Why Is It Still 77 Cents?

There were a lot of speeches when the Obama administration urged the Senate to vote for the Paycheck Fairness Act, legislation aimed at winning equal pay for women in the workplace. As expected, the measure fell short of the 60 votes needed to go forward without Republican obstruction.


A woman in the U.S. is paid, on average, 77 cents for every dollar a man makes, a number that has changed very little over 50 years—only about half a cent a year on average.


According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, if it keeps up at the same snail’s pace, women will have to wait until 2056 to reach pay parity with men. This should be treated like the outrage it is, not like a talking point that Democrats parade out in the run-up to elections.


In his first two weeks in office, Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Act, named after a former Goodyear employee who found on retiring that she made $1,000 a month less than her male counterparts. She was unable to receive the back pay she was owed because her complaint didn’t meet the arbitrary 180-day deadline.


At the time, the Administration officials said that the Paycheck Fairness Act was the next thing on their agenda. The bill is supposed to close up loopholes in the 1963 Equal Pay Act that allows companies to avoid responsibility for wage discrimination against women and made it easier for employees to file complaints by prohibiting employers from retaliating.


Obama supported the bill as a senator and said that he would make sure it became a reality while he was president. The Paycheck Fairness Act made it through the House in 2009, but Senate Democrats squandered their opportunity to pass the bill when they had a majority, so the Republicans were able to block it when it came up again in 2010.


So the story remains the same. The Democrats are the fiercest fighters for women’s equality when there’s an election around the corner, yet silent when they can actually do something about it. It’s worth remembering that, while they can’t muster a majority for the Paycheck Fairness Act, there are always enough votes to re-authorize the Hyde Amendment, which bars funds from Medicaid for abortions for poor women.


It goes without saying that the Paycheck Fairness Act is unpopular with corporate America. In the run-up to the vote, a stream of propaganda about equal pay flowed through the media. Several conservatives said that it would hurt small business owners and encourage “frivolous lawsuits.” Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) said the bill “reads more to me like some sort of welfare plan for trial lawyers.”


The truth is that unequal pay has a devastating impact on women’s lives and the lives of their families. This is particularly the case during the current economic crisis when men and women are competing for jobs and struggling to make ends meet.


The Center for American Progress reported that a median full-time male worker took home $47,715 in 2010, while the median full-time working woman made $36,931—77.4 percent, or $10,784 less. This is the case even as women are getting college and graduate degrees at faster rates than men. The wage gap for Black and Latino women compared to men is less because the wages of Blacks and Latinos are lower overall. So, while white women earned 78.1 percent compared to white men, African American women earned 89.8 percent compared to Black men. Hispanic women earned 91.3 percent compared to Latino men.


Nearly two-thirds of women—who make up roughly half the workforce—are either the primary breadwinner or a co-breadwinner and are responsible for at least 25 percent of their family’s income. Because of the wage disparity, they are less likely to be able to afford health care, education, transportation, food, and housing and are more likely to live in poverty.


During the economic crisis, conditions will likely get worse without legal protection, as fewer workers feel that they can risk their job by taking on discriminatory practices. As Forbes pointed out, “The number of pay discrimination complaints filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission actually fell after the Lilly Ledbetter Act was signed, dropping from 2,268 to 2,191 last year.”


Women workers are finding that employers are more hostile and that they have fewer protections, as courts rule in favor of employers. As Irin Carmon pointed out on Salon.com, “From 2000 to 2009, those who filed claims were only successful 35 percent of the time, compared to 55 percent whose claims succeeded from 1990 to 1999 and in earlier decades.” If women are going to get paid fairly for the work that they do, the employers who profit from discrimination have to be exposed.


During the women’s movement of the 1970s, groups of women took the movement for equality into their workplaces and were inspired to get organized and join unions. In 1956, for example, some 18.6 percent of union workers were women; by 1979, a high point of unionization, that number reached 24.2 percent.


Women built organizations like the Coalition of Labor Union Women, 9 to 5, and Women Employed. They took on the working conditions and attitudes that held women back at work, like rampant sexual harassment or the idea that a women who got married could have her wages cut or that a woman who became pregnant could be fired. They challenged the notion that a woman didn’t need to get paid the same as a man because she “didn’t really need the income.”


It’s worth noting that during last year’s failed class-action suit against Walmart—in which 1.5 million past and present women employees complained of being passed over for promotions and pay raises on the basis of their sex—a store manager told one worker that he gave a male associate a larger raise because he had a “family to support.”


In 1977, when eight bank workers at the Citizens National Bank in Willmar, Minnesota, discovered that a new male employee who they had trained would be earning more to start than any of them were paid after as many as ten years on the job, they complained to the bank president. The president’s response was simple and direct: “We’re not all equal, you know.” The women’s response was simple and direct, too: they formed a union and walked out.


The Willmar Eight’s strike—which spanned 1977 and 1978 and included daily pickets, sometimes in subzero temperatures—eventually closed down the bank. Although the women lost their suit because of technicalities and didn’t get the back pay they deserved, they inspired other women workers to get organized.


As People magazine reported at the time: by far the most dramatic effect of the strike has been on the women themselves. “In the past two or three months, they have been pretty much on their own,” says John Mack, their lawyer. “They weren’t tough when they started, but they are now.”


One striker, Glennis Andresen, represented the Willmar Eight at last summer’s ERA rally in Washington, DC. Another teller, Sandi Treml ran for city council this year but lost. “I am more sure of myself,” finds Sylvia Erickson. “I realize you can do things you never thought you could.” 


Elizabeth Schulte is an activist and writer.