For working women all across the state, today may feel just like another workday, but it’s actually much more. Today is Equal Pay Day.
Women on average are paid only 77 cents for every dollar paid to their male colleagues, according to a report by the American Association of University Women. Or, to put it a different way, women essentially work the first quarter of the calendar for free. If all workers got paid on a daily basis, men have been getting their wages in full since Jan 1. Women would only get their first paycheck today.
Nearly six decades after women began to assert themselves in the workplace, and after countless examples of women working at the same – if not higher – levels and standards as men, that we even need to commemorate Equal Pay Day is disappointing. Equal work should demand equal pay, regardless of race, gender or age. Unfortunately, the working world is still far from this ideal.
The pay gap exists across all demographic lines. Women of color make decidedly less than white men in the same occupations. Latinas, for example, are paid only 53 percent of what their white male counterparts make, the AAUW reports. An older woman will see the pay gap actually widen with age, as if experience in the workplace makes her less valuable to her employer.
There are two tracks to closing the wage gap. First, the state could finally enact legislation to require equal pay for equal work – putting the power of law behind what already seems to be common sense.
Two such measures are already moving ahead in the Statehouse. Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, one of the Legislature’s most passionate voices for women’s equality, is sponsoring the Unfair Wage Recovery Act (S783) with Assemblywoman Pamela Lampitt that would make it a crime each and every time a woman is found to have been paid less simply because she is a woman. The Wage Transparency Act (S1038), also sponsored by Sen. Weinberg, would require every public contract to be clear about the pay of every individual to be hired, putting in writing their set wages.
The second is what women can do directly. Plain and simple: Join a union. Nothing has been proven to close the wage gap quicker and more definitively than a union contract. For union women, wages have averaged more than 25 percent higher than those made by their non-union peers – and among Hispanic women, it’s more than one-third.
The occupations with the smallest difference in pay between the sexes are teachers, health care workers, retail workers, laborers and service industry workers. What do these jobs all have in common? A union contract.
Fighting for equal treatment for workers, regardless of gender, ethnicity or age, is what the union movement has always been about. After 123 women died in the Triangle Shirtwaist fire in New York City in 1911, nothing worked more quickly to guarantee safe working conditions for garment workers than a union contract. Indeed, nothing has done more to build the American middle class than a union contract. And nothing will ensure that all workers of equal ability are paid the same wage for the same work than a union contract.
Across the country, some state legislatures have taken the position that workers should have no access to a union, passing so-called “right to work” laws that have all but negated the ability of organized labor to organize. A 2011 study from the Economic Policy Institute reported that, in those states, women’s wages were 4.4 percent lower than those of women in non-“right to work” states, while the differential among men was only 1.7 percent. Clearly, “right to work” has been taken to mean “right to work for less,” especially if you’re a woman.
The only solace that can be taken this Equal Pay Day is that it is falling on the calendar earlier than it did for previous generations of women. But it’s still too far along on the calendar. We must follow the words of the great New Jersey suffragette and women’s rights pioneer Alice Paul, who said her dedication to securing equal rights never wavered because, “When you put your hand to the plow, you can’t put it down until you get to the end of the row.”
For women, we can’t stop the fight for equal pay until Equal Pay Day is Jan. 1.