ABOUT POLITICAL ALTERNATIVES IN A CHANGING WORLD
Thoughts on Developing a New Women's Agenda
Presented to the UAW CAP Council
Vivian A. Houghton
As you've just heard, the title of my talk
this morning is ““Thinking about Political Alternatives in a
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
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
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
Let me give some examples to show what I
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
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
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
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.