Witnesses campaign for equal pay bill
Rep. Rose DeLauro, D-Conn. | Mark Gruenberg/PW

WASHINGTON—For the first time in a decade, legislation to put teeth into the nation’s 56-year-old equal pay law, appears headed for real debate, votes and passage by the Democratic-run U.S. House.

How far it gets beyond that is up to forces beyond the control of its congressional backers. Foes include congressional Republicans – who run the White House and the U.S. Senate – and, as might be expected, the corporate class, led by the Chamber of Commerce.

That prospect didn’t faze the three lawmakers and representatives of women’s groups who campaigned for the measure, the Paycheck Fairness Act, at a congressional hearing on Feb. 13.

By giving workers more power to discuss wages, banning company retaliation, really slamming law-breakers legally and disclosing pay data in broad categories – thus shaming discriminatory employers while putting a powerful tool in workers’ hands – the advocates said the measure would help shrink the huge pay gap where working women trail working men.

And it also could be part of a package that could help cut U.S. poverty and income inequality, they testified. Other sections of that package include raising the minimum wage, enacting paid family leave and, as one new female Democrat from Michigan reminded everyone, strengthening worker rights.

Federal data show the median pay for a working woman nationwide is 80 cents for every dollar a working man in the same or similar jobs, with the same qualifications, earns. The ratios are even worse for African-American (61 cents), Latinas (53 cents) and Native American women (58 cents).  The median is the point where half the workers are under that figure and half above.

Though witnesses didn’t say so, union women are the exception to that dismal picture. The median weekly pay for unionized working women is 86 cents for every dollar all working men earn. It’s 92 cents per union working man’s dollar. Working union women also out-earn every other group of workers, male and female, except unionized men. First-year Rep. Haley Stevens, D-Mich., pointed that out.

“One thing we know is that union workplaces have smaller pay gaps,” Stevens said. “The fact that we have seen attacks on unions and the persistence of the wage gap is related.”

Led by Reps. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., and Don Beyer D-Va., both lawmakers and witnesses told two House Education and Labor subcommittees the legislation would give a big boost to women on the job, often by outlawing tactics employers use to beat them down.

Those tactics include intimidation and unspoken prejudice in job interviews, lack of data comparing male and female workers in broad bands in the same positions, company demands that workers disclose their prior pay – which firms then use to perpetuate discrimination, since woman workers start at lower level pay than identical men — and retribution against workers who discuss their pay on the job.

All those tactics blow holes in the 1963 Equal Pay Act, and DeLauro’s legislation aims to close them. She’s introduced it for more than a dozen years, and Democratic-run U.S. Houses passed it in 2008 and 2009. It then fell victim to Senate GOP filibusters.

Since then, prior GOP-run Congresses never even gave Paycheck Fairness a hearing. Now that Democrats control the committee, and the House, DeLauro’s legislation got its day in court. She also got a sympathetic audience, at least on the Democratic side of the aisle.

“Men and women in the same job deserve the same pay,” the veteran lawmaker from New Haven said with emphasis. “Lack of pay equity” for working women “translates into lower incomes, pensions, retirement and, in some cases, Social Security payments.”

Beyer chimed in by challenging foes of the equal pay legislation, especially the Chamber of Commerce. Owner of a string of D.C.-area auto dealerships, Beyer pointed out that consumer spending accounts for 70 percent of U.S. gross domestic product and that women make 72 percent of those spending decisions.

Put more money in their pockets through stronger and enforced equal pay laws, and women, families and the whole economy benefit, Beyer stated.

Witnesses from women’s rights groups chimed in, too. Fatima Gross-Graves, president of the National Women’s Law Center told solons that states and cities have tried to close the pay gap themselves, given congressional inaction over the last half-century. It’s not enough.

“In the face of this great cultural shift” where women’s rights – from equal pay to freedom from sexual exploitation on the job – are now taken seriously, “every woman, especially every African-American woman, every Latina woman and every Native American woman, deserves these protections.”

“Existing laws have not lived up to their promise” of equal pay for equal work, added Jenny Yang, chair of the federal Equal Employment Opportunities Commission during the Democratic Obama administration. During her tenure, the EEOC, which enforces civil rights laws, handled record numbers of sexual pay discrimination cases.

She cited one example from the Houston Community College system: A husband-and-wife professor team, each with the same age, qualifications and college graduation dates were hired to teach the same courses in the same department. The college paid the husband $10,000 more.

EEOC also planned to gather aggregate racial and sexual pay data by industry, and publish it, Yang said. That’s a mandate in DeLauro’s legislation, too. The GOP Trump administration, acting at both business behest and his hatred of anything Obama did, yanked the EEOC’s rule.

Panel Republicans, with one exception – New York’s Elise Stefanik – bleated they too support equal pay for equal work. All but Stefanik then alleged that DeLauro’s paycheck fairness bill would not help working women and would help trial lawyers, a favorite GOP piñata. So did the token witness the GOP trotted out: The head of the Chamber’s so-called equal pay committee, a female lawyer from the union-busting firm Seyfarth Shaw.

The Chamber rep complained the legislation would be an administrative nightmare. She was silent about her own firm’s activities against unions and against women seeking pay equity, but admitted she’s never represented them. The GOP didn’t press her and panel Democrats generally avoided even questioning her.

After enumerating all the ways women suffer from the pay gap, and why it exists even after controlling for job levels, education and experience, “The underlying issue of pay discrimination remains – and we must use the collective power of Congress to fix it,” DeLauro said.

“Right now, we’re letting pay equality be left to chance,” Yang added.


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.