Lilly Ledbetter and Her Sparkly New Law
Jan 30th, 2009 by Sonja

It’s just too bad she won’t accrue any benefits from it.

Maybe you remember Lilly from last year’s presidential campaign. Or if you’re really observant, from the news in May 2007. If you don’t, allow me to tell you a little bit of Lilly’s story.

Lilly Ledbetter worked for the Goodyear Tire & Rubber company down in Alabama. She was an Area Manager (aka plant supervisor). She worked at Goodyear from 1979 to 1998. When she retired in 1998, she was the only female Area Manager, the rest of her colleagues were male. All 15 of them. Another unique characteristic that her colleagues shared was that they all earned more than she did. Every single one of them. Even those who had worked at Goodyear less time than Lilly had. Even those who did a worse job than she did.

Sometime in early 1998, Lilly finally had enough evidence and she filed paperwork with the EEOC (that’s the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission). She retired in July and in November she filed a lawsuit against Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company claiming that they had discriminated against her on the basis of her gender. That’s when the legal wrangling began. I’ll spare you the details. But it went all the way up to the highest court in the land.

The Supremes got it. No, poodles, not Diana Ross and the Supremes. The Supreme Court. The Nine in Black. However, their decision made just about as much sense as MacArthur Park.

Now you can read the ruling in it’s entirety if you’d like. You can download it for yourself here. However, the essence of the majority (5 to 4) decision, handed down by Justice Alito, was that Ms. Ledbetter had missed the boat. You see, Lilly had filed suit saying, in essence, that because there was discrimination in her pay at the end of her employment, there had been ongoing discrimination for a long period of time. Justices Alito, Roberts, Scalia, Kennedy, and Thomas (who, being African American, ought to know better) disagreed and wrote, essentially that Ms. Ledbetter ought to have known about the discrimination in her salary from the very beginning and in order to have gained redress, should have filed grievances at every instance. They used plenty of the court’s own rulings as precedence for this. Every single one of which as been overwritten by Congress. They ignored the intent and the scope of the Equal Pay Act of 1963, the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, and the National Labor Relations Act.

You see, the original court in which Ms. Ledbetter filed her claim she was given redress for the wrong and was awarded $3.5 million dollars in lost income. That seemed a little steep to me when I first saw the number, because at the time of her retirement the disparity in income was not that great. Ms. Ledbetter was earning $3,727 per month; the lowest paid male area manager received $4,286 per month, the highest paid, $5,236. However, then I realized that while the immediate difference was not great, this difference would play out for perhaps 30 years or more during her retirement. Ms. Ledbetter had not had the opportunity to save as much for retirement, nor Social Security as her male counterparts and so that must also be accounted for in the redress.

You may be wondering why Ms. Ledbetter won. Well, until the Supreme Court ruling, the presumption was that the clock (180 days) started running on the day that one recieved the most recent (or current) discriminatory paycheck, NOT the first discriminatory paycheck. So the court in which she originally filed suit found that she presented a valid case and gave her redress. Goodyear Tire did not like that answer and filed an appeal. Thus the case wound it’s way to the Supreme Court.

Think back for a moment to your employment experiences. Go ahead. I’ll wait. Think about the notion that salary decisions might be public knowledge.

Have you finished guffawing yet?

That’s exactly what Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg thought too. She wrote the dissenting opinion. Then took the unusual step of reading it from the bench after the majority opinion had been read. If you’ve never read Supreme Court decisions, this is a good one to cut your teeth on. It’s fairly straightforward and you already know what’s going on. Even more interesting (to me) are the dissenting opinions. The writing in those are more relaxed and less full of legalese, because they don’t count for as much. That is, future jurisprudence will not necessarily be relying upon the dissent. Reading the dissenting opinion from the bench is very unusual. It carries a certain weight; it goes beyond saying, “We in the minority disagree.” to also spitting on your shoes. In public. Here is some of what Justice Ginsburg had to say:

The Court’s insistence on immediate contest overlooks common characteristics of pay discrimination. Pay disparities often occur, as they did in Ledbetter’s case, in small increments; cause to suspect that discrimination is at work develops only over time. Comparative pay information, moreover, is often hidden from the employee’s view. Employers may keep under wraps the pay differentials maintained among supervisors, no less the reasons for those differentials. Small initial discrepancies may not be seen as meet for a federal case, particularly when the employee, trying to succeed in a nontraditional environment, is averse to making waves.

