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