Lilly Ledbetter tells union women about ongoing struggle for equal pay

SILVER SPRING, Md. –  Despite some gains in recent years – including legislation named for her that lets women and minorities sue for equal pay for equal work – women still face a tough road to equal pay, activist Lilly Ledbetter says.

“Some single mothers work two jobs and extra time on weekends and still can’t pay their bills,” the soft-spoken but determined grandmother from Birmingham, Ala., told several hundred union women gathered in the D.C. suburb of Silver Spring, Md., for the Coalition of Labor Union Women’s Election 2016: What’s At Stake two-day conference.

That’s because working women suffer widespread pay discrimination, and even though they can sue for back pay, thanks to the law named for her, they still face a long and hard slog to get it, Ledbetter said.

With Equal Pay Day scheduled for April 12 – the day marking when a working woman earns enough in one year plus extra months to equal what a working man earned the previous year alone-the unionists brainstormed on tactics to raise the issue of equal pay for equal work and other issues important to working women to the top of the 2016 campaign agenda.

Ledbetter, who rose to prominence as a campaigner for equal pay when the U.S. Supreme Court turned her pay discrimination case down – on a 5-4 vote in 2007 – agreed with that priority, with special reference to the High Court’s role.

Ledbetter, a retired 19-year supervisor at the Goodyear Tire Company plant in Birmingham, Ala., first found she was being discriminated against in pay when someone else slipped her an anonymous note near the end of her tenure saying that male supervisors, even with less experience than she had, earned more.

The difference, she told the CLUW group, reached 40 percent, despite her superior ratings in managing 52-60 workers at Goodyear. Ledbetter sued, Goodyear resisted, and she took the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where the GOP-named five-man majority threw out lower court verdicts in her favor.

Justice Samuel Alito, Ledbetter told CLUW, wrote the decision against her. If Justice Sandra Day O’Connor had not retired, Ledbetter said, she would have won her case. And even before that, Congress – a Republican Congress, though Ledbetter did not say so – cut maximum awards in cases like hers to $300,000. The Alabama jury had awarded her $3.8 million.

The Ledbetter case turned the country upside down, when Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg challenged the country and Congress to overturn the ruling. Lawmakers did so in 2009. “The Ledbetter bill kept the courtroom doors open,” after the court slammed them, she said.

That means the Supreme Court is extremely important to working women in this election, Ledbetter told CLUW.

The court has one vacancy, after the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, intellectual leader of its GOP-named right wing. President Obama has nominated Merrick Garland, chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for D.C., to succeed Scalia, but the Senate’s ruling Republicans refuse even to hold a hearing on Garland, much less a vote.

“This is so critical to young people, who understand they don’t have equal pay,” Ledbetter explained. “And women and minorities have to understand that once it (equal pay) is gone, it’s gone.”

That’s because even in cases where women and minorities prove that firms discriminated by sex – as Ledbetter did against Goodyear – race, gender or more, the harmed workers rarely get back pay. Working women thus lose hundreds of thousands of dollars each. They also lose Social Security credit for what would have been higher pay.

“It’s not so much what happens to us, but how we react to it, and what do we do to change it,” Ledbetter said of her fight, and the fights of other women for equal pay for equal work that she cited.

Union women must be in the forefront of the fight and unions are key to it, Ledbetter added. “You union people are very supportive and we can’t get our unions taken away in this country,” she declared.

The Goodyear plant where Ledbetter worked is unionized, with the Steelworkers, and she has said previously that if the contract had covered her – it did not, because she was a supervisor – the pay discrimination would not have occurred.

The role of the courts and the right wing’s ideological push to pack them was one key issue CLUW delegates discussed on April 8. Others included the big picture of the election, with emphasis on what working women’s issues will be important, attacks on women’s health, so-called right to work legislation, key races and how CLUW members can make a difference.

CLUW President Connie Leak, an autoworker, struck those themes, and related them to the upcoming election. She didn’t name candidates, but made it clear that one of the two major parties – the GOP – follows the lead of the Republican-named High Court justices.

“Are you sick and tired of being sick and tired?” Leak asked. “We have to do this because we know what we are facing. I don’t have to call out no names because the names are the ones we don’t want to be in charge” in the White House, she stated.

“So that means getting off your rusty-dustys. It’s being about the fight.”

Photo: Lilly Ledbetter.  |  AP


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.