The Labour Research Department recently published the report of an enquiry made by a joint committee of that organisation and the Fabian Women’s Group. The subject of the enquiry was “Women in Trade Unions
,” and the writer Barbara Drake,
chairman of the Joint Committee. The report embodies much useful historical information, mainly drawn, we are told, from “the early reports and journals of the Women’s Trade Union League [founded under the name of the Women’s Protection and Provident League in 1874], and of some of the older trade unions.”
The Problem Stated.
During the present period of widespread unemployment, the minds of men trade unionists are much exercised upon the problem raised by the presence of women in industry, and a few words on the subject of this report may not be amiss.
The problem is not a new one and it may be summarised thus: Experience of capitalist industry shows that the entrance of women into a department of production formerly filled by men alone endangers the men’s standard of wages and threatens to drive them from employment. How shall men protect their livelihood ?
True they have from time to time given their concern a moral or humane disguise, but always “the voice is the voice of Jacob”—”unfair female competition” is what they fear. Thus as long ago as 1811 the Journeymen Tailors’ Society complained that women had been “unfairly driven from their sphere in the social scale, unfeelingly torn from the maternal duties of a parent and unjustly encouraged to compete with men in ruining the money-value of labour.” (p. 4). In the eighties, when women, long employed in the cotton mill as “piecers,” were introduced as spinners at a lower rate of wages than the men received, the local spinners’ union declared that “the surroundings were totally unsuited to maintaining that feminine modesty of thought and behaviour which it is the duty of everyone to encourage and protect” (p. 23). So also at the Trade Union Congress held at Leicester in 1877, Mr. Broadhurst
(secretary of the Parliamentary Committee,) said in moving a resolution to extend the restrictions on female labour:
“They [the men]had the future of their country and their children to consider, and it was their duty as men and husbands to use their utmost efforts to bring about a condition of things where their wives should be in their proper sphere at home, instead of being dragged into competition against the great and strong men of the world.” (p. 16).
The Common Rule.
This gentleman’s resolution was carried, according to the report, “by an overwhelming majority of men delegates,” and indicates one method (the more popular) by which organised men have endeavoured to solve their problem —that of excluding women as far as possible from all but traditional women’s trades. The report reminds us that “Trade union restrictions on female labour are the common rule in organised trades. According as the men’s trade unions are strong, female labour is entirely prohibited—any future, if not the present generation of workers—or women are restricted to certain inferior branches of the industry, or to certain unorganised districts. . . A genuine indifference to lines of sex demarcation is practically confined to cotton weavers” (p. 229)
Now women workers have always, for obvious reasons, resisted movements to confine them, to domestic work and needlecrafts; indeed, on the demobilisatian of male workers in 1919, and the discharge of “substituted” women, “the strongest pressure brought to bear by the Employment Exchanges, even to the extent of withdrawing unemployment benefit, failed to drive any large number of women back to domestic service, and the uncongenial conditions of ‘living in’ ” (p. 108).
Employers Support Women’s Right to be Exploited.
Equally determined opposition is raised by employers. These gentlemen are staunch champions of the right of working women to compete with their husbands and brothers, and welcome the invention of any new process which brings an industrial operation within the capacity of women. That women command lower wages influences them not at all, you will understand. Lest you suspect mercenary motives in their gallantry, they have two excellent arguments in support of a double standard of wages.
There is a great difference, they will tell you, between the needs of men and those of women. Should the single woman, they ask, be paid at the same rate as the family man? Now at the very first glance there appears something amiss with this argument; for as pointed out by Miss Drake,
“a system of wages which merely distinguishes between one sex and another, fails in its express object of providing for the separate needs of different groups of workers. Between the family man and the bachelor, the widow with dependents and the wife or daughter partially supported at home, needs must vary at least as much in degree as between one sex and another. The fact should not be overlooked that there are actually more bachelors than spinsters employed in industry” (p. 228).
The Economic Aspect.
In point of fact, human labour power is bought by the capitalist in the open market like any other commodity which he intends to use in production. A commodity’s value is determined by the labour-time socially necessary to reproduce it—in this case to produce such food, clothing, shelter, entertainment, and so on, as constitute the normal standard of living for a working-man, a wife, and an average family. The latter are inevitably taken into the calculation, because without them there would be no reproduction of the species and therefore no continued reproduction of human labour power. Wages are the price of labour power, which, like the price of all commodities does not always coincide with value, but oscillates about it, rising above when demand is great in relation to supply, and falling below when the reverse is the case. As the former case is so rare as to be almost unknown in modern industry, the perpetual tendency is for wages to fall. The object of trade union organisation is to check this tendency by strengthening the worker in his bargaining with his master. In brief, as Barbara Drake naively says :
“Even a Government Department cannot afford to neglect ordinary commercial considerations ; whilst private employers, exposed to the keen competition of rival firms, are practically obliged to ignore all others, and to buy their labour [a careful economist would have said “labour-power”] if not in the cheapest market, at least to their own best advantage” (p. 228).
