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©_2002_Authorized and_paid_for_by_the Committee_to_Elect Vivian_Houghton Attorney_General, 800_N_West_St., Wilmington_DE_19801

Thoughts on Developing a New Women's Agenda

Presented to the UAW CAP Council

by Vivian A. Houghton


As you've just heard, the title of my talk this morning is ““Thinking about Political Alternatives in a Changing World.””

Although the theme I eventually want to get into in my talk this morning pertains to the interconnected issues of women, politics and power, let me first give you a specific –– one you will be somewhat familiar with –– of what the changing world we live in looks like.

Seventeen years ago in 1985, the General Motors plant on Boxwood Rd. had a two-shift workforce of about 5,000 people. These were among the best-paying manufacturing jobs in the state. They were the kind of jobs that kids getting out of high school could look forward to getting if they didn’t want to go to college. Unfortunately, now many of those jobs are gone. Today the plant works only one shift and has about 1,200 UAW members working there.

What happened to these jobs? A good part of this work-shrinkage has resulted from outsourcing work that was once done in the plant. The production of things like seat cushions and instrument panels, which were once made in the plant, has been shifted to smaller lower-paying plants.

Another cause for job losses has had to do with the company's engineering and marketing problems. A case in point is the Saturn LS series. As most of you know, GM hoped the new Saturn would explode onto the market in the late 1990s with big sales, but because of management miscalculations this didn't happen. Those miscalculations were related to a wide variety of factors including design issues, engineering flaws, and how many production hours were needed per vehicle in order to get cars successfully out of the plant. The end result of all these factors was a bad launch from which the Saturn plant is still trying to recover.

What I find troubling about the job losses at the Boxwood plant is that they are typical of what's happening, not just to the auto industry but to better paying unionized jobs around the country. The number of those jobs is shrinking. This is not good for the working people of Delaware. It's not good for working people in the mid-Atlantic region in general. And it's not good for working people in the country at large. The fact is that for two decades the job market has been characterized by a downward trend in real wages. A key element in this trend is that since 1979, the number of U.S. manufacturing jobs has been decreasing whereas the number of service jobs -- which on an average pay less than 50% of what manufacturing jobs pay -- has increased by approximately 40%. In other words, more people are working lower-paying jobs –– once the wage rates are adjusted for inflation –– than 20 years ago.

Unfortunately, Delaware is typical of this phenomenon. More than a decade ago in 1988, the Delaware Department of Labor issued a report which correctly predicted that the creation of service sector jobs would outpace the creation of manufacturing jobs in the state by approximately a 5 to 1 ratio. Not surprisingly, local politicians stressed the job creation part of this trend but under-emphasized the low wage part. What these politicians from both parties ignored was the impact this trend would have on the people they supposedly represented.

Take Wilmington, the city where I was born and still live, as an example. Already in the early 1980s, it was becoming clear in Wilmington that having a job was no guarantee of financial security. For instance, from 1979-1985, the number of Wilmington households living at poverty level increased by 25%, although the population increased by only 3%. In keeping with modern-day trends, this rise in poverty had little to do with who did and who didn't have jobs. By the early 1990s, 49% of Wilmington residents stricken by poverty worked full-time. Can you imagine that: just about 50% of the poverty-stricken had full-time jobs? In continuation of this same general pattern, the 2000 census showed that the number of Delawareans holding lower-paying service jobs continues to rise while those working at better-paying manufacturing jobs continues to drop.

The impact of such facts on life in Delaware and the region is obvious. High school graduates are less likely today to get a relatively decent paying job at Dupont or GM's Assembly Plant than they were in the past. They're more likely to end up in minimum wage positions in the fast-food industry or in other low-paying service occupations.

All this is happening not because, as the nation's editorial writers sometimes imply, America's workers don't do a good job. And it's not happening because high school graduates deserve less today than they once did. Rather, it's happening because the pro-corporate character of the nation's economy has become so blatant that remote CEO's and boards of directors today dominate almost every aspect of our lives.

Yet these same CEO's and boards of directors, whose profits mount because of the labor expended by their employees, often don't do anything to return the favor to those who work for them. Instead, management cuts jobs, fights unions, disinvests in communities, frequently keeps faulty books and in some cases, as in the recent Enron scandal, defraud their employees in ways that push those employees to the edge of financial ruin.

And as you well know, the scare of financial ruin isn't just a problem for Enron employees. Just recently, it was revealed that the workers’’ pensions at the Metachem chemical company in Delaware City are in jeopardy because of the firm's bankruptcy filing. Not only is the company leaving these workers in potential ruin, but it has also contributed to the ruination of the local environment by leaving behind millions of tons of by-product materials and chemical waste. Too often such companies are respecters of neither their workers, the environment, nor community rights.


So, what has all this got to do with women, you might ask? Well, the answer to that is simple and it's this: you can bet your bottom dollar that when the economy has some serious structural problems, those problems will hurt women by continuing old trends of male-female disparity within the workforce.

Let me give some examples to show what I mean.

The first example I want to give pertains to OCCUPATIONAL DISPARITIES between men and women. What I mean by occupational disparities is how women get slotted into certain kinds of work and get slotted out of other kinds of work. You might think that in our so-called ““post-sexist”” era, when many advertisers and companies are happy to talk about diversity and to praise the right of women to do non-traditional work –– you might think that during such a time women's numbers in traditionally all-male occupations would be growing by leaps and bounds. But if you think that, you'd be wrong. 

