Compared to What?

by Helen Highwater

Throughout the past decade, feminists have demanded "equal pay for equal work." Since this demand applies only to wage discrimination within the same job category, it does not address the majority of female occupations where wages are low across the board. A different approach to the problem of wage discrimination made headlines in June, 1981, when San Jose, California municipal workers struck for 10 days demanding "comparable pay for comparable worth."

Under plans for comparable worth, consultants are hired to rate certain elements of a job numerically and to rank the job against other jobs. Occupations as diverse as ambulance driving and secretarial work can be compared on the basis of similiarities in required skills, training, and decision-making. Pay scales are supposed to follow the ranking system, and when "male" and " female" jobs are compared, studies usually recommend significant increases in women's wages. As San Jose city workers and others have discovered, the next step in comparable worth--getting employers to institute the recommended pay scales--usually requires a concerted effort on the part of workers.There are numerous practical problems with job evaluations. Many of the job characteristics that are taken into account, such as stress and accountability, are quite subjective and allow for a wide variation in results depending on which consultant is hired and the way they carry out the study. Also, there are no clear boundaries to distinguish when jobs are too dissimilar to be compared.

The stage was set in 1978 for San Jose's comparable worth demands when the union, Local 101 of AFSCME, pressured the city to hire the consulting firm Hay Associates to evaluate and rank city jobs. Hay Associates are reputed to be friendly towards management and their findings frequently validate existing pay scales. In this case, the active participation of clerical workers in all stages of job evaluations led to recommmended pay raises of up to 38@6 for some women workers. Pay increases for 330 managerial positions were swiftly implemented. But when it came to raises for typists, librarians, etc. the city government pleaded poverty, claiming they couldn't possibly afford the recommended salary levels. This decision, from a largely female city council and a woman mayor, prompted the first "feminist strike" in recent memory.The union initially demanded a $3.2 million budget allocation for parity increases over a four year period, in addition to a 10% cost of living raise. They finally settled for a two-year contract which provided $1.4 million towards comparable worth, plus an 8% cost of living raise. Average pay increases amounted to 17.6%, including the comparable worth monies.The settlement was hailed as a victory by comparable worth proponents and it has fueled their nationwide attempts to win wage parity. Striking San Jose workers got more or less what they wanted--a rare occurrence in these times of fiscal crises and budget cutbacks. Fortunately for the municipal workers, the city of San Jose cannot pack up and take its business elsewhere like Blue Shield did when it was struck earlier this year. And fortunately for the "feminist" city government, San Jose is one of the fastest growing cities in the U.S. and is right in the heart of the prosperous Silicon Valley. Unlike other cities, San Jose can draw revenues from the electronics industry to pay for wage increases.

Other attempts to establish the comparable worth principle have focussed on the legal system. A bout of excruciatingly time- consuming lawsuits have been launched to create a legal mandate for comparable worth. But judges are reluctant to hand down sweeping decisions since, in the words of a U.S. District Court judge in Denver who recently dismissed a comparability lawsuit, "I'm not going to restructure the entire economy of the U.S."Given the large numbers of women and minorities in low paying jobs, wage parity would require billions of dollars in wage adjustments. This means a massive transfer of wealth from business to workers--something which will never be accomplished in the courts.

Choose Your Hierarchy

As an effort to formulate a "realistic" proposal to employers, the union in San Jose helped create an alternative hierarchy of job categories. For example, a clerk typist is now rated as a grade 1, or lowest rank, while a recreation specialist is rated as a grade 7. Implicit in this new and supposedly "legitimate" ranking is the assumption that low wages are justified for those occupations which require less training, thinking and responsibility. While it is no doubt just as difficult and tedious for a clerk typist to show up each morning at the job and follow orders all day long, according to comparable worth it is legitimate to pay her less than the recreation specialist.In effect, the campaign for comparable worth becomes a trade-off: employers will stop discriminating sexually through the informal but effective method of underpaying jobs performed mostly by women. As their part of the "bargain," workers must accept a highly stratified labor market based on the prerogatives of business and the market. In this new system of discrimination workers are still economically rewarded for the merits, qualifications and skills that are useful to employers. The demand that the worth of women's wage labor be recognized puts forth a narrow conception of what is valuable, and obsures the basic worthlessness of so much of our time spent on the job. It is not just that so many workers don't get paid enough, but that the imperative of making money in boring, tedious jobs robs us of the time and energy to do things which are truly valuable to ourselves and others. Nevertheless, demands for comparable worth may prove to be a useful short-term strategy to increase wages for women and minority workers who are victims of wage discrimination. Since much of the oppression suffered by women and minorities hinges on economic discrimination, winning pay increases could be a significant advance. Unfortunately, the comparable worth strategy relies heavily on the use of "experts" --lawyers, union negotiators, statisticians and consultants--which makes real income gains unlikely. When the fight for wage gains is not in the hands of the people most directly affected, the likely result is that cosmetic changes will take the place of cold, hard cash.