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Comparable Worth
by Jo Freeman

Published as "Real, False Dilemmas" in Democratic Left, Sept.-Oct. 1984, pp. 15.

Comparable 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 pay rates.
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 their support.
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 success."
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 idea."
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?

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