What’s Good for Women Is Good for the Nation: Jobs, Livable Wages and Equal Pay

Just about one hundred years ago, the “Bread and Roses” strike took place in Lawrence, Mass., led by immigrant women mill workers. The “bread and roses” slogan came from James Oppenheim’s poem of the same name. Like the women in the poem, the Lawrence strikers were demanding not just fair wages but dignified working conditions as well.

This Labor Say, with unemployment seemingly stuck in the stratosphere and ordinary women and men struggling to find work, keep their homes and figure out some way to give their kids a good start in life, I keep thinking about these lines from Oppenheim’s poem:

As we come marching, marching, unnumbered women dead
Go crying through our singing their ancient cry for bread.
Small art and love and beauty their drudging spirits knew.
Yes, it is bread we fight for — but we fight for roses, too!
No more the drudge and idler – ten that toil where one reposes,
But a sharing of life’s glories: Bread and roses! Bread and roses!

“Ten that toil while one reposes” — Oppenheim wrote that 100 years ago, yet today income and wealth inequality are near record levels. While millions of people can’t find work, corporate CEOs are doing quite well. Last year, according to a new report from the Institute for Policy Studies, International Paper CEO John Faraci was paid $12.3 million — a 75 percent pay hike. Bank of New York Mellon’s Robert Kelly pocketed $19.4 million. And Stanley Black & Decker’s John Lundgren got a 253 percent pay increase to $32.6 million. Wow! Nice work if you can get it.

Women aren’t so lucky. Since the recovery began in 2009, women have lost around 300,000 jobs, while men gained about 900,000.  That’s mostly because women are over-represented in state and local government jobs, where layoffs are severe and continuing. Women’s income is essential for the majority of families to make ends meet. Yet among women household heads, the unemployment rate was 17.4 percent for African Americans and 12.4 percent for Hispanics in 2010. And if women are not unemployed, they are under-employed and as often as not un- or under-insured.

Unfortunately, the pampered CEOs in this country are not interested in a “sharing of life’s glories” to use Oppenheim’s phrase — far from it. The ratio of CEO-to-worker pay jumped from an already appalling level of 263-to-1 in 2009 to an even worse 325-to-1 last year. Compare, for example, Wal-Mart CEO Michael Duke’s $35 million salary (equivalent to $16,826.92 an hour) with the $13,650 per year ($8.75 an hour), he wants to pay workers at his new store in Chicago. Duke makes more in an hour than his workers will make in one year. Really? Is one person really all that?

Workers who make less than a livable wage (and let’s be real — minimum wage is not livable in most communities) can’t set aside savings for a rainy day, let alone a rainy year and counting. This problem is compounded for women by the fact that they work their whole lives at unequal pay. Women are paid on average 77 cents to the dollar paid men; for African-American women the ratio is 69 cents to the dollar, and for Latinas it is 59 cents. How do you save for an economic downturn in the face of systemic race-based and gender-based wage discrimination?

For women, job creation is not just good economic policy, it’s a moral imperative. For the many women who are hanging on by their fingernails, it is an existential imperative. And those jobs must come with livable wages and equal pay.

Conservatives in Congress, and some with their eye on the Oval Office, have already signaled their ideas for job creation, and it’s déjà vu all over again: lower taxes, less regulation. Oh, and lower wages too. Their argument is that corporate employers will start staffing up if their taxes and regulatory burden are lowered, and if they don’t have to pay their employees so darn much (other than CEOs, of course).

But that’s clearly wrong. With interest rates at near-all-time lows, corporate employers should be staffing up already, but they are not — because they don’t see any customers on the horizon. And they won’t see any until the government, through an effective jobs program, creates employed people, also known as customers.

So with the other side proposing only more of the same misery, I am a lot more interested in what President Obama will say about jobs when he addresses both houses of Congress this week.

Like many progressives, I wish he would “go bold,” by getting behind a powerful jobs program like Rep Jan Schakowsky’s (D-Ill.) bill, which would create more than 2 million jobs for teachers, health care workers, police, fire fighters and other providers of much-needed goods and services. I wish he would be guided by suggestions put out by women’s organizations, such as the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, Wider Opportunities for Women and the Women Scholars Forum.

I recently learned this from IWPR:

The Levy Economics Institute of Bard College has calculated that investing in social sector jobs, such as early childhood education and home-based care, generates the most jobs per $1 invested and also provides the most jobs to the most vulnerable groups of unemployed. Investing in care jobs creates twice the number of jobs as the same investment in physical infrastructure and 1.5 times the number of jobs as the same investment in green energy.

To do well by women, the president would do well to follow the recommendations of these scholars and researchers. These are the policies we need to pull us out of a jobs crisis that, by the way, women had very little hand in creating in the first place.

Happy Labor Day, everyone.

Originally published on Terry O’Neill’s Huffington Post blog on 09/04/11

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