One step forward on equal pay

February 6, 2009

Elizabeth Schulte looks at the backdrop to the first piece of legislation signed into law by Barack Obama.

IT TOOK a decade for Lilly Ledbetter to see some justice.

It came on January 29 when a bill on pay discrimination against women--named after the 70-year-old former Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. employee--became the first piece of legislation that President Barack Obama signed into law.

In 1998, Ledbetter was about to retire from her job as a manager at a Goodyear plant in Gadsden, Ala., where she'd worked for 20 years, when she received an anonymous note telling her that over the years, she'd made far less than her male counterparts. Goodyear management made it clear that employees weren't allowed to discuss their wages with other employees, under threat of firing.

"I'm appalled that we're still fighting," Ledbetter said at a recent conference on pay equity. "When my fight began, I thought that pay inequities were an issue only in the South--a 'Southern epidemic,' so to speak. But I know now that the problem is national. Nobody wants to be the poster child for unequal pay for equal work, but that's what happened to me."

Barack Obama signs legislation on pay discrimination, with Lilly Ledbetter at his side
Barack Obama signs legislation on pay discrimination, with Lilly Ledbetter at his side (Joyce Boghosian)

Ledbetter found out that a male counterpart with the least seniority was making about $1,000 more per month than she was. The male coworker with seniority closer to her was making $2,000 a month--or 45 percent--more than Ledbetter.

The next day, Ledbetter filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and then a lawsuit.

Five years later, her case was finally heard in court, and a jury decided that she should be awarded some $3.8 million in back pay and punitive damages. The amount was reduced to $300,000 because of caps on damage awards under Title VII.

But even so, Ledbetter never saw a penny, because Goodyear appealed the ruling.

The case reached the U.S. Supreme Court in May 2007. The justices voted 5 to 4 to reverse the award, arguing that Ledbetter should have filed a complaint earlier.

According to the existing law, Ledbetter had to file a complaint within 180 days of the discrimination taking place. Thus, according to the Supreme Court's ruling, Ledbetter should have made her complaint within six months of being hired, when the discrimination began.

Even mainstream politicians recognized the absurdity of this rule, so legislation was written to change it. Now that the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act is law, the 180-day clock restarts every time an employee gets a paycheck. And now, workers will be able to get back as much as two years in back pay.

Other legislation to address wage discrimination against women, the Paycheck Fairness Act (PFA), is expected to come up for a vote in the spring. The bill would close a loophole in the 1963 Equal Pay Act that currently allows employers to avoid responsibility for discriminatory pay. Under the PFA, women who can prove wage discrimination based on gender will have the same opportunity to collect court damages as those subjected to racial or ethnic discrimination.

The PFA has some powerful opponents in Corporate America, who will literally say anything to keep the legislation from being passed. Thus, in 2007 testimony against the PFA on behalf of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Camille Olson claimed that pay inequity exists because of women's "personal choice" to take on parenting duties:

The proponents of the Act have not cited any evidence establishing that the existing wage gap is caused by employer discrimination. They essentially propose acceptance of the existence of the gap as definitive proof of employer discrimination.

However, this unsubstantiated and faulty syllogism does not withstand scrutiny, or common sense. As labor economists and feminist scholars alike have proven and observed, the existing wage gap between men and women is attributable to a number of factors...includ[ing]: personal choice; women's disproportionate responsibilities as caregivers and other family obligations; education; self-selection for promotions and the attendant status and monetary awards; and other "human capital" factors.

As a senator, Obama supported the PFA, as did then-Sen. Hillary Clinton. Today, congressional Democrats have the majority they need to make it a reality if they follow through.

THESE PIECES of legislation are welcome reforms to a process that is stacked against workers in favor of the company. But it's a long way off from the equal pay guarantee that women deserve.

One statistic was repeated at every press conference surrounding the signing of the Ledbetter Act--that on average, women make 78 cent for every $1 a man makes for the same work. But behind this already bad number lies even worse figures.

If you factor in children, women face even lower wages. According to Ann O'Leary of the Berkeley Center on Health, Economic and Family Security at University of California-Berkeley School of Law, a married woman with children working full time earns 69 cents for every $1 earned by a male counterpart. A single mother working full time earns 58 cents on every $1 earned by a married man with children.

As O'Leary noted in the San Francisco Chronicle, "In addition to discrimination, one of the chief factors causing the wage gap is that women are more likely to have major interruptions in their work history due to family obligations."

Women are typically forced to make the decision to leave their job to care for a new baby or a sick or aging relative. And while the Family and Medical Leave Act prevents workers from losing their jobs in these situations, the leave is unpaid.

THE POSSIBILITY for women to win pay equity exists--if women and men together fight for it. The proof is in the numbers--collective organizing is the best tool that workers have to win fairer wages and benefits.

According to a study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) released in December 2008, being a union member raises the pay of women workers by almost $2 an hour.

The report, which analyzed data from the Census Bureau's Current Population Survey, showed that unionized women workers earned, on average, 11.2 percent more than their nonunion counterparts. They were also 19 percentage points more likely to have employer-provided health insurance--a terrific gain considering that as individuals, women pay higher health insurance premium rates than men. Women in unions were also 25 percentage points more likely to have an employer-provided pension plan.

The benefits were more pronounced for women in low-wage jobs. Union women workers in the 15 lowest-paying occupations earned 14 percent more than those who were nonunion.

In 2007, women made up 45 percent of union members, and according to the CEPR report, "If the share of women in unions continues to grow at the same rate as it has over the last 25 years, women will be the majority of the unionized workforce by 2020."

Not only women's wages but men's are at stake in this fight. Historically, when women's wages are kept low, so are men's.

If the Employee Free Choice Act, which will make it easier for workers to join unions, is passed, it will provide women workers with an important tool to improve their wages and working conditions. It will vastly increase the ability of working-class women and men to use their collective strength to win better wages from corporations who would rather they stay divided.

What rank-and-file union members do in their unions and workplaces will make the difference in whether we put a stop to wage discrimination.

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