How the “comparable worth” campaign succeeded

On a hillside in San Francisco a small public school bears the name of one of the pioneers in the movement for workplace equality. Kate Kennedy was born in Ireland, and like so many others, came to the United States during the Great Potato Famine of 1845-49. She was the first San Francisco teacher to join a union. In 1874, she brought a non-discrimination suit that provided the precedent for “equal pay for equal work.” Ultimately a federal law passed in 1963 made it illegal to pay men and women working in the same place different salaries for similar work.

Nonetheless, women’s wages today are between 70 and 80 percent of men’s, though they comprise 58 percent of the workforce. (Among union members, the gap is only 9 percent.) If different subgroups are compared, such as white men and women of color, the gap is much larger. Some of the excuses for this include: “Men need to be paid more because they are heads of the household;” “Women only work to supplement their husbands’ pay;” “Women only work outside the home to earn ‘pin money.’” Of course, employers will always find reasons to pay workers less, women or no.

Employers, both public and private, were able to maintain the “gender gap” by basing their wage structures on “market value,” that is, what workers in similar jobs were paid in different locales. So, if the wages for a job, like that of librarian, were generally depressed in other places, the employer could claim that it would be fair to pay the same wage. This, of course, preserved the gender gap because librarians were predominantly women.

Enter Maxine Jenkins. Born in rural Mississippi, Jenkins arrived in the Bay Area in 1964, and took a clerical job at UC Berkeley while taking classes. At the time, organizers for AFSCME, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, were organizing clerical workers on campus. Jenkins joined and never looked back. She dropped out of school and worked on organizing campaigns full time. “We must get out of the bind of depending on surveys that compare salaries with already depressed rates elsewhere,” she declared at a California Labor Federation meeting in 1973.

Jenkins and other feminist organizers based their campaign on something called “comparable worth,” which asserted that men and women should be paid equally according to comparable skill, effort, and responsibility under similar working conditions, not by comparing salaries in different locales. In June of 1981, these efforts culminated in a nine-day strike for pay equity by San Jose public sector workers. They won pay increases in more than 60 job categories and brought nationwide attention to the idea of comparable worth.

Fifty-eight percent of the workforce? Working for between 20 to 30 percent less than what the other 42 percent earn? This battle for social justice is far from over.

— By Bill Morgan, a member of the CFT Labor and Climate Justice Education Committee who taught elementary students in San Francisco for 34 years