House passes two major working family bills: Fair Pay Act, Paycheck Fairness Act
Surrounded by members of Congress President Barack Obama signs the Lilly Ledbetter Bill with Lilly Ledbetter, at center behind Obama, Jan. 29, 2009. AP

Lilly Ledbetter says she knows she’ll never recover the hundreds of thousands of dollars she lost from her paychecks because of nearly 20 years of pay discrimination. But today the U.S. House of Representatives, with a big push by Ledbetter’s refusal to go quietly away, took the first step to make sure millions of other women don’t suffer the same fate.

By a vote of 247-171, the House passed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act (H.R. 11) overturning the 2007 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that denied Ledbetter—and any worker who suffers pay discrimination—justice. Then shortly after, lawmakers added some new teeth to equal pay laws and passed the Paycheck Fairness Act (H.R. 12) by a 256-163 vote. Both bills now go to the U.S. Senate.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) says the two bills are not only important to the women of this country. They are very important to the economic security of this the country. That’s why we are taking them up in the first week of Congress.

During a conference call with reporters yesterday, Ledbetter said:

“I’m a living example of the fact that pay discrimination is a pervasive problem in the workplace today….My case is just the tip of the iceberg. My case is over and I will never receive any pay. But Congress has the power to ensure what happened to me won’t happen to anyone else.”

After years of working at an Alabama Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. plant, Ledbetter discovered she was being paid less than the lowest-paid man doing the same work. She gathered enough evidence to file suit, and a jury awarded her $3.8 million. But Goodyear appealed to the Supreme Court.

But in May 2007, the Supreme Court squelched the award and ruled Ledbetter—and other workers—has no right to sue for a remedy in cases of pay discrimination if she—or any worker—waits more than 180 days after her first paycheck, even if she didn’t discover the pay discrimination until years later.

Following the court’s ruling, hundreds of pay discrimination cases have been thrown out based on the 5-4 decision that basically overturned decades of precedent that considered each paycheck a discriminatory act, thus allowing workers who don’t discover the discrimination for years to seek legal remedies.

Marcia Greenberger of the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC) says the Ledbetter bill “is a matter of economic justice and a matter of economic urgency for women and the families they support. More than 300 cases…were lost because of the court’s ruling. How many more were told by their lawyers, ‘It’s too bad. You’re too late.’ We can’t wait another day to pass this law.”

The Paycheck Fairness Act, introduced by Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), would provide more effective remedies for women who are not paid equal wages for doing equal work, by adding some teeth to the 1963 Equal Pay Act.

Women are paid only 77 cents for every dollar a man is paid, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Women workers covered by a union contract are guaranteed equal pay. But millions of other working women don’t have that protection and must rely on today’s inadequate fair pay laws.

DeLauro says pay discrimination, coupled with the economic crisis, has put so many women on the edge financially. The Paycheck Fairness Act makes the 45-year-old Equal Pay Act a more effective tool. It stiffens penalties, protects workers from retaliation and offers concrete solutions to what is a real problem.

Both bills passed the House in the last session, but Senate Republicans blocked a vote in the Senate. Congressional Democrats hope to have both bills ready for President-elect Barack Obama to sign shortly after he takes office. But it is unclear how vigorously Senate Republicans will oppose the bills.

One thing this clear, their friends and donors on the corporate world are “horrified,” screaming about the fair pay bills, reports Art Levine on the Huffington Post. He suggests their reaction to these “two common-sense bills” is a preview of the vitriolic and hysterical arguments they will mount against the Employee Free Choice Act.

Anti-labor groups and Republican leaders are sharpening their attack lines, or lies, about these measures and the upcoming Employee Free Choice Act.

We’re not backing down, so this should be a fun year.


John Wojcik
John Wojcik

John Wojcik is Editor-in-Chief of People's World. He joined the staff as Labor Editor in May 2007 after working as a union meat cutter in northern New Jersey. There, he served as a shop steward and a member of a UFCW contract negotiating committee. In the 1970s and '80s, he was a political action reporter for the Daily World, this newspaper's predecessor, and was active in electoral politics in Brooklyn, New York.