Lilly Ledbetter, Hilda Solis, and The Employee Free Choice Act

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than a man’s is pretty general knowledge. Right now,
women earn about 78 cents for every dollar a man earns.
The Institute for Women’s Policy Research calculates that
this adds up to $210,000 less for women over a 35-year,
full-time work life. Obviously, this impacts what a woman
can give her children, to say nothing of retirement security.
The bill that President Obama signed on January 27,
the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act, addresses a
particularly cruel 2007 decision by the Supreme Court
that said the deadline for filing a charge of discrimination
in pay is 180 days from the first paycheck. Ledbetter didn’t
even realize that the men around her at Goodyear were
making more than she was until she’d received 19 years
worth of such paychecks. Now, the deadline is 180 days
from each discriminatory paycheck; every new paycheck
is a new act of discrimination.
The comparison between men’s and women’s wages
matches women with full-time jobs to wages of men with
full-time jobs. Full-time work is getting more rare. What
replaces full time jobs is part-time jobs, mostly in retail,
service, and care work like child care and home care. A
hard-to-measure number of these jobs drop into the informal
economy. People get paid in cash, nothing is in writing,
no payroll taxes get taken out and there’s no workers’
comp, to say nothing of benefits.
You may have heard people say, “The best economic stimulus
is a union.” This is especially true for women. In simple
terms of dollars, women in unions make a median $809 per
week compared to non-union women who make $615.
But many people in unions will say that it’s not actually
the money that is most important—it’s that fuzzy thing
called ‘a voice.’ If you have a union, you have representation,
meaning that it’s someone’s job to take your side and
understand your experience of your job, and, if it comes to
that, defend you and if possible protect you. This means
protecting you against not just unfair practices at work but
also more general threats, like unsafe working conditions
including overwork or exhaustion and discrimination. For
women who may not have had practice successfully
defending themselves, the experience of representation
can come as a revelation. This experience is often sufficiently
profound to make an otherwise uninvolved union
member decide to become an activist.
In fact, this experience is often cited by women who tell
the story of how they got involved in their unions. They’ll tell
the story of how a problem at work developed, became complex,
became something they couldn’t resolve themselves
and eventually brought them into conflict with their employer.
That moment of confrontation is also a moment of clarity.
In my experience as a labor educator, many such problems
have to do with attendance—missing work to take a
child to the doctor, taking a phone call at work from a
family member, or sometimes the exhaustion that comes
from doing too much overtime. An example that comes to
mind right away is a woman who cleaned office buildings
at one site from 11PM to 4AM, then went home and slept
for 2 hours, got up and sent the kids to school and then
went and cleaned a different building—for the same
cleaning company!—from 9AM to 2PM. This insane schedule
allowed her to see her kids at breakfast and dinner,
but it was killing her. One day she fell asleep on the job
and her employer, in the process of disciplining her, discovered
that she was actually working two different jobs.
They accused her of lying and fired her. Luckily, she had a
union representative who not only got her job back but
got her work consolidated into one job plus back pay for
the overtime she had been doing. The money was nice,
she reported, but what really mattered was that someone
was on her side.
So why doesn’t everyone form unions? Despite a recent
study by the AFL-CIO that said that 78 percent of people
favor “legislation that would generally make it easier for
workers to bargain with their employers for better wages,
benefits, and working conditions,” only 7% of private sector
and 12% of public sector workers are in unions. One
reason is fear. Companies fire people who try to organize
unions. A good report on this put out by Human Rights
Watch is called Unfair Advantage. For many people, especially
these days, a bad job is better than no job.
Of course, the official policy of the United States, since
1935, has been that unions are a good thing. Here is the
actual language of the law, the National Labor Relations Act.
It is declared to be the policy of the United States to
“eliminate the causes of certain substantial obstructions to
the free flow of commerce and to mitigate and eliminate
these obstructions when they have occurred by encouraging
the practice and procedure of collective bargaining and
by protecting the exercise by workers of full freedom of
association, self-organization, and designation of representatives
of their own choosing, for the purpose of negotiating
the terms and conditions of their employment or other
mutual aid or protection.”
That law is still in effect—although you’d never know
it. Employers violate the spirit of this law, as well as its letter,
all the time. One of the problems is that although the
NLRA says that employers and unions have to negotiate
“in good faith,” nothing forces them to do so. There is no
effective process and no penalties worth mentioning.
But another proposed bill, the Employee Free Choice
Act, is in Congress right now. Passing it was part of
Obama’s platform, and our newly confirmed Head of the
Department of Labor, Hilda Solis, is in support of it. It
allows for majority sign-up, meaning that if a majority of
the workers sign cards saying that they want a union, they
get a union, period. Perhaps more important, it provides
for mediation followed by binding arbitration so that
workers, who in the past have sometimes gone years with
a union but no contract (remember the Heartland Human
Services workers in Effingham—mostly women), will get a
contract within 120 days. Perhaps most potently, it allows
for up to $20,000 in penalties per violation for things like
firing workers for union activity—plus triple back pay for
any worker so fired.
Stay tuned. If the Employee Free Choice Act passes,
we’re likely to be looking at a very different world of work,
especially for women.
Institute for Women’s Policy Research,
Other figures from and
Unfair Advantage is at

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