Putting social justice unionism to work

January 15, 2014

Samantha Valente uncovers the little-known story of how a radical union defied McCarthyism to challenge both economic exploitation and gender and racial oppression.

LAST YEAR marked the 50th anniversary of Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique, the acclaimed--though highly controversial at the time--book often associated with the rise of the modern feminist movement.

The best-selling book claimed to address the "problem that had no name," striking a chord with millions of women who felt dissatisfied with domesticity and contemporary gender expectations. Though the book has its critics today among feminists and leftists, it continues to influence our understanding of the modern women's movement, including the development of reform demands such as equal pay for equal work and government child care.

These demands are often associated with the organizing of white, middle-class feminists during late 1960s and early 1970s, in groups such as the National Organization for Women (NOW), which Friedan co-founded.

However, as historian Daniel Horowitz showed in his book on Friedan, her writing in the 1960s was influenced by her earlier experience as a labor journalist for the left-wing union, the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE).

UE members demand equal pay for women during a 1946 strike against Westinghouse in Pittsburgh
UE members demand equal pay for women during a 1946 strike against Westinghouse in Pittsburgh (UE News Photograph Collection)

From 1946 to 1952, Friedan wrote for the union's national newspaper UE News on the organizing efforts of female union members around demands for equal pay for equal work, government-funded child care and improved maternity benefits. Through these and other articles, the UE articulated a radical political framework that understood women's oppression as rooted in economic exploitation that was simultaneously connected to social oppression in the larger society.

The union advocated for equal pay for equal work and affordable child care to address the problems facing women as workers and mothers. The UE also had a strong commitment to the struggle against racial discrimination, fighting for desegregated industries, fair housing and an end to racist government policies throughout the 1940s and 1950s.

Although actual implementation of the union's policies was uneven across union locals, the UE's radical framework provided women with a political space to fight against gender and racial oppression, both in the workplace and in American society.

The history of women in the UE during the 1950s challenges our view of women's history, illustrating how significant organizing efforts by working-class women laid the foundation for the later feminist movements. At the same time, the politics of the UE provide lessons for current labor struggles. Despite the political repression it faced during the era of McCarthyism, the UE leadership maintained unapologetically militant politics.

The history of the UE's fight for gender reform during the 1950s ultimately highlights the importance of unions to the struggle against gender oppression and of women's activism at the forefront of such organizing, while providing a model for the current labor movement.

THROUGHOUT THE 1940s and '50s, the UE was one of the main targets of the conservative, anti-communist witch-hunt that was a product of America's Cold War with the ex-USSR.

In 1949, the UE was expelled by the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) after being accused of being dominated by Communists, supporting the Soviet Union and advocating disloyalty to America. The CIO reasoned that the expulsion was, wrote historian Ellen Schrecker, "simply a movement of workers throwing off their yoke of domination. These workers seek refuge from a gang of men who are without principle other than a debased loyalty to a foreign power.

This purge of radicals from the labor movement was part of a larger Cold War crusade to eradicate the Communist Party and curb the influence of any left-wing ideas. McCarthyism became an umbrella term, representing a wide coalition of individuals and institutions, ranging from politicians like Sen. Joseph McCarthy, to government bureaucrats, to corporate leaders.

McCarthyism coalesced under the banner of defending democracy and American ideals. Many activists and union organizers with ties to the Communist Party were "red-baited," accused of espionage and conspiring to overthrow the government.

Anti-communism blazed across U.S. politics during the 1940s and '50s, affecting a wide range of Americans and leaving behind many destroyed lives, political careers and left-wing organizations. As Schrecker writes, McCarthyism "used all the power of the state to turn dissent into disloyalty, and in the process, dramatically narrowed the spectrum of acceptable debate."

By equating radical political organizations with threats to American democracy, ruling class politicians and employers were able to suppress a progressive agenda of civil rights, feminism and working-class organizations during the Cold War.

With McCarthyism as the backdrop, the UE also suffered an internal political battle that divided the union. The left-wing leadership was challenged by a conservative minority that tried to use anti-communist rhetoric to win control. At the same time, though, the UE began to pose a challenge to the increasingly conservative CIO, as it became increasingly bureaucratized, aligned itself with the Democratic Party and pandered to the anti-communist "red-baiting."