Take the example of skilled crafts and precision repair work as an example. This job category includes carpenters, electricians, plumbers, precision metal production workers, and so on. For the most part, no blue-collar jobs are better paying than these. Yet women, in spite of making up approximately 50% of Delaware's workforce, have barely established a toe-hold within this job category. Females hold only 8.1% of such positions.

Meanwhile, as women fail to gain access to such prestigious non-traditional jobs, they remain the dominating presence in traditional low-paying ““women's work”” occupations like typist, records processing, and low-level health services work. In fact, this issue of low pay brings me to the second, and related, point I want to make

That point is about WAGE DIFFERENTIALS between men and women in the workforce –– differentials that exist even when they're doing the same basic work.

As an example of this, I'll briefly talk about two different job categories. The first category is that of stock and material movers. The second category is the packers and packagers category. Both job categories require approximately the same level of physical conditioning. The one difference between them is this: that whereas packers sometimes require a slightly greater level of hand-eye coordination and motor skills than do movers, movers sometimes require a slightly greater level of upper body strength than do packers. Given that these two distinctions basically cancel each other out, the jobs are for all practical purposes the same in terms of skill, energy expenditure and so on.

Yet in spite of this equivalence, the packers and packaging category is filled predominantly by women and the stock movers category is filled predominantly by men. What makes this problematic is that the mostly male stock movers earn more than $12 per hour while the mostly female packers earn only $9.75 per hour. Unfortunately, this wage difference is not surprising once we realize how deeply ingrained it is in our economy to pay women less for their work than men are paid, even if the work is equivalent. As more and more companies downsize and temp companies like Manpower, Incorporated become some of the country's biggest employers, women can expect to feel the power of such wage biases grow even stronger, unless, that is, we fight back.


But how do we fight back? –– that's the question. To arrive at the answer to that question, we have to face a few facts.

To fight back successfully, the first thing we must realize is that the old women's movement's idea of just putting forward a so-called ““women's agenda”” and then getting a bunch of women's organizations to support it is outdated. If the feminist movement had any weakness in the past, it was its inability to build strong coalitions with other groups that also wanted social-economic change. For instance, too often the feminist movement was silent on the rights of labor and was even more silent on the racism that has so often hindered our nation's forward progress. The struggle for women's rights can no longer give in so such aloofness. If we want something, we have to build coalitions with others to win our goals.

Let me use the racial issue as an example.

I've already pointed out this morning three important points having to do with the economy.

The first point was that downsizing and outsourcing have cost our state and the nation some of its best-paying unionized jobs. As these jobs have been replaced by lower-paying service work, too many people's standard of living has gone down and too many other people have been driven into poverty. In keeping with national trends, over the last 10 years Delaware's poverty rate increased by 23%.

The second point I made was that, in spite of all the legal advances that have supposedly been made for women's rights, women are still trapped in mostly lower-paying ““women's work”” job. Even worse –– and this is my third point –– too often women are paid less than men even when they're performing the same basic tasks.

All of these three points is troubling.

And yet the truth is that the statistics for racial minorities, particular blacks, are even worse. In almost every economic category in Delaware, as in the rest of the nation, African-Americans bear a disproportion of economic despair.

Listen to this list of race-related economic and social facts regarding to our state.

  • Black per capita income in Delaware is only 60% or three-fifths of white per capita income.

  • The African-American unemployment rate (8.2%) is more than twice as high as the white unemployment rate (4%).

  • The rate of home ownership among blacks is 20% less than among whites.

  • For every white person who is imprisoned in Delaware, 9.4 blacks are imprisoned in spite of the fact that blacks make up only about 19% of the population.

  • In Delaware the infant mortality rate for blacks (14.7 deaths per 1000 births) is almost three times as high as for whites. In fact, the mortality rate for Delaware's African-American newborns is so bad that there are 46 nations in the world that have lower infant mortality rates than black Delawareans. Babies born in poor countries like Bosnia, Malaysia, Lithuania and Jamaica have a better chance of reaching their first birthday than does a black infant in Delaware.

Facts like these show the undeniable presence of a racial dimension within all the nooks and crannies of our state economy. Because of this, it's impossible to imagine struggling for women's economic rights without imagining struggling for economic justice for blacks and other economically hard-hit groups. This means working in coalitions that include women, African-Americans, labor, environmentalists and other constituencies in support of social-economic change.

Given today's excesses of corporate greed, we definitely need a new movement in our country to curb corporate power and to politically enfranchise the disenfranchised. New steps must be taken to create a newer, more vital democracy for a new day. But to do this successfully, we must rely on ourselves and build our own movement. On election day we can vote as we want as individuals, but in between elections we must act independently of the major political parities and concentrate on developing ourselves into a force that must be reckoned with. This is how the mass unionization drives of the 1930s operated: as an independent upsurge. It's also how the black liberation movement of the 1950s and 1960s operated: it didn't belong to any party outside of itself; it created its own destiny. This is also how the early women's movement operated: with a sense of self-sufficient freedom and creativity, beholden not to outside forces but only to its own legitimate quested for an expanded democracy.

This is also what we must do today –– we must work together in an independent movement controlled by us in order to create economic justice and fairness for everyone.

Thank you.