Suffering the insufferable because of economic insecurity: Women in the economy

LOS ANGELES – At a recent (March 3) ingathering focused on Women in the Economy, held at the Wilshire Boulevard Temple in L.A.’s Koreatown, Sandra Diaz, California statewide political director for SEIU-USWW, spoke of workplace harassment and abuse. She raised a strong objection to women “suffering the insufferable because of economic insecurity.” Aside from historic, intractable pay inequity, women on the job endure a variety of indignities and abuses.

The morning workshop with a large number of presenters – who had to talk fast because time was short! – addressed several aspects of the crisis of women’s work today. Rabbi Jonathan Klein, executive director of Clergy & Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUELA), opened with a few observations.

Women are now earning 77 or 78 cents on the dollar that men earn for the same work. Women comprise two-thirds of the workers in low-wage jobs, and are often subject to sexual harassment, especially in service industries. He brought attention to the familiar “wedge issues” that conservative politicians like to present before the public – as legislative bills, referendums, or talking points that get voters angry so as to divide and conquer people trying to work together for social justice. Such issues include the struggle to maintain legal abortion, to include contraception in health plans, public prayer, immigration, denying service to LGBT clients, and now transgender access to bathrooms.

CLUE, active now for more than a decade, came into being by women activists in labor and the faith community such as Maria Elena Durazo and the Rev. Alexia Salvatierra. Rabbi Klein reminded the more than 100 attendees at the ingathering that religious institutions themselves also need to confront their own issues around gender.

Attorney and activist Sandra Fluke spoke of the history of the wage gap. Wage theft is mentioned in the Bible, and Pope Francis has said that the gender pay gap is a scandal. The year 1963 was the last time federal legislation addressed the issue of the pay gap. If the gap in the U.S. is 77 cents to $1, for African American women it’s 62 cents, and for Latinas 54 cents. Over the course of a year that can amount to thousands of dollars of stolen wages, dragging down the whole economy, not to mention the individual households the gap affects.

California alone loses an estimated $37.7 billion a year from the wage gap, money that’s not being pumped back into the economy. Female farm workers earn about $5000 a year less than men. Gender and sexuality also affect median salary: A straight man earns $48K, a gay man $47K, a lesbian $38K, and a trans woman’s earnings drop by one-third. A man’s pay goes up 6 percent with a new child (“he needs it to support his family”), while a woman’s pay goes down 4 percent (“she’ll likely be absent from work frequently or leave the workforce”).

In the decade 1985-94 the wage gap closed by 8 percent; in 1994-2005 it closed by 5 percent; and in 2005-14 it narrowed by only 1.5 percent. Progress has stalled. At this rate equal pay on the job will be achieved by 2058. “A lot of our sisters could use a faster pace on this issue,” says Fluke.

Needless to say, working women support not only themselves but their children and families. Curiously enough – and a sharp reminder about the specialness of “American exceptionalism” –  Egypt is the country in the world with the highest rate of women’s pay compared to men, at 82 percent.

Women are often told they need to learn to “negotiate” for higher or even equal pay. But what happens more frequently is that they’re simply less likely to get hired. Even as children, family allowance is lower for girls, and a girl offering babysitter service earns less than a boy, by 50 cents an hour.

Legislative measures

In Congress the Paycheck Fairness Act is currently on the table, but with little hope of passage under a GOP majority. The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009, the first bill signed into law by President Barack Obama, did not solve the problem because so many employers still do not want women to find out they’re being discriminated against.

There is some progress in California, however. SB 358, passed last year, was first in the nation to support paycheck equity. It also discouraged pay secrecy – no more retaliation against conversations among employees about pay. Also SB 1063, the Wage Equality Act of 2016, intends to expand wage equality by also including factors of race and ethnicity.

Rev. Carolyn Wilkins told the story of the Black Women’s Leadership Council founded at the Xerox Corporation back in the 1980s to get past both racism and sexism. Women would meet, track progress, and recommend good candidates for further training. Now Xerox has an explicit vision of “equality, dignity, and respect,” and it’s because women on the inside demanded it. In fact, Xerox today has a Black woman as chair and CEO, Ursula Burns.

Fluke finished by mentioning AB 1676, which would make it illegal to ask a job candidate for their pay history or their salary requirements. Instead, the employer would need to state that this job pays in the X-Y range. This issue greatly affects women because women likely have had lower pay to begin with and may feel cautious about asking for more.

