June 10, 2016
By Bill Hohlfeld
June Labor History Part II
Washington, D.C. With today’s headlines being dominated by Hillary Clinton becoming the presumptive Democratic presidential candidate and being endorsed by Senators Barbara Boxer and Diane Feinstein, it is sometimes difficult to imagine a workplace where expressing the sentiment that women should be treated as equals was looked upon as a radical and even dangerous notion.
Yet, as little as fifty years ago that was very much the case in America. That is why on June 10 th , 1963, President John F. Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act into law. It had taken 19 years to arrive on the president’s desk. It’s journey had begun back in 1942, when a now forgotten Congresswoman from Buffalo, N.Y., Winifred C. Stanley, introduced H.R. 5056, Prohibiting Discrimination in Pay on Account of Sex, which, unfortunately, but not
surprisingly, did not pass at the time. It saw its reincarnation, however, as the EPA, which was an amendment to the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, and its aim was to "prohibit discrimination on account of sex in the payment of wages by employers." As President Kennedy signed the historic document he said: “Our economy today depends upon women in the labor force. One out of three workers is a woman. Today, there are almost 25 million women employed, and their number is rising faster than the number of men in the labor force.”
This perspective was in no way aligned with the position of the era’s captains of industry. Running true to form, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce appeared before congress making its case for a doomsday scenario. In a predictably “sky is falling” manner, William Miller, representing the Chamber testified at a House Committee Hearing: “We are asked to add this role for government at a critical time. The
Federal budget is out of balance and under stress…. Nondefense items, such as the one proposed, are currently causing our greatest spending increase.”
Nor was he alone in his criticisms and gloomy outlook. If one were to believe the CEOs, human resource professionals and Wall Street Journal editorials of the day, having legislation that ensured women were paid at the same rate as their male counterparts (and actually enforcing it) would certainly bloat our government out of existence and result in economic disaster for all those concerned. Such were the points made by Fred C. Edwards, General Manager of Industrial Relation for Armstrong Cork Company, during his testimony at that same House Hearing. “I know that there are variables from plant to plant and business to business, and that if an attempt is made to regiment all industrial relations, individual businesses will suffer—their employees, especially women, can face unemployment—and the national economy will be weakened.”
Despite all this weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth on the part of big business, all the EPA really required was that employers pay workers at the same rate. It didn’t require that employees receive the same total amount of compensation. If one worker earned more than another because of higher productivity — for example, or because the higher-paid employee had made more sales — that did not violate the proposed legislation. Perhaps the larger sticking point was benefits, for under the provisions of the EPA if employees did equal work, they were also entitled to equal fringe benefits, such as equal health and life insurance, retirement plans or pensions coverage. It even demanded equality for vacation time, profit sharing, and bonuses.
Excellent legislation, shifts in cultural attitudes and an enlightened business community are all signs of the positive steps we continue to take as a people. But, there are clear indications that it is no time to rest on our laurels. According to the report issued by the Equal Pay Task Force issued in 2013, on the anniversary of the signing of the EPA, “from fiscal year 2000 to 2009 the EEOC found reasonable cause to believe
discrimination had occurred in 829 charges of pay discrimination under all of the statutes it enforces, and recovered over $52.7 million for charging parties in those cases.”
When the EPA was being debated, perhaps it was George Meany, that feisty little plumber from the Bronx, who had risen through the ranks to his leadership position of president of the AFL-CIO, who saw the clearest path to workplace democracy. His answer to the ensuring equal pay without creating layer upon layer of new government bureaucracy was straightforward: “We feel that in a free competitive economy, the
task of equal pay to women workers is properly within the province of collective bargaining and not of police action by the government.” In other words, let’s get everyone in a union, and then the problem goes away.