Orange County labor movement pushes back against persistent gender wage gap
By CHARLES BARFIELD, Contributing Columnist
March 8 is celebrated world-wide as International Women’s Day. The recognition provides us an opportunity to celebrate the contributions of women in every field of human endeavor across the globe. International Women’s Day is also a day to reflect about how much work lies ahead before the dream of equality can be fully realized by more than one-half of our nation’s population.
The working men and women who comprise the labor movement persistently move the needle toward economic justice. Yet despite the efforts of millions of committed Americans, the numbers remain grim. Across the board, women make only 80 cents for every dollar a man makes. For women of color, it’s even worse. African American women make only 61 cents of that dollar and Latina women make only 53 cents. This significant pay disparity doesn’t just hurt women, it extends to those children, parents, and other family members who depend on them economically. Forty-two percent of working women in the United States are the sole breadwinner for their families.
Despite its vibrant economy and relative wealth, Orange County mirrors this disturbing national bias. A few years ago an audit performed by the State of California revealed that Orange County government had the widest gender pay gap of the four large counties studied. The report showed that women working for the county earn on average 27 percent less than male county workers.
At the recent Orange County Women’s March, labor icon Dolores Huerta challenged the audience by telling them, “We are marching for the future of our children, and we are marching for the future of the United States of America. I think it’s about time that the U.S. Senate ratify the Equal Rights Amendment for women!” Many of those gathered understood that they were all likely victims of gender pay inequity and vowed to challenge the status quo.
Decades of experience have taught us that we can’t just sit back and hope our legal or political system will protect the rights of working women – and men – to bargain for fair wages and workplace dignity. That’s task is largely left to working people, often through their labor unions, not just on International Woman’s Day but every day.
Across our nation workers in the labor movement recently continue to lead the way to pay equity. Often that’s by negotiating contracts that secure meaningful wage increases and protections in occupations where women in female-dominated job classifications work under harsh conditions for poverty-level pay. Locally, Unite Here Local 11 recently negotiated contracts for local hotel workers that not only provide meaningful wage increases, but add workplace safety protections for workers harassed or otherwise mistreated on the job.
The strike in January by the United Teachers of Los Angeles saw 32,000 educators walk off the job in the Los Angeles Unified School District. Marching and holding rallies in a persistent rain, the teachers – most of them women – fought not only for long-overdue pay increases but for more counselors, school nurses and smaller class sizes, which all directly benefit students and promote quality education.
Bargaining for better wages for working women in underpaid jobs is just one part of the work labor unions and their members do to address the gender pay gap. Last year, AB 168 was passed in the legislature and signed by Governor Brown, prohibiting employers and recruiters from seeking salary history information from or about an applicant, or relying upon that information to decide whether to hire and how much to pay an applicant. This new law addresses the negative economic consequences which occur when a woman’s lower pay follows her through each stage of her career. OCEA supported AB 168 and will continue to fight pay inequity – in the county, in Sacramento and at the bargaining table.
It’s been more than 55-years since John F. Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act in the Oval Office flanked by dozens of committed female activists.
Just as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 didn’t stop discrimination based on race, the Equal Pay Act could not fully address our nation’s systemic pay bias against women.
Labor unions continue to push for secure paid family and medical leave, paid sick days and – most importantly – protecting every worker’s right to collectively bargain. That’s our nation’s best chance to erase the pay gap and end the cycle of poverty we have established for generations of working women and their families.
Charles Barfield is general manager of the Orange County Employees Association.
Publication Date: March 8, 2019