How GM Plant Workers Won the First Major Court Battle Over Pay Equal for Equal Work
Illustration: G/O Media
It’s rare that the heroes of the American Labor Movement are given their due in history, rarer still that the huge role women played is acknowledged. Smithsonian Magazine bucked this trend and published a fantastic profile of one of these mothers of organization, Florence St. John, who in 1938 brought together other women workers at GM’s Olds Motor Works plant in Lansing, Michigan to fight for equal pay.
Male workers at Olds made 97 cents for every 76 cent a woman made. That didn’t sit well with St. John, who had worked in auto plants for the previous 10 years of her life. She’d train new male hires only to actually see them get paid at nearly a dollar an hour for her three quarters and a penny. And it’s not like the women were given any lighter work than the men. From the Smithsonian:
St. John first discovered a pay disparity during games of “check pool”—a form of poker that the workers played with their paychecks to entertain themselves on the factory floor. Time after time, St. John and the other women noticed a pattern: Men on the same shifts with similar jobs and less seniority, some of whom the women had trained, appeared to be making more. This curious game of chance would eventually tip the scales at trial and result in the first major damages award in a job discrimination case in U.S. history—a critical but largely forgotten struggle that inspired women and legislatures across the country to take up the cause of equal pay.
Lower pay didn’t mean lighter loads for the women, who among other duties had to drag around huge pans full of car parts weighing up to 200 pounds, often without assistance. If they didn’t meet strictly enforced quotas, the men and women knew they would lose their jobs. In the heavy press room, St. John worked with women, including her friend Merreta Cobb, and men, as the workers wrenched together strips of steel to make an elaborate part called a harmonic balancer—a sturdy five-pound disc that absorbs vibrations that would otherwise damage the engine. In assembling the balancers, the women were themselves equal to men in strength, skill and grit, as attested by their male co-workers. There was a sense they were all in it together.
Inspired by the world-shaking 1936 Sit-Down strike at GM factories in Flint which led to much better pay and working conditions, St. John decided to confront management about the pay disparity with a little known, never enforced Michigan law that banned pay differences between the sexes. When they blew her off St. John and 28 other women found themselves a lawyer in an early example of a class action lawsuit. After a grueling six weeks in court, where GM called its female employees basically useless, the women were awarded $55,690, nearly a million in today’s dollars. GM would appeal the decision all the way up until 1945—three years after factories were federally required to pay women engaged in wartime fabrication hourly rates equal to a man.
Stanford Law School professor David Engstrom called St. John’s suit “almost certainly…the first significant damages payout in a job discrimination case in the case history of U.S. law,” in a 2017 paper. St. John’s fight would go on to inspired similar suits across the state and eventually across the country, leading all the way to the Equal Pay Act of 1963.
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You can read more about St. John and her brave fellow workers here.