Womankind (1972) Life for the women of one small Northside Chicago factory. (Editors Note: Life for the women workers in one small Northside factory-Chicago 1972.)
The factory I worked in is in the Paulina-Barry community, just on the edge of an industrial area. Ten of us women worked together in this small plant -- 8 hours a day, $1.60 an hour, standing all the time -- putting plastic alphabet letters into plastic bags.
The women I worked with came from different parts of the city and different backgrounds, but with one thing in common -- being poor, and depending on this job for a living. One young woman quit school at fourteen when her family moved from Tennessee -- her life is now this work and the neighborhood gang. Another, who was still in high school, works to help her family with money troubles and comes all the way from 115th south. There was a Puerto Rican woman who spoke little English, and three other young mothers, two black and one white, who had been deserted by their husbands. A big part of their paycheck went for baby-sitters and transportation, since none lived close by. Our supervisor was a woman from Kentucky (a lot of the workers came from the mountain country) who spent her energy on making money, putting the other women down, and sweet-talking the managers in order to keep her job.
Most of the men in the plant were in their teens and made frantic attempts to impress us with their prowess. This was quickly put down or ignored by the women. All of us had enough of the same treatment by men before to know how to handle it, and the strength of our numbers and experience really came in handy.
Not surprisingly, the main topic of conversation among the women was families and men, in that order of importance. All of the married or once-married women had children, and talked about the difficulties of finding someone they trusted enough to look after their children. They didn't want their children to always be carted around from one place to another, from one baby-sitter to another. When their children were sick they couldn't take them to a doctor for lack of money and for fear of losing their job if they took a day off. This happened twice -- women took their children to the doctor's, and were fired for taking time off work unnecessarily, and losing the company money Although none of these problems were their fault, most of the women felt guilty about not being "good mothers"- and not spending more time with their children. None of them had been able to get on, or stay on, welfare, because they "knew men" or "had no reason not to work". At least once a day, each mother would worry out loud about her children.
One day one of the older white women came in puffy-faced and missing a tooth -- her "old man" had beaten her up. We got into a discussion of bow many times different ones of us had been beaten up and how badly. These women knew better than to see their men as knights on white horses, which is often the illusion of middle class women. They had experienced enough to know that macho behavior (a Spanish word for super-masculinity) is not the sign of a superior being, but only a front. Men are seen as companions, but the women liked the company of their girlfriends better. With other women, they could talk, but men often treated them as sex objects. They were resentful of this treatment, but it had also been pounded into their heads that they were - or would be -- someone's "old lady”. The attitude of most of the women towards men was that they wanted one or were holding on to the one they had, because a man could support you and your children and take off some of the burden of working.
Besides families, we also talked about money and jobs. It was hard to talk to each other except at lunch time because talk among the workers was often prohibited -- it "slowed us down". We all got an hourly wage, and then a bonus for output. This "bonus" was often used against us by the owners. They expressed concern that we make extra money for ourselves, but on days we didn't make bonus, they would start talking about firing some of the "slow" ones. Bonus for us meant twice as much income for them. Their favorite tactic was to pit us against each other by picking out one woman on the line, and saying that because she was so slow, the rest of us wouldn't make any extra money -- so we could thank her for ruining it for us. This worked for a while, and would get us backbiting and picking on each other. Then we’d get yelled at for something they started.Sometimes, as punishment for not making bonus or talking the fan or radio would be taken out of our work area.
It was a hot summer, in an even hotter factory, and the combination of heat and monotonous work gave most people headaches, and made a couple of women faint. The fan and radio were our only relief. After a while without them, we told the managers that we would use the fan and radio when we wanted, or else would work a lot slower than we had been. We weren't strong enough to threaten quitting (most of the women couldn't afford the risk), but we got back our fan and radio with the strength we did show.
Race was something that none of the working women used against each other, but which the management did. The white women came from backgrounds which "experts" would call racist--Southern white, and the black women all identified to different degrees with black culture and present black struggles. But the common-ness of our situations and experiences, some as women, some as poor women, gave a unity to our work group. The managers' racism was very strong and very open -- when they picked on people, it was always on the black women for being slow, or on the Puerto Rican woman for having "that funny Latin accent". They eventually used her accent and slight knowledge of English to fire her -- "She can't work well enough without speaking English". How much English does it take to put plastic letters into plastic bags, especially when talking is almost forbidden?
I recently went back to the factory to pick up an old paycheck which somehow got "lost". All of the people I had worked with were gone, except two. There were new women in our place, all Latin, and a new white woman had been made supervisor. The male workers had gotten a raise.
Higher salaries, transportation, day-care centers, and control of our working situations... all of these things are necessary. What is needed to get these is strength with the people we work with and strength with the people we come from. I'm a woman, and a working with women. Our strength comes from this, and has just begun. Viva the common woman!