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Labor Unions: Women during World War II - Thesis

El Centro History Department

Excerpt: Several Madnesses Are Born: Working-Class Women during the 1930s and World War II

CHAPTER IV: "The More We Get Together"

One of the most surprising aspects of the wartime era was not how often working-class women followed the advice of critics, experts, and the media, but how often and how many working-class women behaved contrary to the messages they received. The conflicts and contradictions in their culture and behavior reflected the the nature of a transitional period in history. Often, opinion polls and the statements of the women disagreed with the reality of their lives.

While the majority of these women maintained strong ties to the domestic ideal, their lives seemed to be moving in another direction. The 10 percent increase in the number of employed married women, for example, foreshadowed the trend that would continue after the war and become increasingly popular among professional women during the 1960s and 1970s. (1)

Whether out of necessity or not, working-class women attempted to take full advantage of the new opportunities and options that the war environment provided. Although 90 percent of those women who entered the wartime labor force had been previously employed, the options they perceived led to their changing attitudes toward employment. (2)

Another option that opened for working women, labor unions, seemed contradictory to their competitive tendencies. Although employers, educators, the media, and religious leader urged women to compete, the increase from 800,000 to three million female union members during the war seemed to suggest that cooperation was important to working-class women also. Considering the anti-labor propaganda and legislation, this confidence in collective action revealed that many women rejected the advice offered by the critics of organized labor. Regardless of the attacks on unions, by 1944 a survey by McGraw-Hill Publishers found that 83 percent of American union members believed that labor organizations provided the workers' "best chance of making a good living." Half of the non-union workers agreed. (3) Clearly, many Americans saw no contradiction in engaging in both collective and competitive activities.

For working-class women prior to World War II, marriage to a union man represented a positive step in status. Daughters of a union member, both Jewel Bretel and her sister Charlene Goodman believed their husbands' union cards provided them with a degree of security and respectability. Wallace Goodman, Charlene's husband, even claimed that his father-in-law insisted that he join the Carpenters' Union when he married her. (4)

This status and security became more available to women directly during World War II. As a result of the increase in women members, the AFL, the CIO, and independent unions emphasized issues such as equal pay, protective legislation, and social programs which addressed the needs of women workers.

Favoring those issues which interested women members did not represent a major shift in official union policy. Since the 1910s, the AFL had endorsed such women's rights issues as suffrage and equal pay. The CIO had emphasized organizing women and had successfully organized them throughout the United States including every state in the anti-union South and also supported women's issues. Although equal pay, social services, day care, and protective legislation should have concerned men, only when number of women in unions increased did these issues receive priority consideration. (5)

Two issues, social programs and protective legislation, revealed a continuing reluctance within organized labor to bring women's issues into the collective bargaining process, though. Both of these problems tended to be referred to government consideration rather than being included in contract negotiations. This stance led to an ironic development.

Memories of the depression era crisis which had required the development of government welfare programs led organized labor to support the continued growth of the welfare state. This platform would have some negative consequences for working-class women. Intervention into working-class life resulted from this faith in government and professionals to design programs that enhanced working-class life.

On the other hand, the leaders of the wartime labor movement believed working-class women would have influence in planning these programs. Union and auxiliary women testified in congressional hearings and served on commissions to study problems. But, working-class women had little input in the development of programs. Day care programs established in Dallas and Minneapolis exemplified how this occurred. Although labor representatives served as consultants, the final committee to operate the centers consisted of representatives from child welfare, education, and government. (6)

As organized labor referred day care and other women's issues to the War Manpower Commission, finding solutions seemed to be a remote prospect, especially for mothers who were employed. The policy of that government office included the theory that "the first responsibility of women with young children, in war as in peace, is to give suitable care in their homes to their children." Occasionally, social issues did emerge as part of contract negotiations. The United Electrical Workers (UEW), with 683,000 female members constituting 40 percent of the membership, addressed day care problems. In other cases, such as the Kaiser Company's day care centers, labor and management cooperated to solve problems.