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Saturday, January 24, 2009

When Are Women Going to Get Equal Rights?

There has been a small stirring in the latest news cycles - mostly as a result of the passage of the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act just passed by Congress. While this goes some distance toward reversing that horrid decision by the Supreme Court in Ledbetter vs Goodyear, I don't think it goes far enough. The statute of limitations is 2 years now - but that presumes that women in the workplace can actually find out that they are being discriminated against.

Anyone who has worked for a living for a medium to large-sized corporation knows that there is intense pressure and sometimes even punitive measures in place that prevent or strongly discourage workers from discussing their wages with their peers. The employers are certainly not forthcoming with information of this nature. So exactly how is the woman supposed to find out? In Lily's case - a co-worker gave her a tip - but did so anonymously for fear of retribution. Millions of women are not so lucky (if you can call her that). But at least with the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, at least you may have a chance at recovering some of those lost wages. That's far better than the current situation.

Women have actually lost ground on the pay issue under the Bush misrule. In 2000, women were up to 79 cents per dollar of mens wages. Women are now at 76 cents. This is a bit harder to address because of the built-in differences in wages between traditional 'womens' work and 'mens' work. While women and men are making strides in breaking down the barriers and performing well in occupations that used to be reserved for their opposite gender, the workplace is far from equal. We need a real examination of the value of the job itself - taking into account levels of responsibility, educational requirements, and the like. My favorite example is that my non-high-school graduate father and GED-holding husband were both truck drivers. They were responsible for a large motor vehicle, and loads of commodities that sometimes were worth in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. They were responsible for watching out for hundreds of idiot car drivers, and getting their loads to the destination when their bosses had promised. Their wages ran around $12-14 per hour (calculated since they both got paid by the mile plus loading and unloading time).

My mother, who had a Masters of Science in Nursing, and was in charge of the largest hospital in our state but one, was making at the same time, $8 per hour. It is hard to quantify how much the two levels of responsibility are between a big truck driver and an advanced-degree nurse, but I believe that they are at least equivalent. And therein lies the rub. Truck drivers are mostly men. Nurses are mostly women. That seems to be the only substantive difference that explains the disparity in their pay. So when are we going to have this discussion?

And finally, unions. Unions are getting a really bad rap from the right-wing at the present time. They are being blamed for everything that is wrong with the economy and are being tarred with the complete culpability for business failures (outside of the banking and finance industry) when it is actually the failure of the credit markets that is to blame.

A recent study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research shows that joining a union raises a woman's wages as much as one year of college courses does, and gives a woman better chance of having health insurance than earning a four-year degree does. In fact, women in unions earn an average of 11.2 percent more than their counterparts not in unions.

Such studies demonstrate why it's so critical that Congress prioritizes passing the Employee Free Choice Act! The EFCA is not a repeal of democratic principles, and does NOT get rid of secret ballots. If the workers want to have an election in addition to the card-check, they still can. Currently though, card-check exists but must be followed with an election. The corporations use the time between a majority card-check-off to threaten and intimidate workers and in some cases have even closed stores or plants to prevent unionization. The availability of the card-check to validate a union allows workers to avoid this. It also increases penalties for verified threats and intimidation tactics used by these corporations.

So if you have a minute or two, make a phone call, send a FAX, or write a letter to your Congresscritter and urge passage of the EFCA, and any other pay equity legislation currently pending before your State or the Federal legislature. Women work just as hard (in a lot of cases, harder!) than men - and we all deserve equal pay and benefits. It is not about a new hat any more. There are too many women who are the sole support of themselves and their children, and too many families where two wage-earners are a necessity, not a choice.

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