By Laurel Brennan
The American woman’s struggle for equal pay is not new. As far back as the Civil War, working women have been fighting to be paid on the same scale as men. As Labor Secretary Lewis Schwellenbach pointed out when he tried unsuccessfully to get an equal pay amendment passed in 1947, “There is no sex difference in the food she buys or the rent she pays, there should be none in her pay envelope.”
As one of the few groups advocating for the interests of working people, labor unions have led the way for gains. In 1961, labor activist Esther Peterson convinced President Kennedy to address gender pay inequality. Over the next two years, she gathered data, built coalitions and overcame fierce opposition in a successful campaign to enact a national Equal Pay Act. The following year, the labor-backed Civil Rights Act of 1964 further strengthened laws for gender equality. And, in 2009, unions pressed Congress to pass the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which extended the time frame for women to file equal-pay lawsuits when business owners intentionally shortchanged them.
Unions continue to give women the best opportunity of closing the pay gap. Studies show that women who belong to unions earn higher wages and better health care and retirement benefits than those with no union representation, especially women in lower-paying jobs. A pay equity and anti-discrimination study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research found that non-union women earned $6.18/hour less than union women in 2008-2012. The Economic Policy Institute reports that the average woman would have earned $431,000 more over a 40-year career if she were a man.
There are wealthy conservative groups who believe that a woman’s place is behind a man economically. Lately, they have become engaged in a new anti-worker activity: Dismantling unions. That’s right, if they remove working people’s safety net by eliminating or severely weakening unions, they can pay women (and men) a lower wage, slash benefits and ignore safety standards. Without unions, workers have no voice – so the rich get richer. The right-wing Koch Brothers and others like them have poured millions of dollars into this union-busting endeavor, and they are prepared to spend a lot more.
Their strategy for silencing the voices of working people includes backing a U.S. Supreme Court case that challenges a union’s right to collect fees from employees who choose not to join the union but nonetheless receive the salary and benefits that the union negotiates. They falsely claim this case is about forcing working people to join unions when that could not be further from the truth. Everyone can choose whether to join a union at work, and nothing in this case – Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association – will change that. The question posed in Friedrichs is whether non-members should have to contribute for the job security and benefits the union negotiates. A 1977 U.S. Supreme Court decision said they do. Dues from non-members cannot be used for political purposes.
If the union-busters prevail, it will be significantly harder for working people to come together, speak up for one another and get ahead. The income gap separating the wealthy top one percent from the rest of us will become a chasm that consumes the middle class. Every worker will suffer, but women – who, according to a 2014 Institute for Women’s Policy Research study, earn 79 cents for every dollar earned by men – will stay stuck in the wage-earning basement.
One of the many benefits of a union contract is the guarantee of equal pay for equal work. In addition to securing benefits for their members, unions also play a major role in setting a moral standard for all businesses to follow. Unions are a great economic equalizer and are leading the way to reinvigorate our middle class and turn the tide of economic imbalance. That’s why it’s so important for members to support their unions and for all workers to uphold the right to a voice on the job.
Laurel Brennan is secretary-treasurer of the New Jersey State AFL-CIO, the state’s largest federation of labor unions representing one million members and their families.