Senate GOP blocks Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Bill

WASHINGTON (PAI)--Again turning their backs on workers, Senate Republicans mustered enough votes to defeat pro-labor legislation on April 23. In this case, it was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay bill, which garnered a 56-42 majority, but needed 60 votes to halt the talkathon. The House passed it earlier. But the Senate vote may have killed it.

The Republicans responded to their business backers, who claimed the measure hurts them. The bill would reverse a Supreme Court 5-4 decision last May saying women, minorities and others suffering pay discrimination on the job can only sue within the first 180 days of its occurrence. If they uncover discrimination after that--as Ledbetter did via a tip many years later--they’re out of luck, the 5-man majority said.

The decision in Ledbetter vs. Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co., prompted an unusually public dissent by Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the court’s only female justice, who called the majority “out of touch” with modern workplaces. She also said it was up to Congress to reverse the ruling. But the GOP halted the reversal.

Chief Senate sponsor Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) called the filibuster “outrageous” and vowed “this issue” of equal pay for equal work isn’t going away.”

Ledbetter, a retired supervisor at Goodyear’s Gadsden, Ala., plant, “was the victim of blatant pay discrimination, which she discovered too late,” said Marsha Zukowski, a Steel Workers vice president and president of the Coalition of Labor Union Women. Ledbetter previously told PAI rank-and-file female workers at Gadsden did not suffer blatant discrimination, due protection from their USW contract.

Under the court’s ruling “month after month after month, a worker could be paid less than a colleague based on sex, race, religion or disability,” Zukowski added. “They have to sue within 180 days of when the discrimination starts--and not within 180 days of when they learned about it.” That lets firms stall, discriminate--and get away with it.

“Paying a woman less than a man is an affront to human dignity,” added AFL-CIO Civil Rights Department Director Rosalyn Polles. The vote was on Equal Pay Day.‘

Ledbetter, a 19-year-10-month Goodyear veteran, pointed out she won’t get a dime if the law passes. The Supreme Court not only threw out Goodyear’s conviction on sexual pay discrimination charges, but also the $3.8 million in damages--later capped at $300,000—and $60,000 in back pay a jury awarded. “If my pay had been reasonably close to that of the men, I would have let this go,” Ledbetter, a 68-year-old grandmother, said. “But it’s not the money, it’s the discrimination,” she said.

Other speakers at the event, called in the midst of last-minute lobbying for the legislation, pointed out the court ruling hurts millions of people--and its impact goes far beyond pay. As Ledbetter herself noted, not only did she suffer pay discrimination for 19 years, but it also resulted in a lower pension, a lower 401(k), lower matches of that account by Goodyear, and lower Social Security payments.

“I have physicians, professors, teachers, nurses, you name it, writing me about the pay discrimination they suffer. You should see under my kitchen table; It’s crammed with boxes of letters” from women nationwide, Ledbetter said.

“Protection against pay discrimination is basic to democracy,” Senate Labor Committee Chairman Kennedy told colleagues before the vote. In an indication of the importance of the vote to working women, both Democratic presidential hopefuls, Sens. Hillary Clinton (N.Y.) and Barack Obama (Ill.), returned to the Senate from their hot contest to vote for the Lilly Ledbetter bill.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the presumptive GOP nominee, was one of two senators who did not vote. Six Republicans--four of them up for re-election this fall--voted against their party’s talkathon. They included Norman Coleman (Minn.) and Gordon Smith (Ore.). The other votes for it came from Democrats and independents.

Ledbetter said pay discrimination was abetted by Goodyear’s orders--common at many firms--to workers not to discuss pay with each other, under threat of firing. That gave Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), another longtime backer of equal pay, an opening to again campaign for his legislation that would force employers to disclose pay levels, but in broad categories of occupations at the same plant.

Such disclosure would help further the goal of equal pay for equal work--Equal Pay Day marks the day an average woman worker earns, in a year and the following months, what an average male earns in a year--“by giving people more information” to use to challenge pay discrimination.

House Education and Labor Committee Chairman George Miller (D-Calif.) used the press conference to announce another anti-pay discrimination bill, offered by veteran Rep, Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), who also spoke, would come up in his committee “in several weeks.” That bill puts teeth into the 1963 Equal Pay Act.

Equal Pay Day is the day an average woman worker earns enough, added to her pay from the year before, to equal the pay of an average male worker. Women earn 77 cents for every dollar an average male makes, a figure that barely budged “since the turn of this (21st) century,” one speaker said.