate in many occupations, play a major role in leadership, and bring the concerns of women to the center of the union’s agenda and struggles. Women’s influence and leadership can be seen in such initiatives as Local 150’s Mental Health Workers Bill of Rights Campaign and Local 893’s ongoing fights for full funding and manageable workloads for income maintenance and social workers.

UE’s continuing commitment to women workers’ concerns has perhaps been most evident in Local 222’s “No Paraprofessional Left Behind” campaign, which was launched soon after the former Connecticut Independent Labor Union affiliated with UE in 2005 and became Local 222. Paraeducators – elsewhere called teacher aides – play a vital role in public education in Connecticut, working with special needs students and providing one-on-one tutoring, small group instruction, classroom management, instructional support and other indispensable services. Yet these highly-skilled workers – almost all of them women – whose work is so important in the education of children, have been paid less than custodians and are often denied healthcare and other benefits. They encounter antiquated attitudes among some school administrators and city officials who believe that, because they are women, they do not deserve economic equality or full respect.

Through concerted actions that have exposed these injustices to public attention, UE Local 222 paras have won dramatic pay increases that have begun to close the wage gap in several school districts. The recent successful year-long community campaign of Local 222 paraeducators in the Wallingford, Connecticut public schools to win healthcare coverage for themselves and their families is the latest victory in this statewide effort. These women are the heirs to a proud UE tradition of struggle for women’s equality.

Lisa Kannenberg, professor of history at the College of St. Rose in Albany, NY, is a former UE member. In 1973 and ’74 she worked at Cambion, an electronics plant in Cambridge, Mass., which she helped organize into UE. From 1977 to 1984 she worked at Union Switch and Signal near Pittsburgh and was active in UE Local 610, serving as a steward and as chair of the local’s publicity and education committee. After her plant closed in 1984 she went back to school, eventually earning an M.A. and a Ph.D. in history, studying and writing about the history of women workers in UE. She was one of four panelists in a roundtable discussion at UE’s 2003 convention on our union’s contributions to the fight for women’s equality. She is currently completing a book, Progress and GE: Labor, Management, and Community Relations in Schenectady, NY, 1930-1965, based on her Ph.D. dissertation.

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