By contrast, the UE emphasized rank-and-file participation, opposed the Korean War and took a militant stance against McCarthyism. UE General President Albert Fitzgerald declared: "I don't care how sincere a person is who red-baits, nothing can be accomplished by red-baiting that won't injure the entire labor movement. This union will not open its doors, not even a little crack, for red-baiting."

Instead, UE leaders recognized that McCarthyism was about rolling back the gains workers had won, especially during the New Deal era. They condemned McCarthyism as an explicit attack on their union and the labor movement as a whole.

The UE believed the only way it would survive McCarthyism would be through an increased emphasis on unity. Believing that sexism and racism divided workers and pitted them against one another, the union argued that unity would only be achieved if locals put fights against discrimination at the forefront of their organizing. In contrast to the UE's vision, many labor unions at the time used the rhetoric of unity to ignore racial and gender oppression that impacted the lives of its workers.

In 1953, the UE's National Fair Practice Committee (NFPC) sent a pamphlet across the union calling for each local to prioritize fights against racism and sexism. The whole membership must recognize "that this is a total fight" in which every member is dedicated to "equal treatment for all," the pamphlet read.

IN 1951, UE Local 301 in Schenectady, N.Y., submitted a resolution to the union's national convention stating: "All workers are awakening to the fact that discrimination against the Negro and the woman worker is a company device to foster dissension and disunity...Negro and women workers are militantly demanding equal rights and equal opportunity to jobs, apprentice training, etc."

That same year, in one of her UE News articles, Betty Friedan described a union meeting where women talked and men were required to listen. Friedan recalled that UE women were "fighters--that they refused any longer to be paid or treated as some inferior species by their bosses, or by any male workers who have swallowed the bosses' thinking." On a local level, it was clear to Friedan that women were taking leadership over the struggle against oppression.

Throughout the Cold War, the UE continued to place an emphasis on fighting gender oppression in individual workplaces and the larger society.

For example, Local 301 in Schenectady had frustratingly unsuccessful negotiations with General Electric for years around the issue of wage discrimination based on race and gender. Ultimately, though, victory came for Local 301 in 1952 when UE women took matters into their own hands.

The local established a Women's Committee to investigate discrimination at General Electric, surveying 3,000 jobs in the Schenectady plant that were considered "women's work" with significantly lower pay than similar jobs performed by men. The Women's Committee also organized educational conferences on "the problems facing working women" and urged the UE to fund surveys that explicitly investigated the working conditions of women of color.

As Lisa Kannenberg described in a Labor History article, to pressure GE, the Women's Committee mobilized UE members for a number of actions, including a walkout of 800 women to demand an end to wage discrimination. As women walked the picket line, they held up signs reading, "Jobs paid on content--not based on sex" and "A single rate structure." After a month of actions, Local 301 was able to win job reclassifications for almost 400 jobs, raising wages for over 1,300 women at General Electric.

This victory for Local 301 set a precedent for the whole union and influenced UE's national approach toward campaigns for equal pay for equal work.

THE UE also confronted the myths that women were temporary, unskilled workers working for "pin money." In a pamphlet written by Betty Friedan in 1952, the union argued that such propaganda was used to justify wage discrimination and the exploitation of female workers.

The pamphlet, titled UE Fights For Women Workers!, cited a 1950 census that claimed female workers earned on average $1,285 less than men a year. Multiplied by the millions of female workers, the pamphlet argued that employers could make more than $5 billion in extra profits each year from the exploitation of women.

This example was used to argue that gender discrimination within the workplace is rooted in the employers' drive to generate profit. The union also argued that "double standards"--paying women less than men who worked in the same positions--was a tool used by employers to drive down the wages of male workers. Therefore, it was in the interest of all workers to fight against such exploitation.

Friedan's pamphlet discussed the relationship between women in manufacturing industries and women's representation in the larger society. It stated:

In advertisements across the land, industry glorifies the American woman--in her gleaming GE kitchen, at her Westinghouse Laundromat, before her Sylvania television set. Nothing is too good for her--unless she works for GE or Westinghouse, or Sylvania or thousands of other corporations throughout the U.S.A.

