“Out of touch with reality”: Lilly Ledbetter unloads on GOP’s fair pay tantrum

In Salon interview, Rick Perry, Scott Walker and co. excoriated for their ignorance of women

Published April 14, 2014 3:30PM (EDT)

Scott Walker, Lilly Ledbetter, Rick Perry                   (AP/Cliff Owen/J. Scott Applewhite/Brandon Wade)
Scott Walker, Lilly Ledbetter, Rick Perry (AP/Cliff Owen/J. Scott Applewhite/Brandon Wade)

One day after President Obama signed two executive orders tackling federal contractors’ gender pay gap, Senate Republicans Wednesday blocked debate for the third time on a broader Paycheck Fairness Act. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell warned the bill “would double down on job loss, all while lining the pockets of trial lawyers.” That comment followed Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s describing the debate as “nonsense,” and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s characterizing criticism of repealing an equal pay enforcement act as “a bogus issue.”

“Evidently,” advocate Lilly Ledbetter charged to Salon, Perry and Walker “don’t have a woman in their family that’s holding a full-time job that needs the money.” The Senate bill would offer new remedies against companies that punish workers for discussing their pay, direct the Labor Department to collect additional wage info, and require explanations for gender differentials. Obama’s executive orders require contractors to disclose pay info and further forbid them from punishing employees for disclosing their pay to co-workers. Ledbetter, the former Goodyear employee whose Supreme Court defeat spurred the 2009 Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, introduced Obama at this week’s signing ceremony.

“I was told when I was hired in if I discussed my pay I wouldn’t have a job,”she told Salon.

A condensed version of our conversation – on taking on Goodyear, pay gap debates and women’s pay in the White House – follows below.

Both the executive order signed by the president and the bill blocked in the Senate in part address workers’ ability to talk openly to each other about their pay. What does your experience suggest about the significance or the impact of that?

The company that I worked for, Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co., had big, lucrative government contracts from the time I walked into that job until the time I left … You know about the joke [that] goes around about assuming things, but the problem was that I thought [since] they were getting, and had, all these huge government contracts, that they would treat their employees according to the federal regulations and guidelines …

Common sense told me they would not be paying me exactly what they were paying the other people …because there were so few women, and they never had had many of us in those positions. But … I felt sure that by them getting the government contracts, they would have their feet held to the fire, so to speak, and have to adhere to federal guidelines. But they did not.

But [under the executive order] now anybody with the government contracts, they will have to be checked, and they will have to turn in data and information.

How significant is the difference when workers talk to each other about how much they’re making? And what do you think is most significant in keeping workers from talking to each other about how much they get paid?

Well, most people don’t want to let their employees talk about their wages …

[At Goodyear], the only time I ever had that pay explained to me was when I first hired in …  And I was told when I was hired in if I discussed my pay I wouldn’t have a job …

So this is a huge, huge help for people across the nation … The government contracts out so much of their work these days.

Was it a scary thing for you to take this fight on with Goodyear?

No. It was the right thing to do -- nothing scary about it …

When I first learned how much less I was making, the first thought was how much overtime money this had cost me, and how much just regular wages that I had lost because I was paid so low. And then the next thought was my 401(k), my contributory retirement, my Goodyear retirement, and today my Social Security – it goes on for the rest of your life.

Scott Walker, Rick Perry … have referred to the pay gap [or] equal pay [debate] … as “bogus,” “nonsense” … respectively. What do you make of those comments?

Evidently they don’t have a woman in their family that’s holding a full-time job that needs the money. And they probably have an income [such] that they are not in that category …

They’re out of touch with reality. They do not realize and know what exactly is happening out there in the real world.

Scholars from the conservative American Enterprise Institute wrote in the Wall Street Journal “nearly all of the 23% raw gender pay gap cited by Mr. Obama can be attributed to factors other than discrimination” including hours worked, child care, education and the dangerousness of jobs. What do you make of that argument?

That is not correct …

Take teachers. Take nurses. You’ve got men and women [to compare within] both jobs … This goes on in law firms, and doctors, and the media. It’s everywhere. Look at Mika on the "Morning Joe": She found out she was being paid a lot less, and she did something about it. But she was fortunate: She had an employer that would listen to her.

So that’s not a true statement either …

Conservatives are also citing a study suggesting that women in the White House make only 88 percent of what men do. What is your reaction to that?

Oh, I’m not up on what’s actually happening in the White House. But I do know they are like any other business: They have a structure … There are certain jobs that have greater responsibility, longer hours, and that is probably what separates the jobs there …

I don’t know how the structure is, and I haven’t studied the White House, but I would believe that it would be based on different jobs. You can’t just compare all of the women in the White House to all of the men, because they’ve got different jobs and different responsibilities.

President Obama … he’s also been asked to use executive authority to raise labor standards for contracting in other areas, including banning discrimination against … lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender workers by federal contractors.

You’re getting out of my area now. I’m not commenting on this. I’m not getting into an interview that’s “he said, she said” and all of that … You’re out of my area of expertise …

Changing the legal rights that workers have in terms of taking on fair pay in the way that these executive orders and these laws do – do you think they will make a big difference if there isn’t organizing among workers in the workplace to do collective action around these issues?

I think any policy step would give help. Because the Ledbetter bill, it didn’t solve any problem -- all that did was put the law back to where it was prior to the ruling in my case … All the Ledbetter bill does is allow people like myself, when they find out they’re discriminated against, they can go and file a charge. But it didn’t solve one iota … The equal pay law … was 50 years old last June the 10th. And we have not gained anything. It would take us till I think they said 2050 before we would ever get to that $1 that the men made.

The women and the minorities in this country … I am so upset about what they’re paid … They’re trying to work and support their families but these people in Congress, on the Republican side, does not want to give them any money. That’s disturbing. That’s very disturbing.

Any positive step going forward would help … I have [seen] corporations that after the Ledbetter bill passed, they began to look at their policies and their procedures, and where their pay scales were, and they began to change things … It’s been very good, because a lot of people have increased their income. But we still have too many American families that are running behind …

How people are paid and how they’re treated – it’s terrible.

By Josh Eidelson

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