by Jo Freeman
Published as "Real, False Dilemmas" in Democratic Left,
Sept.-Oct. 1984, pp. 15.
worth is one of those complex political issues which, unscrutinized,
has something to offer everyone, friends and foes alike. Proponents
see in it everything from a mundane application of Title VII by unions
who are looking to the courts to give them wage increases they cannot
get at the bargaining table to the answer to the gender wage gap.
Opponents in turn characterize it as everything from a reactionary
measure which will co-opt the push by women into traditionally male
jobs by paying them to stay in their place, to an attempt to radically
restructure the economy and abolish the free market .
Politicians are especially fond of comparable worth. Proponents, such
as Cong. Pat Schroeder, Mary Rose Oakar, Dan Evans, Olympia Snowe
and others have found it an excellent issue around which to hold highly
publicized hearings. Opponents, particularly Phyllis Schlafly, see
it as the next feminist monster against which to mobilize their troops.
The Democratic and Republican Parties have taken diametrically opposed
positions on comparable worth virtually without debate, let alone
a definition of the term.
Unions, by and large, support comparable worth, though only a couple
have given much more than lip service to it. AFL-CIO unions have unanimously
refused to fall for the "divide and conquer" strategy of
the Reagan Administration which has sought to pit white and blue collar
workers against each other. Employers in the private sector have also
taken a unanimous position. They are quite frightened of it, because
even with the most mundane interpretation it threatens to undermine
traditional pay practices built upon a history of paying women less.
The Business Roundtable paid some prominent academics as much as $5,000
each to write articles for a book on its invalidity as basis for establishing
What is this strange creature which evokes such passionate responses
and so little understanding? To explore this question it is necessary
to ask it on two separate planes which have virtually nothing to do
with each other: the practical and the theoretical.
The Real Comparable Worth Controversy
On a practical level "it is really nothing more than plain old
garden variety, job-rate inequity with which the labor movement has
historically wrestled. Unions have regularly grieved and arbitrated
the proper rate for the job and arbitrators have regularly been called
upon to resolve disputes over these rates and to establish rates that
employers must pay," according to Winn Newman, the attorney who
has argued most of the key cases.
Newman declines to use the terms "comparable worth" or "pay
equity" on the grounds that they are not legal terms and that
they obscure what is at stake. He has spent more than 15 years litigating
cases charging employers with "sex-based wage discrimination,"
which is prohibited by Title VII. The initial cases were filed on
behalf of the International Union of Electrical, Radio and Machine
Workers (IUE), of which he was general counsel. These cases sought
to rectify long existing wage inequities that had been identified
as early as World War II. Under pressure from the War Labor Board
to stabilize wages and avoid strikes, employers such as General Electric
and Westinghouse hired consultants to evaluate their jobs and assign
them points based on the skill, effort, responsibility and working
conditions involved. Relative wages were determined by each job's
relative point values, except that those jobs in which women predominated
had their rates lowered by one-third so that the highest paid "women's
jobs" paid less than the lowest paid "men's jobs."
Newman and IUE achieved some major wage gains for women workers in
the electrical industry through settlements simply because the historical
devaluation of women's wages solely due to their sex was so blatant.
Public sector employers became prime targets for these Title VII suits
when Newman became general counsel of AFSCME under Jerry Wurf, who
saw in comparable worth a means of increasing women's wages without
pushing them into men's jobs. Public employers are much more susceptible
to this strategy for raising wages than private employers. Most of
AFSCME's members are women. Many are in jurisdictions which limit
the freedom of their union to bargain over wages or to strike. Data
can be obtained through freedom of information requests which is not
available from private employers. Political pressure can be used.
Public employers, through their taxing power, have much greater ability
to raise money if ordered to do so by a court than private employers
who might go bankrupt. In 1981 AFSCME's Washington State affiliate
sued the State for failing to implement several studies commissioned
as early as 1974 which showed that there was a 32 percent disparity
between the average wages of traditionally male and female job classifications.
