Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Lilly Ledbetter: Every Woman (and Man's) Best Friend

In Washington, D. C. and State legislatures, women’s issues are front and center. News analysts, political junkies and even famous cartoonist Gary Trudeau editorialize about the legislation passed and under consideration. Many women may feel as I do: wounded by some of the assumptions and much of the rhetoric.

Let us not forget in all this very serious debate that many women are and have always been extraordinary. Today, I celebrate one woman who worked hard in behalf of us all. She is Lilly McDaniel Ledbetter, a woman who could boast that she is one of the rare U. S. citizens to have a law that bears her name, The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009.

I said that she could boast, but if you’ve ever seen her speak or heard her interviewed, you would know that her character traits do not include boastfulness. What I have observed in its place are reserve, dignity, and most important for the rest of us, determination.

Mrs. Ledbetter is a 19-year veteran of the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company where she earned excellent performance reviews and more responsibility in spite of enduring sexual harassment. She endured Corporate Spite, the kind that anyone who has ever spoken truth to power understands, after she reported the harasser. In exchange for an attempt to secure justice for herself, the company nudged her to the margins at her company and altered the type of harassment by reassigning her and limiting her opportunities to advance. In brief, she worked every day in a hostile environment.

Nevertheless, she soldiered on, turning in a full, honest day’s work over and over again in the belief that she was at least earning the same pay as the men to which she was compared. Only by accident did she learn otherwise. Goodyear required its employees to sign a contract vowing not to discuss wages with one another, but someone thought Mrs. Ledbetter needed to know that her monthly paycheck was $559 less than the lowest paid male performing the same work. That someone, still unknown to Mrs. Ledbetter, shared the truth with her.

Mrs. Ledbetter filed a complaint with the EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission), and Goodyear retaliated again, assigning her to lift heavy rubber tires even though she was in her 60s at the time. Lilly labored on anyway, and added a legal battle all the way to the Supreme Court to her labor.

I wish I could tell you that she won her case, but she did not. The Supreme Court declared that a person must file a complaint about unfair wages within 180 days of the discriminatory pay practice even if the worker did not know that discrimination was taking place. Thus, according to the Supreme Court, there is no legal remedy unless the worker has knowledge and files a complaint in the first six months of the discrimination.

Mrs. Ledbetter and countless others discriminated against because of race, age, or gender had no recourse, but unassuming, hard-working Mrs. Ledbetter did not surrender even before the Supreme Court. She moved to the only other governmental branch empowered and authorized to redefine law: the U. S. Congress. She used her energy and her resources to knock on doors and speak to power, including Hillary Clinton, candidate Barack Obama, Senator and candidate John McCain, and Sarah Palin. The McCain-Palin team scoffed at Mrs. Ledbetter’s call for equal pay and equal opportunity to justice. McCain even called the proposed law a “trial lawyer’s dream.”

Nevertheless, Mrs. Ledbetter persisted and was standing beside President Obama when he signed into law the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009, a law that allows a person 180 days from the date of the last check received to file a complaint. In other words, if Mrs. Ledbetter had become aware of the pay discrepancy on the day she retired from Goodyear, she still had 180 days in which to file a complaint with the EEOC.

The Ledbetter law is incredibly significant for workers because until 2009, businesses had no incentive to comply with the existing law. They could simply hide the truth and then be held blameless if complaints fell outside 180-days window. Now businesses risk penalties and jury settlements if they fail to comply.

Still some politicians want businesses to be free once more. Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin recently rolled back a woman’s right to seek justice in the courts, justifying his decision with the McCain defense: he claims that granting women access to a court hearing would only “clog up the courts.”

Why would women and their right to seek redress be so toxic to our courts? Hasn’t Scott Walker just implied that many businesses pay many women less than their male counterparts so the number of potential suits will be legion.

I assure Walker and McCain and the conservative think-tanks advancing this notion that women have been waiting in line many, many decades--for the right to vote, for the right to own property, for the right to determine how best to care for her own body, and for the right to be paid for equal work. Women will wait in line for the courts, if necessary, because their turn at the head of the line helps all those others waiting. More importantly, women do not need men such as McCain or Walker to decide if that line is too long.

Mrs. Ledbetter’s tireless pursuit of justice is critical because those men who worked beside Mrs. Ledbetter all those years now enjoy more Social Security income because a lifetime of earnings determines how much retirement and Social Security income a man or woman will receive. In other words, the more a worker earns in his lifetime, the more secure is his retirement. Mrs. Ledbetter lost not only income during her working life but income in her retired life. Now Scott Walker again wishes to limit what a woman’s resources will be while she works and after she retires.

Even though Lilly Ledbetter could not recover her lost wages or her lost retirement income, she fought for all those who follow. Men and women, racial minorities, and older workers have a better chance of expecting fair pay and redress because Mrs. Ledbetter was tireless, on the job and as a political leader, but with politicians such as Scott Walker, Ledbetter’s pursuit of justice is once again in danger. We must join her and insure that the Scott Walkers of the political arena do not prevail.

Equal pay for equal work is not a given in spite of this very advanced and wonderful democracy. Each one of us must be a responsible citizen to insure that justice prevails, and we should be grateful to those who have gone before and made it easier for the rest of us. Lilly Ledbetter was responsible to us and for us. Let us say thanks by taking up her cause and helping her triumph.