A Success for NC Women – by Polly Williams

In 2015 in America, we are still having “debates” about equal pay for equal work. Because the concept of paying women the same for the same work as men is impossible to embrace in a culture that still believes women are worth less then men.

It sure can feel like we are banging our heads against the same old wall (haven’t we broken through that wall yet?), but it’s important to remember where we come from – we had successes in the past, and we can have that success again.

From the NCWU archives – past board member and longtime NC social justice activist Polly Williams was reminded of one such success story with the passing of her friend and NCWU founding member Arlene McKay. Read Polly’s story below, and know that our work can and does make a difference for the women of North Carolina.

Thank you, Polly, for all you do!

vintage equal pay photoThe recent tribute in the NCWU newsletter to Arlene McKay brought back many memories; in particular, a remembrance of an idea for legislation that we took action on,  and that resulted in a real success even though it wasn’t the one we were first looking for. Anyone who knew Arlene will know that we put a lot of energy into this project, spent many hours and days at the General Assembly, and also had a lot of fun. 

Because Arlene and I were both members of NCWU, this legislative success can be credited to the initiative and advocacy of NC Women United.  In the 2005 session the base yearly wage for a North Carolina state employee was raised nearly $2000 from $18,700 to $20,112.  The money set aside for this purpose included a sum for compression—that is, to raise the salaries of supervisors and others correspondingly.  Since 72 percent of state employees in the lowest wage grades were women, this was a victory for the women you see serving food in the cafeterias of state buildings and those you encounter cleaning the halls and bathrooms—in other words,  the women we depend on to make everything run.

How this measure came about offers some insight into the process – a process that often take years – of getting an issue before the legislature and seeing it through to passage.

Arlene McKay and I got together at an NCWU meeting and discussed the possibility of a bill for pay equity for women state employees. This was in 2002, when the NC Justice Center, where I was a volunteer, had just issued a report by Kim Cartron of its Budget and Tax Center showing the abysmal statistics on earnings of women state employees, particularly minority women.  Of the 24 percent of state employees in the seven lowest pay grades, 73.5 percent were women. I had added a section to the report on the mechanics of a comparable worth study and what it might show about gender disparities in wages and salaries of state government employees. (The term “comparable worth” had been so disparaged it was pretty much in the trash, but I used it anyway because of the studies I wanted to reference.) Arlene represented member Business and Professional Women in NC Women United. She was a longtime member of this organization, which has always worked for equal pay for women on a national basis. It was her issue, too. We talked about getting a comparable worth study bill introduced in the legislature; a bill which would compare skills, education, and training required for jobs primarily held by women with those held primarily by men to see if the pay for women’s jobs was less than for those held by men requiring equal credentials.

During the 2003 legislative session, Arlene and I were able to have companion bills for such a study introduced in the House, sponsored by Representative Martha Alexander and other legislators; and in the Senate, sponsored by Senator Jeannie Lucas. The bill received unanimous approval from the House Government Committee. Through Ardis Watkins, lobbyist for SEANC, we were able to talk to a SEANC committee and get their support. Late in the session, Arlene and I paid a visit to Senator Tony Rand, who we were told had the greatest say on the contents of the studies bill. He said that without funds to fix the situation, the state was liable to be sued when the results of the study were known. This is the reaction we found everywhere: that the study would reveal unfair disparities in pay between men and women. We didn’t say that—we just asked for a study. But legislators assumed it. Our response was that the state wouldn’t be sued if it took some action and that in other states targeting certain jobs for altering pay scales had not proved unduly expensive. The pay equity commission was included in the studies bill—but in the final rush to adjourn, the bill was not passed by the House.

At one point during the session, a representative of the Office of State Personnel turned up in Representative Alexander’s office to ask her to withdraw the bill. He said that OSP had already done its own study on the job situation of African-American males and was planning a similar initiative for women state employees. He thought the work should be left up to OSP, no need for a study commission. However, OSP had done studies before, one as long ago as 1982, commissioned by Martha McKay when she worked in state government. It showed what Kim Cartron’s study did, no surprise there.

Afterwards Representative Wilma Woodard had got a comparable worth bill through the General Assembly, but it became so watered down that she herself moved for its repeal the following year. We didn’t want a no-action study. We wanted a study commission which would bring some legislative heft to the issue.

Although we were working at cross purposes with OSP, Arlene and I were able to talk things over with Nellie Riley, the EEOC person at OSP, and through her to have a conference with OSP Commissioner Thomas Wright. By this time we were getting along famously with everybody, and as a result Arlene and I were invited to join an OSP task force to look at various aspects of working life for women employees in state government.  We looked at such issues as opportunities for training and advancement, leadership, mentoring, work/life balance, and, yes, wages. A new salary study showed the same results as before: although women made up just under half of all state employees, they were 71.5 percent of those in low-wage brackets. Black and other minority women were 17 percent of all state employees but 32 percent of the low-wage employees. Toward the end of our work I had been traveling and missed some meetings, as had Arlene. At the last meeting of the task force, to approve recommendations, I was horrified to find none of them had to do with wages. I did some quick remedial work and ended up with a recommendation for a new sub-committee (which I co-chaired with Nancy Astrike of OSP) to “establish a minimum salary that represents a basic living income for North Carolina State Government employees based on defensible standards.”

My contribution to the work of this committee was to bring in Sorien Schmidt of the Justice Center. Sorien gave us guidance in refining our objective and in finding material to support it, most of which she provided. She told us, and we agreed, that no state employees should make a salary so low that they were eligible for public benefits. We arrived at a proposed figure for the lowest state salary. Meanwhile, just at the right time, low-wage employees at UNC-CH were protesting and demonstrating about their inadequate wages. Barbara Ehrenreich, author of “Nickel and Dimed,” came to speak there. Also, after a lunch I had with a reporter from the N&O whom I directed to the report of our committee (supposedly to be given publicity in a press conference by the Governor, which never took place), an article about it appeared on page one of a Sunday edition. It quoted Representative Deborah Ross, whose interest was fired by what she learned and who offered to put in a bill. Wonderful!  Governor Easley would not sign off on the full amount we had proposed for the lowest wage, but the one he approved wasn’t far off. Representative Ross introduced two bills, one with the salary raise and the other with recommendations for supervisors to protect against wage discrimination against women. The second got little attention. Bill Rowe of the NC Justice Center lobbied for the first bill, which had a companion bill in the Senate sponsored by Senator Katie Dorsett. It was her bill that was incorporated in the budget, and the new lowest wage was raised from $18,312 to $20,112. My thanks went then and go now to all those who supported this effort to get some economic justice for low-income employees of the State’s largest employer–but most of all to the late Arlene McKay. My true companion in this enterprise.