In 1983 federal District Judge Jack E. Tanner found that the State
had knowingly and deliberately discriminated against women by underpaying
those jobs that were at least 70 percent female and ordered that back
pay be computed from September 1979 (the maximum possible under Title
VII). How much this comes to is still being disputed, but is expected
to be approximately a half billion dollars.
Tanner rejected the state's assertion that this would impose a crushing
burden on a deficit budget, pointing out that the state had failed
to correct the discrimination when it had a budget surplus a few years
before. In December 1976, just prior to the end of this third term,
then Governor Dan Evans included $7 million in his budget proposal
to begin "correction of disparities." His successor, Gov.
Dixy Lee Ray, deleted the appropriation. Repeated failures by the
legislature to implement comparable worth led to the AFSCME suit.
The decision in this case and the size of the award brought the issue
of comparable worth to national attention. Those who point with alarm
at the size of the award overlook the fact that it is mostly for back
pay; if the results of the studies had been implemented in timely
fashion the effect on the State's budget would have been minimal.
This is the approach being taken by Minnesota, which found that it
could achieve pay equity in its civil service by spending only four
percent of the state's annual payroll or point three percent (.3)
of the total biannual budget. It has appropriated $22 million for
initial pay equity adjustments and expects to continue doing so until
all pay rates are "comparable."
Tanner's decision has been appealed to the Ninth Circuit and will
be heard sometime next year. The Reagan Administration is still debating
whether to file an amicus brief for the State, but has decided to
do nothing until after the election. In the meantime several other
suits have been filed by organizations representing occupations primarily
filled by women (librarians and nurses), and dozens of states and
municipalities are doing studies to ascertain if they are underpaying
some of their workers. The assertion that women are illegally underpaid
relative to men has become the latest tool in the arsenal of employee
organizations whose members are mostly women, of feminists seeking
to increase women's economic resources and of politicians seeking
The two major criticisms of comparable worth on the practical level
are that it is impossible to do "objective" evaluations
and that the free market is and should be the primary determinant
of wages. No one contends that job evaluations are purely "objective".
The current systems, which have been refined and developed over a
period of forty years, have never even controlled for perceptual bias
due the sex of the primary job holder. However, all try to evaluate
the job and not the worker in it. Thus the credentials of individuals
holding jobs should be irrelevant to what that job is "worth"
to an employer. An employer may agree to pay an employee more than
what the job is worth because of credentials, seniority, individual
productivity or any other legal reason (i.e. not sex or race). All
job evaluations do is quantify what a job is worth to an employer
compared to other jobs according to criteria that have been agreed
upon as important to that employer.
Nor does anyone contend that one system exists which will work for
all employers. Professional evaluators use different systems and stress
that none can be arbitrarily applied by an outside expert. To work,
it is necessary that representatives of each relevant unit of management
and labor reach a consensus on the factors that are important in each
job to a particular employer and what their relative value is. Because
this consensus is crucial and achievable only within a firm, no proponent
has ever suggested that an outside agency decide what jobs are worth
and impose an "independent" evaluation on any firm, let
alone all firms.
Employers are particularly fond of saying that they pay whatever the
"free market" requires and thus are not responsible for
the fact that women have traditionally been willing to work for less.
Yet testimony in the Washington State and other cases clearly shows
that employers are often more concerned with maintaining historic
"internal alignments" than with following the market. The
reason for this is not just that they want to pay as little as possible,
but because experience has taught them that employees resent radical
changes in what they are used to getting relative to their co-workers.
Thus to admit that women's jobs have been underpaid relative to men's
affects morale as well as the bottom line.
The reality is that most large employers have done job evaluations
at onetime or other to determine wage rates. No employer relies solely
on the "free market" to determine wages. Relative pay rates
are often negotiated with union representatives and the violation
of agreed upon standards often results in wage rate grievances. The
only new idea urged by comparable worth advocates is the use of these
traditional tools to reevaluate the results of traditional wage setting
to show that jobs predominantly occupied by women are illegally underpaid
compared to those predominantly occupied by men.
