Equal Pay Day 2011: there is power in a union.

You may have noticed from recent posts on the Scientopia frontpage that today is Equal Pay Day, the day that marks the number of excess days (past December 31, 2010) that an average woman needs to work to catch up to the average man's yearly earnings.

The evidence suggests that women in the U.S. are paid less than men for the same work. For example, this recent story from Inside Higher Education:

The gender gap in faculty pay cannot be explained completely by the long careers of male faculty members, the relative productivity of faculty members, or where male and female faculty members tend to work -- even if those and other factors are part of the picture, according to research being released this week at the annual meeting of the American Education Research Association.

When all such factors are accounted for, women earn on average 6.9 percent less than do men in similar situations in higher education, says the paper, by Laura Meyers, a doctoral candidate at the University of Washington. The finding could be significant because many colleges have explained gender gaps by pointing out that the senior ranks of the professoriate are still dominated by people who were rising through the ranks in periods of overt sexism and so are lopsidedly male, or that men are more likely than women to teach in certain fields that pay especially well.

(Bold emphasis added.)

I submit to you that paying someone less (or more) for the same job when the only difference is the gender of the person doing the job is unfair. (Those who take issue with this claim are invited to offer a positive argument for paying women less than men for the same work.)

Of course, it strikes me that the public enthusiasm in the U.S. for paying someone a fair wage in the first place is on the decline. It's true that we have the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009, but we also have a case before the Supreme Court in which Walmart seems to be arguing that, owing to its size, its women employees ought not to be certified as a class in a class action gender discrimination lawsuit against the retailer. (Maybe the slogan here is "too big for you to make us be fair"?) Indeed, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act was prompted by a Supreme Court decision that held that:

employers cannot be sued under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act over race or gender pay discrimination if the claims are based on decisions made by the employer 180 days ago or more.

In her dissent, read from the bench, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg set out the precarious position in which this left women who were subject to pay discrimination.

Joined by Justices Stevens, Souter, and Breyer, she argued against applying the 180-day limit to pay discrimination, because discrimination often occurs in small increments over large periods of time. Furthermore, the pay information of fellow workers is typically confidential and unavailable for comparison. Ginsburg argued that pay discrimination is inherently different from adverse actions, such as termination. Adverse actions are obvious, but small pay discrepancy is often difficult to recognize until more than 180 days of the pay change.

Meanwhile, across the U.S. governors and state legislatures seem to be doing what they can to dismantle labor unions, especially public employee labor unions. I would argue that if you care about fair pair for women, you ought to be concerned about efforts to weaken or eliminate unions.

Let's look at some numbers from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. In 2010 11.9% of the total workforce consisted of union members, with 13.1% of the workforce represented by unions (i.e., they were either union members or working in jobs covered by a union or an employee association contract). Looking at a gender breakdown for 2010 (when the numbers show men making up 51.2% of the workforce and women 48.8%), 12.6% of employed men were union members (with 13.8% of employed men represented by unions) and 11.1% of employed women were union members (with 12.4% of employed women represented by unions).

How much of a difference does this make to salaries? The median weekly earnings of full-time wage and salary workers for 2010 stack up like this: The mean for the whole workforce was $747 overall, but it was $917 for union members, $911 for workers represented by unions, and $717 for non-union workers. The average man in the workforce was earning $824 a week -- $967 if he was a union member, $964 if he was represented by a union, and $789 if he was a non-union worker. Meanwhile, the average woman in the workforce was earning $669 a week -- $856 if she was a union member, $847 if she was represented by a union, and $639 if she was a non-union worker.

First, you'll notice that, in the aggregate, salaries are higher for union members (by 23%) and employees represented by a union (22%), and lower for non-union workers (by 4.0%). But let's take a look at what kind of difference unions make to pay by gender.

In the aggregate, the men's mean weekly earnings were 10% above the mean, the women's 10% below the mean. For non-union workers, the men's mean weekly earnings were 10% above the mean, the women's 11% below the mean. However, among employees represented by unions, men's mean weekly salaries were 5.8% above the mean, women's 7.0% below it, and for union members, men's mean weekly salaries were 5.5% above the mean, women's 6.7% below it.

That's still not pay equality. But workers who are union members or represented by unions have less of a pay gap between men and women.

From the point of view of working our way towards equal pay, unions seem to be doing something to close that gap. This is something to keep in mind when considering the future of unions in the U.S. workforce.

Other Equal Pay Day posts around Scientopia:

WTF?! "Equal" Pay Day
Equal Pay Day
$16,819 for a Penis
Penis Parity Day
Good Hair Day, Fair Pay Day
Equal Pay Day Epic FAIL

6 responses so far

  • Dan Hicks says:

    Or, to put the upshot in a slightly different way, the pay gap for unionized workers is about half the pay gap for nonunionized workers.

  • rknop says:

    When all such factors are accounted for, women earn on average 6.9 percent less than do men in similar situations in higher education

    ...shouldn't that make Equal Pay Day be January 25 or 26, then?

  • Janet D. Stemwedel says:

    Maybe Equal Pay for Academics Day could be earlier in the year. However, given that lately universities (especially public ones in California) feel a tad precarious as sources of ongoing employment, I'm standing with my fellow women who have a bigger gendered pay gap with which to contend.

    There but for the not-yet-total implosion of the state budget go I.

  • [...] Adventures in Ethics and Science: Equal Pay Day 2011: There is Power in a Union [...]

  • ginger says:

    Ugh. Even if the Supreme Court can't bring itself to support fairness for its own sweet sake, it sure seems like a bad idea to let Wal-Mart declare it's just too large to abide by federal law.

  • Neuro-conservative says:

    When you control for relevant variables, including hours worked and dangerousness of working conditions, the so-called "wage gap" disappears entirely.

    And amongst the young, it is reversed:

    In a 2010 study of single, childless urban workers between the ages of 22 and 30, the research firm Reach Advisors found that women earned an average of 8% more than their male counterparts.

    So I guess that equal pay day should have been celebrated sometime around Dec 2 of last year.