Essential Workers and Pay Equity

Ideas and Issues

New Orleans      In a moment of youthful recklessness more than fifty years ago, I allowed myself to get into one of those dangerous political conversations with the father of a woman I was seeing.  He was a good, decent guy and Republican to the core, even in those days when Louisiana was deep, deep blue, so blue that my own father once said you had to register as a Democrat, or you would only get to vote every four years.  Hard to believe, but those were the days.

In September 1968, garbage workers in New Orleans, who were then employed by the city directly, struck for recognition of their union and a pay increase.  Drivers were making $235 per month and hoppers, the laborers on the back of the truck, were making $231 per month.  They were demanding a $15 per month increase.

The conversation started innocently enough.  He, like everyone else, wanted his garbage collected.  As a smart aleck twenty-year old, essentially, I asked him what it was worth to him?  He was a manufacturers representative selling to railroads who had taken over the family business.  I started asking him to compare a garbage worker to the value of the service and labor performed, rather than the way it was valued usually.  Asking him to value garbage collection compared to other jobs on the basis of equity, he followed me down the rat hole, at first unknowingly without giving it much thought, and finally more angrily, as we reached the point where he fell in my logic trap and was forced to begrudgingly agree that a garbage worker should be paid the same as a lawyer, perhaps more because it was harder, nastier work and more important to the community.  I’m not sure he ever forgave me, as he huffed out of his living room.

In this time of the pandemic we are being taught the value of essential workers as a matter of life and death not some idle conversation.   Pay equity rather than the pay gap needs to be the conversation.  Comparable worth and equal pay for work of equal value and effort, regardless of race or gender needs to be the policy, not just my youthful argument.

A law just took effect in New Zealand that seeks to move in this critical direction.  The law focuses on occupations that have become gender-based and because of that bias, pay less.  When we visited New Zealand in 2018, talking to union brothers and sisters, we heard about the court victory where a woman caregiver won a raise when compared to male occupations, like prison guards.  Negotiations between industry, unions, and government had led to increases in wages of between 15 and 49% for 55,000 government workers.

That’s huge!  It hasn’t spread to the private sector there yet, and certainly, it hasn’t spread globally, but it needs to be part of all of the discussions about wages.  In the United States we are finally hoping for an increase in the minimum wage, but it is neither foolish nor reckless now, in the wake of a new understanding of essential work, for us to begin to talk about pay equity between jobs as well as between people in the same jobs.