The Fantasy Comparable Worth Controversy
At multiple hearings before Congress and other bodies last year opponents
of comparable worth described their worse paranoid fantasies about
what comparable worth means as though the consequences were inevitable
should the simplest study be done. They claimed that adoption of comparable
worth policies will be the "entering wedge" to "social
engineering" by a federal agency that will eventually determine
everyone's wages and make American industry uncompetitive with the
rest of the world.
Phyllis Schlafly, in her Report of January 1984, wrote that "The
Comparable Worth advocates want to establish a new wage structure
in which those who have paper credentials (certificates and diplomas)
are paid more than those whose jobs require strenuous and risky work,
unpleasant working conditions, and uncertain tenure. Comparable Worth
advocates want to bring about a redistribution of wages through bureaucratic
power and judicial activism.... Comparable Worth is another gimmick
to get the American people to accept more and more Federal control
of our economy."
Schlafly has done an excellent job of making comparable worth the
latest target in her war against women's liberation by using the same
techniques she used against the ERA: create horrible fantasies about
its consequences and savagely attack the fantasies. Even conservative
Rep. Jack Kemp (R, NY) was roundly criticized at Jerry Falwell's Family
Forum III in Dallas last August for voting for the Oakar bill to commission
a study of wage based sex discrimination in the federal government.
"We don't want to bring in the ERA through the back door"
he was told by a woman wearing an Eagle Forum sticker. This "domino
theory" of social change is not rare. Many white Southerners
honestly thought that the tiniest bit of integration would lead to
compulsory miscegenation. Many women believe Phyllis Schlafly's claim
that feminists want government mandated role reversals and the ERA
would require unisex toilets. Many Americans really believe that socialism
is when the Russians take over the government. Thus we should not
be surprised that some people actually believe that comparable worth
creates the "prospect of a bureaucratically-imposed meritocracy--a
world in which formal credentials become the sole, essential key to
These fantasies aside it is nonetheless worthwhile for socialists
to speculate on what comparable worth would mean in the abstract,
provided that we don't confuse it with what's currently going on.
It is worthwhile because one criticism made by opponents is accurate.
In the abstract, (and only in the abstract), comparable worth is,
as delegate Peggy Miller of West Virginia told the Platform Committee
at the Republican National Convention last August, "a socialist
While there is little consensus on what a truly socialist society
would be like, one area of agreement is that wages -- or more specifically
one's material income -- would not be set by the free market. Income
would be determined by some combination of need and contribution,
though exactly what combination (and whether or not need should be
the sole determinant) is open to question. Since such a socialist
society is not looming on the horizon, how to determine one's needs
or one's contributions has not been the subject of intensive analysis.
Perhaps the comparable worth debate has signaled that this is the
time to begin. If wages were really set by some government authority,
how would it be accomplished? If not, then who would determine wages?
The job evaluation systems used to determine the comparable value
of unequal jobs are one way of measuring contribution. They are limited
systems in that they apply only within firms, to jobs not individuals,
and attempt to measure only what that job contributes to that employer.
If these limited systems are inherently fraught with as many problems
as critics suggest such that they cannot even adequately perform the
limited role of assessing sex bias in wages within a firm, how do
we expect a socialist society to devise means to fairly judge one's
contribution to society as a whole?
If the problem is that these systems are technically poor, in that
they rely on the wrong factors or the wrong relative weights, then
it is incumbent on socialists to devise fairer systems. But if they
are inherently unfair, or their goal of comparing the unequal is unachievable,
what then do socialists propose as the means of assessing contribution
so wages can be fairly set in a socialist society?
The current controversy over comparable worth presents socialists
with a rare opportunity: that of devising a practical system to apply
a socialist idea to a current problem. Can we meet that challenge?