April 12, 2011

Maine Voices: Unions are women's best friend in equal-pay-for-equal-work quest

Several bills in the Maine Legislature would erase the gains women have already made at work.

Special to the Press Herald

AUGUSTA - For women across the country, today is an important day -- the nationwide observance of Equal Pay Day. The date symbolizes how far into 2011 women must work to earn what men earned in 2010.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sarah Standiford is executive director of the Maine Women’s Lobby, a nonpartisan group that has been advocating for women and girls since 1978.

 

This story was corrected to reflect the correct author.

According to the most recent U.S. Census Bureau statistics, women who work in full-time, year-round jobs in Maine earn, on average, 76.7 cents for every dollar earned by men working in those jobs.

The persistent gender wage gap is more than simply a matter of fairness. Maine's wage gap leaves women and their families shortchanged by thousands of dollars a year -- and hundreds of thousands of dollars over the course of a lifetime.

The wage gap not only depresses women's incomes over the short term, but also weakens retirement security down the road. In some cases, it keeps women -- and the families they support -- poor.

So what can we do to address the inequity? The Paycheck Fairness Act, which failed to pass the U.S. Senate last year on a close procedural vote (despite the support of a majority of senators), would help. The bill is an update to the nation's 48-year-old fair pay laws.

Paycheck Fairness would strengthen incentives for preventing wage discrimination and prohibit retaliation against workers who inquire about employers' wage practices. It's due to be reintroduced in the 112th Congress this week.

In the previous Congress, Paycheck Fairness was championed by Maine's two Democrats in the House, Reps. Mike Michaud and Chellie Pingree. This time around, it deserves the support of Maine's entire delegation.

Here's an even simpler way to promote fair pay: Keep Maine's existing protections on the books.

The fact is, several bills in the state Legislature would make access to fair pay all the more difficult for women, and would erase the gains women have already made in the work force.

For example, Gov. Paul Le-Page is promoting legislation to undermine unions -- part of an effort to weaken Maine's worker protections, such as child labor and overtime laws.

This is a problem because, simply put, unions are one of the very best ways for women to achieve paycheck fairness. So-called "right to work" bills are part of a national effort that included the drive to weaken workers' collective bargaining rights in Wisconsin.

The bills, if enacted, would stop employers and employees from negotiating an agreement -- also known as a union security clause -- that says that all workers who receive the benefits of a collective bargaining agreement share the costs of representation.

"Right to work" laws make it illegal for unions to collect fees for services that the law requires them to provide. The result is clear: weaker unions with fewer resources to defend the workers they represent.

That's why workers in states with these misnamed laws make less money and have fewer benefits. In fact, all people in "right to work" states have a lower standard of living -- lower wages, higher poverty rates, less access to health care, less safe workplaces.

If we allow our unions to be undercut, women's earnings will suffer. For women, the union advantage has always been evident. Findings from the Center for Economic Policy and Research, which analyzed data from the U.S. Census Bureau's Current Population Survey, found that unionization raises the pay of women workers by almost $2 per hour.

Says economist John Schmitt, author of the 2008 report: "For women, joining a union makes as much sense as going to college. All else equal, joining a union raises a woman's wage as much as a full year of college, and a union raises the chances a woman has health insurance by more than earning a four-year college degree."

There are two proven ways for women to increase their earnings. One is access to higher education. After all, the gender wage gap means that a typical woman needs to have a bachelor's degree in order to make the same amount that a male high school graduate earns.

The second way is to be part of a collective bargaining agreement, which levels the playing field for everyone.

If Mainers allow these "right to work" bills to pass in the Legislature this year, Maine women will pay the higher price.

 

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