Pay disparities are thus significantly different from adverse actions “such as termination, failure to promote, . . . or refusal to hire,” all involving fully communicated discrete acts, “easy to identify” as discriminatory.

There is so much more. This may not sound like much to the untrained ear/eye, but in the language of the Supreme Court it is a stinging rebuke. Especially since it was delivered in a public address.

And so things stood for nearly two years. But two days ago, President Obama and the U.S. Senate set the scales of justice just a little bit right again. The Senate approved legislation which would establish that the clock starts with the most recent discriminatory paycheck NOT the first one. Then President Obama signed it into law. It was the second law he signed since taking office. It’s known as the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. And, God bless her, Lilly won’t get one thin dime from it. The rest of us will. Or not. But at least we will have gained an equal footing on which to stand up for ourselves.

As Gail Collins wrote in yesterday’s NYTimes:

Ledbetter, who was widowed in December, won’t get any restitution of her lost wages; her case can’t be retried. She’s now part of a long line of working women who went to court and changed a little bit of the world in fights that often brought them minimal personal benefit.

I highly recommend that op-ed piece. For two reasons. First, you’ll read about women who have paved the way for the rest of us, the un-sung heroines in mostly blue-collar jobs who made it possible for us to get where we are today. Second, many of the cases that Gail writes about, were also used as precedence by Alito, et al; cases the Court ruled on which were then overwritten by Congress.

So, if you think about it today, say a prayer for Lilly Ledbetter and Eulalie Cooper and Patricia Lorance and Lorena Weeks. They fought so we could stand.
Cross-posted at Emerging Women

The Cost of a Life – Part Two
Dec 3rd, 2008 by Sonja

When LightHusband and I started dating and for the first part of our married life he was a drummer.  He played the snare drum with the Third US Infantry Old Guard Fife & Drum Corps; the US Army’s Honor Guard for the President.  About six months after our first date, Ronald Reagan was inaugurated for the second time.  This lead to an interesting juxtaposition for the two of us.

LightHusband was scheduled to march in Reagan’s inaugural parade in the lead unit.  I was busily looking for protest to march in.  And I was fairly vocal about it.

Ronald Reagan was a very popular President and his legacy has much to be admired, but we are now beginning to realize the one major flaw in what he left us:  trickle down economics.   I knew then that any idea that people could be willingly parted from their money and it would somehow trickle down to those with none was ludicrous.  Even given the tenets of capitalism, it would never work.  I was determined to protest it.  LightHusband, of course, had his orders which were to march in the parade.

Neither event happened.  The weather prevented all outdoor activities that year as it was unseasonably cold and we all celebrated the night before by drinking into the wee hours at a local watering hole.  I seem to remember that Blue Hawaiians featured prominently in my repertoire that evening.

Ronald Reagan was duly sworn in without public protest or public fanfare of the outdoors variety.  He continued his presidency for four more years without a hitch.  Not that anyone anticipated a hitch, of course.

During his presidency I was vigilant for the evil I was sure that was to come.  I was certain that all sorts of horrible economic woes were about to befall us because of Reagan’s ill-thought-out plans and designs.


Nothing happened.  In fact, we slowly but surely began to dig ourselves out of the rut.  And by the 1990’s our economy was in a boom again.  The Dow didn’t know a ceiling.  Unemployment was low.  Housing starts were high.  All economic indices were that we were good.  It appeared that trickle-down economics did work.  Or at least some version of it.

The trouble is that trickle-down economics rewards greed.  So does capitalism (inherently).  So we find ourselves in 2008 with an economy on the rocks and now we are looking to the government to bail out the very corporations which stumbled and fell in the first place.

It took a long time for ugliness inherent in trickle-down economics to become apparent, but now we are seeing the fruit ripen on the vine.  What is that fruit?

–Customers who trample a temporary employee to death at a Wal-Mart so they can get the best prices for Christmas …

… and then sue the store for inadequate security.

–Executives of the auto industry who fly individual private jets to Washington DC  to ask for money to bail out their companies.  I understand the need for private planes … but did the idea of plane pooling never occur to these men?  No one is that important.

–AIG receiving a multi–billion dollar bailout, then taking its staff on a multi-million dollar retreat.

