The fight for equal pay for men and women played a central role in the collective wage settlement in Norway this year. It is a struggle whose roots date back to the 1930s. Why has it taken so long? In the most recent edition of Tidsskrift for kjønnsforskning (“Journal of Gender Research”), Professor Inger Bjørnhaug writes about the long road to equal pay and the role of the Norwegian Confederation of Trade Unions (LO). She is also one of the authors of the three-volume work on the history of the LO, which was published last year.
Separate wage scales for women
“Initially, craftspeople and skilled workers demanded equal pay in situations where women without specialized training were brought in to perform tasks that used to be considered part of the trades,” explains Bjørnhaug. The demand for equal pay sought to address the erosion of the trades. It was also targeted at the women who were pushing down wages at the same time.
For women, the right to work had long been their main concern. This was reinforced during the unemployment of the 1920s and 1930s, when married women could be fired from their jobs to make room for the “breadwinners”. At the same time, some of LO’s women began to react to the large differences in pay between men and women, and especially that many collective wage agreements operated with separate wage scales for women, even if they performed the same work as men.
“The notion that working women did not need to support dependents was one of the reasons it was thought that women’s wages should be lower. It was also a commonly held view that women could not earn equally high wages as men because they were weaker physically and therefore did a poorer job. Also, they were absent from work more often and had a shorter ‘industrial lifespan’ due to their caregiving responsibilities,” says the professor.
These views were also common within the LO. Of course it was understood that women’s absence from work was related to their family responsibilities, but it was believed this could not be solved through wage policy and it was therefore not the LO’s responsibility. A redistribution of wages between women and men would have to be addressed by other means.
Feminists disloyal to the working-class?
“In the 1930s there was a strong, radical group of feminists within the LO, but traditionally within the organization there had been little acceptance of separate feminist demands. There was also an impregnable barrier between the labour movement and what was regarded as middle-class women’s issues. Working-class women who made their own feminist demands could be perceived as disloyal to the labour movement,” explains the historian.
“I believe we see this same tendency in the radical feminist opposition within the LO at the end of the 1930s that historian Dorothy Sue Cobble found in the USA in the 1950s: They were feminists, but they continually balanced feminist demands with class demands,” says Bjørnhaug.
Women in the LO were adamantly opposed to the practice of excluding married women from the labour market, and they demanded greater influence over the organization’s policies.
“Among other things, they asked for their own union representative or a secretariat, and a secretariat was established in 1940. However, the women’s secretariat was not supposed to make demands on behalf of women. It did not have its own funding and it was not supposed to formulate a separate policy. As a result, the active women and their demands became confined internally to some extent, and it was difficult to reach the real powerbrokers,” explains Bjørnhaug.
During the wave of radicalization following World War II, equal pay became a central issue. LO’s women’s board stuck to its demand for equal pay, but in the conservative atmosphere of the 1950s, when ideally mothers stayed at home with their children, the women’s board carried out its work in secret and did not adopt the working-class feminists’ radical approach.
Systematic devaluation of the female-dominated jobs
In 1951, the International Labour Organization (ILO) adopted the Equal Remuneration Convention which calls for equal pay for men and women for equal work. Konrad Nordahl, head of the Norwegian LO, was one of the driving forces behind the efforts to ratify the convention, but eight years passed before the Norwegian Parliament voted to ratify the convention; it was the first Nordic country to do so.
“As a result, the use of separate wage scales for women had to be discontinued. The LO was pleased to get rid of the separate wage scales, which it viewed as objectionable. The organization demanded that wages be determined on an individual basis, and it strongly disagreed with the notion that women as a group should earn lower wages than men, which is what the Norwegian Employers’ Association wanted. It ran counter to a sense of fairness,” says Bjørnhaug.
However, LO’s position that wages should not be set at the group level also had a downside: It would not work to increase women’s wages as a group because then there would be less in the pot for men, even though some of the female-dominated associations tried to put the matter on the agenda.
Under the new wage-scale system, categories of labour were divided according to the nature of the work, not according to gender. This was to be done by assessing the work either on the basis of objective criteria or through discretionary means. Despite protests from female-dominated associations, the LO allowed the Norwegian Employers’ Association to gain approval for its demand to make discretionary assessments. Consequently, the various categories of female-dominated labour were placed systematically at the bottom of the scale.
“I’m surprised by the deliberate, cynical approach taken by the employers’ association to get its way. The association’s own minutes of meetings clearly show this,” says the researcher, and continues:
“The LO did little to ensure that the Equal Remuneration Convention had any impact. The LO’s greatest failure in the equal pay matter was allowing the Norwegian Employers’ Association to dictate the terms for the new system of categorizing labour.”
Bjørnhaug believes this occurred because a majority of the powerbrokers within the organization regarded it as fair to categorize labour on the basis of discretionary assessments, in keeping with their own views on this matter.
“This is a major reason that women continue to earn less than men since we in Norway still have the same gender-segregated labour market,” she notes.
Market forces counteract gender-equality demands
As the women’s movement gained ground in the 1970s, the demand for gender equality became important in the context of social policy, and pressure on the LO increased as well. For example, the minimum wage guarantee, which often benefited men in low-paying jobs more than women, finally became gender neutral in 1972.
“Nonetheless, the major hurdle that impeded progress on this issue was that the LO did not want political demands for equal pay to infringe on the parties’ freedom to negotiate. Consequently, the only wage demand it made was that women and men should receive equal pay within the same company,” says Bjørnhaug.
In the 1990s, the topic of equal pay was again widely discussed, and the LO demanded equal pay during central wage negotiations. However, the gains achieved there were usually lost due to wage drift during local negotiations.
“This must not be viewed as a plan on the part of anyone in the LO, but it occurs because the negotiations system is grounded in market economics. The LO has not challenged this, and with good reason: The LO as an organization would be pushed to the sidelines if wages were established politically. Therefore, the differences in men’s and women’s wages cannot be rectified only through the negotiations system. There must be political will to bring about social change in other areas,” says the researcher.
Translated by Connie Stultz
Inger Bjørnhaug is a professor of history at the Faculty of Humanities, Sports and Social Science, Lillehammer University College.
She is also a co-author of the three-volume work on the history of the LO, which was published in spring 2009 (in Norwegian).