Quit talking about equal pay and do something

February 10, 2014

It's a hallmark of the Obama presidency: talk about change, but not deliver any. Will the president's pledge on equal pay suffer the same fate, asks Elizabeth Schulte?

PRESIDENT OBAMA'S speechwriters must have been pretty happy with themselves when their joke in State of the Union address about Mad Men and the pay gap between men and women became one of the most talked-about moments of the speech--garnering some 33,555 tweets per minute, according to the people who track these things.

Speaking to both houses of Congress and on national television, Obama said:

Today, women make up about half our workforce. But they still make 77 cents for every dollar a man earns. That is wrong, and in 2014, it's an embarrassment. A woman deserves equal pay for equal work. She deserves to have a baby without sacrificing her job. A mother deserves a day off to care for a sick child or sick parent without running into hardship--and you know what: a father does, too. It's time to do away with workplace policies that belong in a Mad Men episode.

Obama made an important point. Decades after the women's movement shattered the idea that women should be treated as second-class citizens, there has been some steps toward progress--but there is still a long way to go.

President Obama delivers his State of the Union speech
President Obama delivers his State of the Union speech (Pete Souza | White House)

Women represent nearly two-thirds of all workers paid the minimum wage or less and 61 percent of full-time minimum wage workers, according to the National Women's Law Center (NWLC). Women are almost two-thirds of workers in tipped occupations, such as servers in restaurants, where the minimum cash wage is $2.13, as it has been for the last 20 years.

The 77-cent wage gap the president cites is even larger for women of color. "Black women working full-time, year-round made only 64 cents, and Hispanic women only 54 cents, for every dollar paid to their white, non-Hispanic male counterparts," according to NWLC.

Add to these substandard wages the lack of paid maternity leave and workplace rules penalizing mothers who struggle to fulfill their second (or third) job of providing for their children at home, and you have a setup that ensures second-class status for women.

In the end, however, Obama's nod to women in his State of the Union address is really no better than the singer who calls out the name of the city where the concert is being held because they know they'll get a response. They might yell, "Hello, Fresno!" to wild applause, but when they're done, you're still in the same old Fresno, and the singer, like the president, has moved on.

Barack Obama was making some of the right points about inequality. But as his administration has shown so far on this and so many other issues, it's one thing to talk about change and another thing to actually deliver on it.

IN FACT, women have experienced more poverty under the Obama administration--and the situation is unlikely to change soon.

Women like Raphael Richmond, a 41-year-old mother of six living in Anacostia in Washington, D.C., and one of the 47 million people who relies on food stamps. Because she is a woman, Richmond is twice as likely to depend on food stamps, which means she is twice as likely to feel the impact of the $5 billion in cuts to the program that went into effect on November 1, when a provision of the stimulus bill passed in early 2009 expired.

The Washington Post's Eli Saslow described monthly high-wire act Richmond attempts--or "Mama's version of the hunger games," as Richmond sometimes describes it:

Feeding a family on zero income always had required ingenuity; she took the lights out of their refrigerator to save money on the electric bill and locked snack foods in a plastic tub in her bedroom to ration them throughout the month.

For single mothers struggling during the Great Recession, food stamps can make all the difference. In 2010, 42 percent of single mothers relied on the food program. In rural areas, the rate rose to as high as one in two.

Yet one week after the State of the Union, Obama signed on for another round of devastating funding cuts for food stamps--about $9 billion over the next 10 years--as part of a "compromise" farm bill. Obama's excuse: The $9 billion wasn't as devastating as the Republicans wanted.

Then there's the Paycheck Fairness Act--legislation that's supposed to close a loophole in the 1963 Equal Pay Act which allows employers to get away with discriminatory pay--that Obama urged Congress to pass in his State of the Union.

If the Paycheck Fairness Act became law, it could have an impact at employers like Walmart, where women who complain about pay disparities have faced retaliation. But Obama made the same request in last year's State of the Union, and nothing happened because of Republican obstructionism in Congress.

Cynically enough, Obama and the Democrats have a political motive for raising the proposal publicly, but allowing it to get blocked by the GOP. In 2012, after the legislation failed to get 60 votes necessary to continue in the Senate--for a second time--the Washington Post's Ed O'Keefe wrote:

President Obama's re-election campaign and Senate Democrats intend to use the bill's failure as part of an ongoing push to paint congressional Republicans as hostile to women's interests, Democratic aides have said. The strategy is part of an increasingly common practice in Congress of moving legislation aimed solely at producing political results.

So you have to wonder: Is the Paycheck Fairness Act something the Obama administration will fight to enact over the coming year, or is it a sound bite to use in coming campaigns to convince women they have no choice but to keep voting for Democrats?

And if Barack Obama wants to talk Mad Men, at least the television show touched on the lack of reproductive choices for women in the era before the women's rights movement.

Four decades after abortion was legalized, Obama's State of the Union address said nothing about attacks on the right to choose--not even one word.

But that's no surprise after the Obama administration compromised on so many provisions of the Affordable Care Act that could have provided women with access to the reproductive health care they need.

For instance, the Obama health care law allows state governments to ban coverage for abortion from the plans offered by for-profit insurance companies through the "exchanges" set up under the law--even if the state isn't running its own exchange but uses the federal one. More than 20 states have decided to pass some kind of ban.

WOMEN HAVE made important gains since the Mad Men era of the early 1960s. But the lesson of that era is that it's necessary to organize and fight for change, because no politician is going to do it for you.

The statistics prove that the best way to raise women's wages is being part of a fighting union. According to the Center for Economic and Policy Research, unionization raises a woman's pay by 14.7 percent--over one-quarter of the effect of a four-year college degree, compared to a high school diploma. In addition, unionized women are over one-third more likely to have employer-provided health care coverage than their non-union counterparts.

As the attack on unions, workers' living standards and their rights at work continues, organization is the key. And some of the workers most under assault--many of them in jobs dominated by women--are getting organized.

The National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA), an organization mostly made up of migrant women from the Global South, has taken up this fight. They stood with Sangeeta Richards during the high-profile case exposing abuse at the hands of her employer. Speaking at the time that IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn was accused of raping a hotel worker in New York, the NDWA's Ai-Jen Poo said

The NDWA understands how isolated working women can be without organization. The way we like to talk about it in the domestic work industry is, it is almost like our industry is, we call it, "the wild West," because almost anything goes. There is no regulation, very little protection, very little standards. It is often up to the individual workers who are very often isolated to advocate for their rights with very little power to do so.

On a more localized level, in Chicago, when a coworker was fired for calling in to take off work to care for her special needs son, Whole Foods workers, who were also organizing around the Fight for 15, showed their solidarity and walked out.

The Obama administration may talk about wage equality and respect on the job, but women workers and their supporters are the ones who will actually win this fight.

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