This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 9 No. 4, "Working Women: A Handbook of Resources, Rights, and Remedies." Find more from that issue here.
A survey of working women in a North Carolina factory town reveals that discrimination, poor pay, hazardous working conditions and disrespectful treatment are facts of life.
High Point is a city-sized mill town in North Carolina’s Piedmont. Furniture feeds the town. Its factory owners and workers, furniture-related industries, hotels and restaurants all survive on the twice-yearly furniture markets. Indeed, High Point’s license plates proclaim it the “World’s Furniture Capital.” Besides this major industry, hosiery and apparel factories dot the city’s industrial center. Opportunities for low-wage, unskilled factory and service jobs are plentiful.
No single employer dominates. Rather, High Point’s nearly 300 manufacturing firms are as much family-run businesses (though increasingly conglomerate-owned) as branches of large corporations. Yet a common interest among employers prevails in keeping wages low, unions out and benefits few. The average person in 1978 made only $5,067. More than half (54 percent) of the work force in High Point is women. This is significantly more than for the state as a whole — 43 percent in 1978.
Women in the Work Force, a project of the American Friends Service Committee, opened its doors in early 1979. (See page 58 for a profile of Women in the Work Force.) To find out firsthand what conditions High Point’s working women face, Women in the Work Force conducted a survey in the summer evenings of 1979. Both black and white neighborhoods were canvassed to locate women who worked outside the home. Twelve weeks of interviewing four nights each week produced 219 responses. Only one woman refused to talk; most were curious about what other women had to say. More than 50 questions were asked about wages, working conditions, discrimination and personnel policies.
“They were all a little defensive to start off with,” Betsy Mahoney, an interviewer, recalled. “‘My job’s fine, I’ve no complaints,’ was how they usually began. But when I asked them about their benefits, that was the turning point. They stopped and looked at me.” What followed was most often a story of low wages, limited benefits, little opportunity, unfair treatment and lack of respect. Discrimination was perceived as a fact of life, as were lint, lack of lunchrooms and unsafe equipment. Many women, however, were proud of the work they did — their gripes were with the setting in which they work and the lack of respect for their accomplishments.
Although this survey is not exhaustive, it is a fair representation of the conditions and thoughts of working women in High Point.
High Point women had a lot to say about discrimination. Three-fourths of those interviewed said that their job was done entirely by women. These jobs, they said, were typed as either male or female. In the furniture industry women sew, sand and work machines in the finishing departments while men do upholstery and operate rib saws. The jobs that women do pay less than those that are called male jobs. For example, in the business world women complained of being on a straight salary while men had the chance to compete for higher commissions. In hosiery, women knit socks and are paid by the number of pieces they produce, while men are fixers and are paid an hourly wage. One woman who worked as a toe seamer said, “I know a mother, been there [the hosiery plant] 25 years. She’s a knitter and is paid $3.85; the father, who’s been there three years, makes $6.20. He’s a fixer.”
These women are victims of occupational segregation. When asked why they thought their jobs were done mostly by women, they explained, “Men won’t do it for our pay,” and, “They can work women for nothing.” Others said that the jobs were work men would not do. A nursing home worker said, “No man is going to wipe people’s butts.”
Discrimination was also apparent in the low wages paid to High Point women. For those interviewed, the average wage was $3.43 an hour (minimum wage was $2.90 at the time), even though these women had worked for their current employers an average of nearly six years. More than onefourth of the women had not received any raises on that job, and nearly half (41 percent) were not receiving yearly wage increases. Wages were often set at the minimum wage, with raises awarded only when government-mandated increases went into effect. Often only a 10- to 30-cents-per-hour difference rewarded employees with years of experience and loyalty to the company.
Another form of discrimination confronted by women was being paid for production at piecework rates. The rates varied from piece to piece but usually were based on the minimum wage. While women had the opportunity to earn more money, they were pressured by being paid by the piece into working faster and faster. This was usually not the case for men who were employed in the same plant; they were paid an hourly wage regardless of their output. One woman explained how this directly affected her wages at the hosiery mill: “I work 36 machines, sometimes six are broke. I can lose money because it doesn’t get fixed.” She was complaining to her supervisor that the male fixer was too slow getting around to repairing her machines.
A woman employed at an apparel factory said, “Most women make $3.70 an hour. The most anyone has ever made is $4.80 an hour and that was without any breaks.” Service workers seemed to fare the worst in pay. They usually worked for the minimum wage without any chance at earning beyond their 40 hours. As a matter of fact, most worked part-time.
The High Point women shared more gripes about working conditions than about any other issue surveyed. It is interesting to note that only 59 percent thought the chemicals they worked with were safe. Only 60 percent thought the air quality was satisfactory. This figure dropped to 43 percent for factory workers.
The comments about lint, dust, dirty restrooms, lack of protective gear, heat and crowding tell their own story. Women in hosiery said: “We need guards on the machines. One lady got her hair caught on the knitting machine, another hurt her knuckles on the toe seamer. There aren’t any ear plugs.” And: “The room’s cold, there’s no locker room. You have to eat with the cotton and there’s lots of lint and dust. I bet you could get brown lung.”
Women employed by the furniture industry had this to say: “Silicone’s sprayed on some materials. It burns and smells awful. Sometimes I feel it’s all in me. I bet it’s dangerous.” “Some of the floors have holes in them. It fogs up after you spray [the furniture]. Things on the conveyor belts move fast so you could be hit. The stain causes skin irritations.” “I’ve been using an electric screwdriver since 1975 and I’ve been having [eye] trouble ever since. They [the company] say that the sawdust didn’t cause my glaucoma. I can’t see out of my right eye. They still haven’t offered me goggles.” “It’s such a small [work] area, it’s easy to stumble over things. My daughter cut her finger with the electric knife. It’s so dull that she put her hand in front to cut the fiber.”