These are well known and well discussed examples.  But they are examples of greed run amok.  Greed at the top and greed at the bottom.  We are all greedy … every one of us.  We all want what we do not have.  We look over the fence and see green, green grass that must surely taste sweeter than the dusty dry stalks at our feet.  Inherently, we are told, that’s a good thing.  Go for that greener grass … you deserve it.  You’ve earned it.

No one ever thought to ask what expense it came at.

Cost of A Life – Part One
Nov 21st, 2008 by Sonja

When I was in high school it was a huge big deal to gather friends and go to Burlington for the day.  I lived in a tiny town in central Vermont.  There were about 4 stores in the local larger town, so going to Burlington represented shopping, eating and metropolitan nirvana for us backwoods hayseeds.  Once one or two of us reached driving age, and had parents who would release an automobile into our possession, we were free.

I had my first experience of ordering Chinese food on my own and using chop sticks in Burlington.  We’d wander up and down Church Street together.  Church Street has since been blocked to auto traffic and is an open air mall.  Back then, it was an ordinary street filled with adventure for teenagers in from the back country.  Some distance away from Church Street, a new experience opened up in the later years.  Two funny guys from New York City bought an old gas station and turned it into an ice cream store.  Man.  They made the best ice cream anywhere.  And it should have been … it was made with real ingredients.  Whole milk, whole cream.  Real fruit.  Dark chocolate.  Ice cream to die for.

But … ice cream in a gas station?  Who would buy it, the old-timers in the state ridiculed the idea.  And the lines in the summer were around the block.

Pretty soon, the ice cream was being cartoned and sold in small containers throughout the state.  But one could only get it in Vermont.  There were now also a couple of other scoop shops … I forget where the earlier ones were placed.  But I know that I had my first anniversary dinner in one ten years later.  I had a hot fudge sundae in a waffle cone and LightHusband went next door for a slice of pizza.  We sat outside on a swing to eat.

You know the name of the company; it’s become ubiquitous with ice cream now.  Ben & Jerry’s.  Their pints stock freezers nation-wide.  For all I know, you can get them in Canada too.  The company sold out to Hershey or Nestle or some large conglomerate several years back and the ice cream isn’t nearly as good anymore.  What was once innovative is now just silliness and twaddle.  One might say they jumped the shark.

If you asked me what the most innovative thing about Ben & Jerrys was, the answer might surprise you.  For their ice cream was divine.  They were locovores before it became trendy or even had a name, using only small family dairies for their milk, cream and eggs.  No, the most innovative thing about Ben & Jerrys was this … their executive compensation structure.

I remember reading in Inc. Magazine back in the late 1980’s that they had structured the company in such a way so that neither Ben nor Jerry were compensated greater than 7 times the salary of the lowest paid employee of the company.  Think about that.  No matter how much Ben or Jerry made, it could never be greater than 7 times the salary of the lowest paid person in the company.

This has been on my mind recently as I read about the financial crisis on Wall Street and in Detroit.  I read about the “necessity” of golden parachutes in the tens of millions of dollars and executive compensation packages that look like lottery ticket loot.  There are some companies which have made an attempt to restrain executive compensation.  Whole Foods limits compensation of its executives to lowest employees in the ratio of 19:1 according to this Fast Company article written in Feb. 2007.  It’s the reprint of a letter written from CEO, John Mackay to his leadership team in which he raises the compensation ratio from 14:1 to 19:1 and reduces his salary to $1.00.  Apparently, what is left out of all company press is that Mr. Mackay also has an impressive stock option from Whole Foods.  Of course.  Cynics point to this as evidence of malfeasance.  Make of it what you will.  He’s still only taking $1 in salary and donating the rest to charity.  He’s a rarity in the business world.

I have to wonder though.  In yet another grocery store albeit tiny, independent and Mennonite, I saw this on the wall last spring:  “The cost of something is that amount of life which must be exchanged for it.”  I’ve been meditating on that for months now.  Especially in light of our nation’s current financial woes.

The cost of something is that amount of life which must be exchanged for it.

What will our greed cost us?  What amount of our lives will we be exchanging in order to pay for these few at the top?

When we begin to understand that we, or rather our representatives in Congress, have done that for us, then perhaps we will begin to actually change things.

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