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Labor] Obernauer, Marie L.

Working Hours of Women in the Pea Canneries of Wisconsin.


[Labor]. Obernauer, Marie L. Working Hours of Women in the Pea Canneries of Wisconsin. Bulletin of the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics. Chas. P. Neill, Commissioner. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1913.
8vo.; grey printed wrappers, stapled; rust stains bleed through cover.
A study published by the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics to determine whether or not the pea canneries of Wisconsin should be exempt from the recently enacted 55-hour work week legislation. Bulletin Whole Number 119, Women in Industry Series No. 2. (The first installment of the Women in Industry Series was entitled, "Hours, earnings, and duration of employment of wage-earning women in selected industries in the District of Columbia.")
In examining data from 1908, 1909, 1910, and 1911, Obernauer sought "to discover the relation between the problems of pea-cannery administration as presented in Wisconsin and the working hours of women employed in the pea canneries of that State." She opens with a balanced assessment of the benefits that accrue with and without the legislation, and suggests a reasonable meeting ground:
It is plain that steady working hours would be much more advantageous to the canner than the present extremely irregular hours, for uncertain hours of work when a piece or hourly rate of pay prevails are a distinct handicap in the competition of labor. It is equally plain, however, that when a factory is congested with perishable product the most obvious solution is to keep the force at work until the goods are safe; that alternative solutions are to man the plant with a second shift where the labor supply will permit, or to use such cold-storage devices for surplus product as have been proved practicable…
Throughout her report, Obernauer analyzes, using four years' worth of data, the efficiency (or lack thereof) of conditions in the three aspects of canning dominated by women: picking (removing foreign objects and undesirable peas on an assembly line), capping, and inspecting. These 518 women comprised "over 84 per cent of the 614 women employed in the 31 plants from which pay roll data were secure in 1911." She notes that "[p]erhaps in no industry has invention more completely transformed the character of labor than in the canning of peas" (p. 9), an industry historically dominated by women who now, with the onset of various mechanical devices, have been supplanted by male machine operators. In addition to analyzing data, she conducted interviews that yielded compelling results:
In view of the number of canners who objected to any restrictions on the working hours of women, there is peculiar interest in the statements from some of the same canners as to what actually happened in their own plants during the five years prior to the enactment of the 55-hour law. Thus, among the 26 canners reporting in regard to this matter, days of 15, 16, and 18 hours were frequent, and runs of even 20, 22, and 24 hours were reported by several canner. (p. 8)
In conclusion, Obernauer notes that while "it may be said that, fully recognizing the difficulties under which the canners labor, because of the uncertainty of the harvestings and the perishability of the product, and granting that the working hours for women are the direct effect of congestions due to these facts, the records of the Wisconsin pea canners nevertheless show" that better planning of planting, harvesting, storage, and equipment would improve working conditions for pickers, cappers, and inspectors. "These conditions may reasonably suggest that the available means of providing against congestion and the consequent demand for long runs of overtime work should be employed before consideration shall be given to any request for exemption from the law restricting the hours of labor for women." However, retaining her impartial stance until the very end, she notes, "With regard to the consideration of any requests for exemption from the law restricting the hours of labor of women, the situation in Wisconsin pea canneries, as disclosed by this investigation, suggests" the possibility of limited concessions.

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