A laundry worker had this to say: “The temperature’s about 90 degrees and there are just fans. The equipment sometimes doesn’t work. A washing machine busted, and hot water spilled all over. We couldn’t get out. A worker hurt her back, but she didn’t get any money.”
Work situations also create stress in the lives of women. A knitter complained of having no breaks and a waitress said, “The schedule changes often, and you never know when you are going to work.” A city employee said, “It’s been real tense with the change of the computer system to terminals. We need to relearn our jobs, things get hectic, but we can’t hire any more because of the recession. The work load is too heavy.”
Four-fifths of the women reported that some procedure exists for dealing with problems and complaints at work. More than one-third, however, said that it does not work fairly. A furniture worker spoke of retaliation: “I once complained about partiality. I’ve been doghoused ever since.” A day-care teacher experienced favoritism: “You don’t get anywhere unless you go to the church where the day-care center is at.” A school bus driver indicated that the grievance procedure on her job did not work: “It’s just a lot of screaming and hollering. It does no good.” Some accepted the failure of the system and left: “People don’t usually say anything. They get another job,” said a laundry worker.
The women were asked about their current benefits. Fifty-seven percent mentioned vacation — some paid, some not. Forty-eight percent mentioned insurance, 22 percent mentioned retirement. Only 17 percent said anything about paid holidays. Sick leave was only noted by seven percent, profit sharing by eight percent, bonuses by three percent and credit unions by two percent. A laundry worker listed a free meal, and a knitter noted that she gets a 10 percent discount on socks. Other women mentioned social security, Christmas and flower clubs and a handful listed school loans. For some, the benefits could use improving, as a furniture factory worker explained: “Retirement could be better. I’ll only get $62 a month after 21 years.” And there were those who indicated that they had no benefits: “There aren’t any benefits. It’s a small place, but they ought to carry insurance,” said a snack bar worker. The wish lists of other women included: “paid vacation,” “timeand- a-half for overtime,” “raises,” “weekends,” “anything like retirement or profit sharing” and “everything.”
Benefits have been improving for some of these High Point women. Thirty-nine percent reported that their benefit packages have changed since they began their jobs. Insurance, paid vacations and holidays were most frequently cited. A few mentioned profit sharing, bonuses and time off for birthdays and funerals.
High Point women know that their pay is low, their work conditions hazardous, their treatment disrespectful and their jobs poorer in all ways than men’s. They don’t know much about retirement benefits, nor do they know much about OSHA. But perhaps most importantly, they don’t know much about working together to change their conditions. Stuck in a barely unionized factory town, High Point women seem powerless, but organized action - with the help of groups like Women in the Work Force — can make it possible to challenge workplace inequities. As the experience in High Point shows, one powerful first step is simply finding out what local working women think about their jobs.
Special thanks to the 219 women interviewed and to Betty Ausherman, Emily Levy, Leila Lombardi, Betsy Mahoney, Bertha Roman and Janice Stroud for helping conduct and analyze the survey.
How to Do a Survey
A survey of working women in your area can be very useful in documenting working conditions, wages, benefits, discrimination and opportunities. The results can be used as the basis of a press event, as an organizing tool and to educate the public about women’s work. It can also provide information needed to get outside money to help begin an organization. More than the results of the survey can be used. Asking questions will trigger questions from women such as: “Retirement? I never thought about that before.” “Job posting? Where do they do that?” The survey can be the first step in educating women about their rights on the job and creating interest in your organization or project. And it can help your organization set an agenda for dealing with the main concerns of local working women. Atlanta Working Women, an organization founded to improve working conditions for office workers (see page 36 for a profile of Atlanta Working Women), kicked off their effort in that city with a survey. Publicized through a press event, the survey was distributed at busy corners to clerical workers. Eight hundred women responded to the 36 questions concerning job descriptions, salaries, working conditions, training and promotion opportunities and affirmative action. How to conduct your survey depends upon the size and political climate in your city. In High Point, anonymity seemed necessary, so the surveys were conducted door to door in the evenings while women were at home. Such precautions were not necessary in a city the size of Atlanta. The survey should be as simple and uniform as possible so that basic statistical work can be done. It is important to know how work conditions vary with particular jobs and how the age, race and seniority of the women affects their awareness. In conducting the interview, give the women the chance to respond in their own words to each question. In our experience, asking for a single-word answer often doesn’t yield the same information as an open-ended question. Lastly, it is helpful to find a friendly researcher at a local college who will help you develop your survey and analyze the information you collect. This can help you avoid frustration if you have never worked on such a project before. For more survey tips, contact: Women in the Work Force, PO Box 2234, High Point, NC 27261, (919) 882-0109. Atlanta Working Women, 1419 Healey Bldg., 57 Forsyth St. NW, Atlanta, GA 30303, (404) 522-5444.
Where High Point Women Work
Textiles and Apparel 21%
White Collar 6%
Other Service 20%
Other Manufacturing 3%
Schools and Government 6%
Household Workers 6%
High Point Women’s Occupations
Non-factory Supervisors 2%
Factory Supervisors 1%
Factory Skilled 12%
Factory Unskilled 39%
High Point Women’s Wages
Service Workers $3.04
White-collar Workers $3.33
Furniture Workers $3.69
Other Factory Workers $4.03
(These are the median hourly wages per occupation; the minimum wage at the time was $2.90.)
Tobi Lippin is a community organizer living in Greensboro, North Carolina. She is former director of Women in the Work Force. (1981)
Debby Warren is a former editor of a rural weekly newspaper in North Carolina and a former staff member of Women in the Work Force. She now works as a labor planner and researcher. (1981)