Bearing this in mind, it is easy to understand the fine impartiality which forbids the employer to pay to women, comparatively ill organised, the same standard of wages as men have by organised struggle obtained.
It will Suit the Bosses.
Miss Drake gives a kind of cautious approval to the principle of State allowances for mothers and children, advocated by feminists— a matter with which we need not concern ourselves here. If trade unionists are willing to have their wages reduced to the cost of their own subsistence, and to accept State relief in respect of dependents, we may be confident that enlightened employers will raise no obstacle.
So much for the plea of different needs : let us hear the alternative defence. Women’s smaller output, capitalists explain, merits a lower wage. Are all men, then, equal in output, or all women? Individual output varies with physical or mental capacity, application, and other factors. In consenting to any standard, be it “single” or “double,” the employer renounces the principle of payment by output. In labourious work the output of young, strong women often exceeds that of old or ailing men ; in brain work a brilliant woman would compare favourably with a man of merely average intelligence, and if the capitalist were true to his professed principle, would be entitled to a higher wage. In the engineering and aircraft industries during the war, women workers were pointed out as surpassing men in light repetition work; yet employers in these trades, far from offering a higher female standard, strenuously opposed agitation for equal pay.
“What Master Likes so much.”
The oddest circumstance, however, in view of such an argument, is this very promptness of employers to introduce women where possible. If the difference in male and female rates of wages were proportionate to the difference in output, then the capitalist would be at least as willing to employ a man as a woman ; indeed, more willing, since it is a frequent assertion of his that illness and domestic affairs render her a comparatively irregular, and therefore inferior, wage-servant. Yet no: none so chivalrous as he. Witness the rebuke administered in Glasgow in 1914 by the master printers to the trade unionists in their employ who prohibited the engagement of female compositors at roughly half the men’s rate of pay :
“Even if it should be held that a woman does not accomplish as much work in an hour as a man does, it is without question that the extra cost to the employer owing to the exclusion of female labour is very great” (p. 33).
A Thing to Note.
Mark the disinterested sentiments of Mr. Boddam, who represented the pottery masters in the arbitration case in 1891 : “With regard to cup-makers, they are gradually being driven out of the market by women labour, and if they don’t care to take our terms we can supply their places with women and apprentices” (p. 37). “At least one employer, in giving evidence before the Committee on Combinations of Workmen in 1838, boasted of using females as strikebreakers” (p. 4). What divine philanthropy is this, which permits such unprofitable female servants to share the milk and honey of capitalist bounty!
The Capitalist has Choice.
The truth is, this apology for a double standard of wages is based upon an economic misrepresentation. The price of a commodity is the approximate manifestation of its exchange-value—a totally different thing from its value in use. How the former was measured we saw above : the latter is incommensurable. The values in use to the purchaser of a typewriter and a pair of scientific balances, for instance, cannot be compared. But their exchange values can and are, by the process already mentioned. If they demand the equal expenditures of labour power for their reproduction, their market value is equal. Similarly with the commodity human labour power. Suppose an employer buys female labour power, proceeds to use it (put it in action), and is then dissatisfied with the result. He may refrain in the future from purchasing any more of the same brand of this commodity ; in other words, he may employ men instead of women. This he can do without smirching his capitalist honour: he is buying, as his code permits, nay encourages, him to do, “to his own best advantage.” But while he employs women he must, if he be an honest exploiter, either pay the same wages as to men, or confess that he buys labour power at not its value but its market price, which the competition of unorganised women forces far down below value.
Which brings us to the consideration of the second means by which organised working men have tried to defend themselves from female competition. This is the endeavour to organise women in trade unions, and to use the power of their own societies to enforce higher female rates. In early campaigns they aimed only at decreasing the discrepancy between women’s rates and their own, but in agreeing to dilution during the war of 1914-18, they endeavoured to stipulate for equal standards, and enjoyed instructive experience of capitalist resource. By successive devices employers maintained so well their privilege of buying women’s labour power cheaply, that “generally speaking, it is true to say that ‘substituted’ women received wages which worked out at about half way between the men’s standard and that of other women belonging to the same industry” (p. 89).
Suppose, however, trade unionism to have extended as far among women as among men. What is the position? Only that a woman is now no more formidable a competitor than a fellow-man. But the competition continues. Workers fight each other for leave to wear the yoke of a master ; capitalists still use the desperate need of the unemployed to force wages down. The life of capitalist industry requires it. Production for sale must needs be cheap production, and the evils it entails will live as long as the system lives.
Where find the remedy, then? Where but in the down-throw of capitalism; in the organisation of productive forces, not privately for profit, but socially, to the sole end of furnishing everything of use and delight which the heart of man can desire? This is Socialism, and within it will be room for all to enter the field of labour. Then every achievement of mind and arm will be a gain to us, and a part in the enjoyment of that rich store will be our common right.
Let each man, therefore, see in every fellow-worker, skilled or unskilled, man or woman, one bound with the same chain as he; whose emancipation is to be won, not at the price of his own, but with and in his own. Together let them hasten the inevitable end of capitalism and build in its place the Socialist Commonwealth.