The Multinational Monitor



Equal Pay for Equal Work

by Samantha Sparks

Eight years after the Supreme Court ruled that jobs of equal worth should receive equal pay, the battle for widespread pay equity has all but stalled.

In 1981, the Supreme Court ruled that Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibits pay discrimination in different jobs of similar worth. This landmark decision, Gunther v. County of Washington, paved the way for a host of pay equity actions by state employees throughout the nation. Since 1984, 20 states have appropriated about $400 million for pay equity adjustments, according to the National Committee on Pay Equity (NCPE), a coalition of labor unions, women's groups and civil rights organizations. About half the states in the country have either completed or are working on studies to assess the extent of wage disparities and discrimination. Only seven states--Alaska, Arkansas, Delaware, Georgia, Idaho, Missouri and Oklahoma--have failed to take even the initial step of conducting research about pay equity.

Despite this activity, the private sector remains practically impenetrable to pay equity claims. Even in the public sector, where collective bargaining for pay adjustments sometimes achieves equity, courts stacked with conservative Reagan appointees have made it very difficult to win pay equity suits when collective bargaining has failed. "More and more, the courts say you have to prove malice by the employer" in order to win a pay equity case, says Carin Clauss, a pay equity advocate and law professor at the University of Wisconsin. "In the old days, the courts said different treatment [of workers in similar jobs] was sufficient" to show discrimination.

The main premise of pay equity is that people should be paid similar wages for jobs of similar worth; a worker's sex, race or age should not be a factor in determining wage levels. Although pay equity includes discrimination against blacks and older people as well as against women, the fight to win comparable pay for mainly female jobs has defined the pay equity battlefield to date. The problem is becoming more urgent as the number of impoverished female-headed households increases. More than half of all female-headed Black and Hispanic households live on incomes below the poverty line, and about one in four white female-headed households are in the same predicament.

At issue is the long-standing difference between the wages paid for jobs predominantly filled by women and those predominantly filled by men. This gap between female and male jobs has existed ever since women began working outside the home. Surprisingly, it has narrowed very little in the past 40 years, even as women have become much more important in the national workforce.

In 1987 women workers received only 65 cents for every dollar paid to white male workers. Pay equity advocates argue that this difference results from discrimination. They point out that women are still concentrated in relatively few kinds of jobs; more than half of the wage-earning women in the United States work in the clerical and service sectors. In addition, these jobs carry a lower wage than jobs dominated by men, and pay equity advocates assert that the lower wage results from the high concentration of women in these jobs.

As women move into new professions, the wage gap sometimes narrows, but not always. Sometimes the situation works in reverse. For example, a 1986 study by the National Academy of Sciences found that with every percentage point increase of women in a job, the annual median salary dropped by $42.00.

Opponents of pay equity contend that wages are determined in most cases by market forces; because women are willing to work for lower wages, opponents argue, women's work is worth less in the market than men's. This is why they say that teachers, who work in a profession dominated by women, draw smaller salaries than garbage collecters, whose field is dominated by men.

Pay equity opponents also argue that it is not possible to equate the worth of different jobs. "Equal value is hard to define," complains a Labor Department spokesman. "There is no standard against which to measure value." As such, he affirms, the Labor Department's position is in favor of "equal pay for equal work"--a stance required by Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act--rather than equal pay for equal worth.

In fact, standards for comparing jobs have been in effect for most of this century. Two out of three workers today are employed by firms that use some form of job evaluation, according to the NCPE. Successful implementation of pay equity adjustments for 30,000 state employees in Minnesota showed that the process is not necessarily difficult or expensive.

Opposition to pay equity, advocates contend, is based not on sound economic and technical reasoning, but on the reluctance of employers to pay women workers their due. Courts have permitted this discrimination to continue. In 1985, for example, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco held that lower pay for female-dominated jobs was legal. The Appeals Court overturned a lower court ruling that awarded $400 million to female employees in the state of Washington. Moreover, notes law professor Clauss, the U.S. government, through the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, has ceased financing plaintiffs' pay equity suits. Since a single suit can cost upwards of $1 million, many unions have been unable to press charges on their own, Clauss says. In addition to the high cost, many unions have been less than enthusiastic about pressing this issue.

Pay equity advocates single out the courts as the main reason for the slow progress to date, but a few say unions themselves share some of the blame. A 1981 AFL-CIO resolution for affiliates to fight for pay equity has not been pursued with vigor by most unions, for several reasons. Anna Padia, human rights coordinator for the Newspaper Guild, one of the few unions that has succeeded in bargaining for pay equity adjustments from the private sector, pinpoints three reasons for the unions' poor track record.

First, unions without a large female membership often do not believe that their women or minority workers face wage discrimination. "Either they don't perceive a problem, or in fact there may not be a problem. But the facts can't be known unless an analysis [of wages] is done," says Padia. Unions in the private sector might find it more difficult than public sector unions to obtain the data they need to study the issue, but it can be done, she says. "Unions have access to payroll data that will allow them to find out if it is true that jobs are segregated by sex or race."

According to two professors at the University of Minnesota who have studied the technical aspects of pay equity, workers are often reluctant to analyze wages in their shop because the process seems too complicated. "Unlike the great union organizing campaigns, [pay equity battles] do not have the character of a social movement demanding an ongoing role in the process of wage negotiation," Sara Evans and Barbara Nelson write in their recent book, Wage Justice. "Most often, comparable worth advocates demand the institution of a highly specialized management technology, job evaluation, and a mathematical analysis."

These steps are often difficult for workers to take. "The skills required to accomplish these tasks are not difficult to acquire, but they are usually less common among organized workers than among managers, and they hardly exist among unorganized workers," the authors contend.

The unions have not fought aggressively for pay equity, not just because it is difficult, but also because they have been preoccupied with simply surviving during the anti-labor onslaught of the Reagan years, Padia says. "Unions have been forced to deal almost exclusively with basic survival issues such as health care costs, pension problems, childcare, and maternity and paternity leave." Taking on pay equity, even though it could help workers deal with their other problems, seems to fall low on the list of union priorities.

A third problem unions face is perhaps the most difficult to address: the attitudes of the workers themselves, women as well as men. "Pay equity deals with sex, money and power," Padia observes. "You couldn't have a more explosive chemistry."

Fear of a male backlash against pay gains for women in the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employee's (AFSCME) landmark victory against the state of Minnesota led the union to underplay the pay equity issue so much during its fight that fully 45 percent of the workers who received raises did not know what they were for, according to Evans and Nelson.

At the same time, some professional workers--female as well as male--have been reluctant to back pay equity efforts because they want to maintain the status differential, researchers have found. In Minnesota, professional workers broke away from AFSCME in 1980, just as the union was mounting what would become the nation's first state-wide pay equity victory. Tensions between AFSCME and the new union increased as AFSCME workers began receiving pay increases and edging closer to the professional workers' salaries, according to Wage Justice.

All of the obstacles to pay equity amount to a daunting challenge. Judging by their actions to date, it seems that unions may be slow to meet that challenge. Padia says that ultimately it will be up to those workers facing discrimination to provide the impetus in the pay equity fight. "The women and the minorities whose wages are deflated are going to have to take their economic lives into their own hands and raise the issue themselves." Action is unlikely until such pressure builds.

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