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Susan Green

Housewives Can Help Labor Win Strikes

(17 May 1948)

From Labor Action, Vol. 12 No. 20, 17 May 1948, p. 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

An isolationist in foreign affairs is today a rare phenomenon. Due to fear of another war, most people know that what goes on in Italy or Korea is of vital importance right here. Unfortunately, the people generally flounder about behind the foreign policy of American imperialism; while those who disapprove of it misguidedly follow Wallace on the Moscow-made road to Russian imperialism. Only a handful wish to apply the international socialist solution in foreign affairs. But it might be said there is, at least, some progress in that isolationism has been abandoned and in that it is increasingly recognized that foreign affairs are the affair of all people.

Can it be said that even that much progress away from “isolationism” has been made in domestic affairs? The “isolationist” sentiment in the present crucial wage struggle seems to flourish like a weed.

Prices and Wages

Next to the veterans, the workers have emerged from World War II as the forgotten men and women. Wartime wage freeze kept a wide gap between wages and the mounting cost of living. To close the gap union demands after the war were for around 30 cents an hour increase. It was then proved by the United Auto Workers that in that industry wages could be raised, the cost of cars could be reduced, and the companies would still net higher than pre-war profits. Government investigators, also, reported that the manufacturing industries as a whole could increase wages about 25 cents an hour, and without raising prices, could maintain better than pre-war profits. But the workers got nowhere near a 25 cents or 30 cents an hour boost. The most fortunate received around 18½ cents. Again labor was left behind in the race with prices. The next so-called round of wage increases, which again by no means reached all workers, was only 15 cents an hour – this to meet the terrific price rise that followed the end of OPA. Once more the workers lagged behind.

Now, in face of another 7.4 percent cost of living increase from June 1947 to January 1948, according to Consumers Price Index, the packinghouse companies, without batting an eyelash, offer their workers a 9 cents an hour raise, and Chrysler’s generosity results in an offer of 6 cents. The laborer to whom should flow the full benefit of his toil, holds the dirty end of the stick. The present wage struggles in many industries are the result – with the prearranged, concerted plan of the bosses to keep wages down and the determination of the workers to correct accrued injustices.

Workers, like stock exchange employees, who do not easily resort to striking, now do. Packinghouse workers carry on a bitter struggle for almost two months. Miners strike for an old-age pension and are penalized by the capitalist courts. The supposedly staid and conservative railroad workers are on the verge of walking out. On the other hand steel and electrical companies refuse even to negotiate a wage increase. And such offers as bosses do make are far short of the workers’ needs.

Yet many groups of working people feel all this is none of their business. The vital issue of workers fighting for a decent standard of living leaves them indifferent. They are more concerned about the inconveniences of strikes. There is indeed, in large measure, a vague sense of sympathy for the strikers, and that is all.

Everybody’s Business

This kind of “isolationism” is harmful to the very people who practise it. All sectors of the working population, including white collar workers, small business people, farmers and housewives – all are deeply involved in the wage battle now raging between capital and labor. The outcome of this struggle will determine the standard of living not only for the workers directly embattled, but for all of us. The success or failure of the workers who step out in front to challenge the corporations, sets the level of pay for all employees.

Primarily, of course, success or failure lies in how labor will carry on this fight. Will each union go to baton its own, or will the whole labor movement do the sane and sensible thing, namely, join in a well worked out, unified strategy against the industrialists, who definitely are acting on a pre-arranged, unified plan not to raise wages to any appreciable extent? But there are secondary factors that can play a great role in the outcome. The indirect pressures of other sections of the people can have a telling effect. Especially can housewives play an important part.

In the meat packers strike, almost two months old, women with babes in arms and carrying placards with slogans, picket struck plants. The police in Kansas City assault striking packinghouse workers and injure one hundred in what CIO president Murray called “one of the most outrageous examples of misuse of police power which this country has witnessed in a long time.” A picket before an Armour plant is killed in old-fashioned strike-breaking tactics. More thousands of packinghouse workers vote to join the strike to strengthen it. The arrogant companies offer that 9 cents against the strikers’ demand for 29 cents. When the union holds out the possibility of accepting this outlandish offer providing the companies cut meat prices,the companies indicate that prices are none of the union’s business.

All this happens, and the wives of other workingmen, and women who themselves work, and wives of hard-working small businessmen, continue to stand in line at meat counters as if nothing were happening – also they continue to pay prices that are almost at their all-time peak! In effect, by their indifference and by what I have called their isolationism, they endorse the unfair wage policy and the gouging price policy of Armour, Swift, Cudahy, Wilson, Morrel and Rath, and bless their profit-grabbing.

CIO president Murray is now urging his unions to enlist housewives in the present wage campaign. “It is important,” he said, “that the packing companies feel the whiplash of public opinion to move them from their arrogant position of refusing to pay any attention to the living needs of their workers.” This would come with better grace if Murray had also called for united union strategy in the primary fight for wage increases. However, the basic truth is there: Housewives and consumers must participate in the wage struggle by using their weapon of boycott; their standard of living is also at stake!

Neighborhood Action

Another industry involved in the wage issue, in which consumers can throw their weight on the side oft he workers, is the electrical industry. General Electric and Westinghouse both flatly refused to grant any wage increases, having first cut prices of a few items to make it appear that they were stopping inflation while those wicked workers were bent on continuing the inflationary spiral. Those cuts, however, were a mere token, induced by competitive necessities and drop in sales, not by the magnanimous desire to stop inflation. The companies put this hoax over on the consumer, who does absolutely nothing about it. The products of these companies should be boycotted. There are also other ways of showing them up in public.

For example, General Electric has elaborate quiz programs on the air, attended by thousands of women desiring to carry away for nothing some coveted electrical gadget they cannot afford to buy. Housewives should stay away from these shows to protest the wage and price policies of the company – making public the reason for their boycott. Or why, on any quiz show that offers a Westinghouse or General Electric product as a prize, should not a well-informed housewife quietly say into the microphone: “I cannot accept this General Electric (or Westinghouse) iron (or whatever it is) because I do not approve of the wage and price policies of this company!”

Such and similar intelligent action can come only out of organization. The present wage struggle which, in the final analysis, is for a decent standard of living for all of us, again calls attention to the need for neighborhood housewives’ committees to enlist the activity of this important section of the working population on the side of the workers, which is their own side. Such committees to act locally when called for and to combine for wider action when necessary, must become as permanent, as reliable, as active on the American scene as the unions themselves. Only so can harmful “isolationism” in domestic affairs be ended and all those whose interests are one act as one.

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