In a similar UE pamphlet, the union stated, "[C]ommercialization and exploitation of sex by the millionaire press, radio, movies and advertising is well known. Less well known, but no less profitable, is the ruthless exploitation of women in factories and fields throughout our land."

The UE connected women's oppression within the larger society with their economic exploitation and their social relationships to capitalism. This Marxist view of oppression allowed women to simultaneously raise critiques about consumer culture, sexual objectification and economic exploitation.

The pamphlet written by Friedan also emphasized that although sexism allowed employers to pay women on average half the wages that men made, the experiences of women of color were significantly impacted by racism.

In a section titled "Special Situation of Negro Women," the document claimed that white men made, on average, $2,709 a year, white women made $1,062, while black women made only $474 a year because of job segregation and discrimination. Friedan ended this section by arguing that African American "women workers have a real stake in the UE's fight to end rate exploitation of women in the industry, but their problems also require a special fight to lift the double bars against hiring of Negro women."

This understanding of the intersections of race, gender and class was articulated by Black radical women during the 1950s. Claudia Jones, a prominent Communist Party member, theorized extensively on the "women question" within the party and used her Marxist framework to argue that black women had a "triply oppressed status" within society. Contributions by Jones and other Black women around the question of interlocking oppressions would lay the foundation for later Black feminists who advanced the concept of intersectionality.

The National Fair Practice Committee also asked UE members to honestly answer questions about themselves and their union's work in the community. The NFPC's 1953 pamphlet advocated for fights against discrimination in the workplace, as well as larger campaigns for affordable and fair housing policies, affordable child care services for working mothers, and active participation with other organizations within the community. The committee went on to ask if union locals were involved in such campaigns.

While some union members were unsympathetic to the "double burden" facing women, others supported larger gender reforms so that women could be freed from the double burdens of wage labor and housework.

The UE demanded government and employer child care services and maternity benefits, and even advocated for tax deductions for private child care services. Although child care was seen as a private responsibility of the family, the UE argued that it should not come at the private, personal expense of working women. This view is connected to the Marxist view that child care and other domestic responsibilities should be the responsibility of the government and society at large, rather than the individual responsibility of women.

IN HER book Feminist Theory, author and social activist bell hooks wrote that from its inception, women's history has been used to "provide a revolutionary blueprint for the movement". That history not only reveals the importance of women's organizing to its particular times, but histories like UE's organizing around gender oppression provides important lessons for both women's rights and labor organizing today.

One lesson we can draw from the history of women's activism in the UE is that the labor movement has the potential to provide an important political space for organizing against social oppression. Unions today have the potential, for example, to provide working-class women with opportunities to continue to organize around abortion rights and an end to sexual violence, in ways that are connected to the struggle against economic exploitation within their workplace.

The history of women in the UE also points to the importance of connecting struggles against racism, sexism and economic exploitation. However, to create a political institution that connects these struggles depends on having unapologetic, militant unions that remain independent of the Democratic Party and that maintain rank-and-file participation.

During the Cold War, the bulk of the labor movement was moving toward the model of "business unionism," with a narrow focus on securing regular contracts and higher wages and benefits, while rejecting broader political participation. The UE continued to emphasize a different model--that of an independent, rank-and-file union that fought for "bread and butter" issues, while simultaneously advocating against racism and sexism in society.

The union paid a price for its principles--it lost large numbers of members during the 1950s due to raids by other unions, including one for electrical workers specifically set up by the CIO to replace UE. Of the 11 unions driven out of the CIO because of their Communist influence, only the UE and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union survived the 1950s.

In spite of these challenges, however, the UE kept alive a model of "social justice" unionism that connected different economic and political struggles and forged a connection between campaigns against workplace discrimination and those to end inequality within society.

Ultimately, even during a period of political repression, the UE, because of its radical politics, was able to provide a space for women to continue to struggle for equality, and to keep alive a radical working-class tradition that laid foundations for the later women's movement.

Further Reading

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