April 12, 2016, is Equal Pay Day. Why April 12? Because it will take until April 12 for a woman’s pay to catch up to what a man earned last year.

Our economy needs stability and security so that women can leave an abusive relationship and avoid situations where they are vulnerable either to job trafficking or sex trafficking. (More on this later.)

Who says women should be silent in church?

This being a gathering largely of faith-based activists, the Rev. Sharon Rhodes-Wickett, retired United Methodist minister, gave us a short lesson on how to read sacred texts and understand the theological framework they’re based on. When in the seminary she questioned the traditional anti-woman theology she grew up with, she was accused of having “authority issues.” But that’s because she was asking questions of the text: Who benefits? Who’s telling the story, who’s missing from the story, and what is not said and why? What is the social, cultural, theological and political context of the passage? Is it meant to apply to all time, or only to a particular community located in time? And what are your own assumptions, conditioning and beliefs that influence your reading?

Rhodes-Wickett referred to many examples of women mentioned in Scripture who owned property, signed deeds, and were involved in the economy and industry. So why does Scripture say women should be silent in church? Obviously, because they weren’t! Similarly, why does Scripture command that women submit to their husband’s authority? Because they didn’t!

Women are forbidden to “lay hands” (i.e., bless and consecrate), but why? You guessed it: Because they were being ordained and were laying hands! “We have got to stop this amnesia!” says Rhodes-Wickett. “It keeps people spinning. How many millennia does one need? The result of the omission is that we are left broken.”

Or as Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza has written, “In every generation feminists have to reinvent the wheel, so to speak, and rediscover feminist knowledge. Throughout the centuries, women thinkers who have claimed that the world looks different from the perspective of women have disappeared again and again from historical consciousness and remained unknown not only to men but also to women. Because of this patriarchally induced ‘forgetfulness,’ women have had again and again to discover anew feminist theories and perspectives.”

The traffickers among us

Angela Guanzon, survivor of labor trafficking, spoke movingly. She was forced to work for 10 years to pay off her passage from the Philippines and her visa, at $300 a month, with no days off and meals salvaged from table scraps. She was virtually owned by her trafficker. Eventually she was rescued by the FBI, and the trafficker pleaded guilty and got 5 years. Today Guanzon works with the Coalition to Abolish Slavery & Trafficking (CAST), which provides legal and social services, survivor leadership and training, and policy recommendations for legislators. It also sponsors a 24-hour hotline at (888) 539.2373. New mandatory postings in workplaces about trafficking have resulted in a 250 percent increase in calls to the hotline.

The National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW) is a strong advocate of women’s and immigrant rights. In Southern California, Maya Paley is one of its local activists. The Biblical admonition “Protect the stranger in your midst” is repeated no fewer than 36 times in the Torah, Paley says, far more than any mention of any other mandate, including keeping the Sabbath.

Top industries for trafficked labor are brothels, restaurant and food, hotels and motels, nighttime janitorial work, and agriculture. Household service also crops up regularly. California and Texas are the two leading trafficking states. Of course, all sex work is not necessarily sexual trafficking: There are independent women who support themselves as sex workers. Nor is it correct to assume that all sexual trafficking is restricted to women, or labor trafficking to men.

Twelve percent of sexual assault takes place at the workplace, especially in industries with a heavily immigrant population. But policy reform is usually based on stories from workers bearing witness to their experiences. There are now bills in the state legislature for visa reform, to decriminalize victims of trafficking – people who have been forced to commit crimes under the control of traffickers – and for greater regulation of industries such as massage parlors, nail salons and the restaurant business.

Clergy & Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUELA) educates, organizes and mobilizes the faith community to walk with workers and their families in their struggle for respect and dignity in the workplace. CLUELA has a number of ongoing campaigns and programs volunteers can work with, including the Anaheim California Voting Rights Act, Black Jewish Justice Alliance, Iron Workers, LAX Workers, Long Beach Hospitality, Long Beach End Wage Theft & Raise the Wage, Pasadena Livable Wage, Port Truck Drivers, Santa Ana Building Healthy Communities, Santa Monica Hospitality Workers, Santa Monica Livable Wage, and UCARE (Unaccompanied Central American Refugee Empowerment).



Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon, People’s World Cultural Editor, wrote a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein and co-authored composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography. He has received numerous awards for his People's World writing from the International Labor Communications Association. He has translated all nine books of fiction by Manuel Tiago (pseudonym for Álvaro Cunhal) from Portuguese, available from International Publishers NY.