The Civil Rights Act of 1990, which President Bush vetoed days before the election, was designed, in part, to make it easier for women to go into court to get equal pay. Another tool in the legal arsenal for obtaining equal pay is getting legislatures to enact laws requiring employers to pay workers according to the value of the work they do instead of their sex.
Ontario is the first, and, so far, the only, jurisdiction in the world that requires public and private employers to identify undervalued female-dominated jobs and to raise the pay so that women workers are paid comparably to men for similar jobs. One of the most significant parts of the Ontario plan is that it puts the burden on employers, rather than having the process be driven by employees' complaints. By putting the burden on employers it also reduces their exposure to costly litigation, in which they start out on the defensive.
Ontario's Pay Equity Act became law in January 1988. It covers all employers of more than 10 employees in the Canadian province. Almost 2 million women are covered under it, but more than a million are not, the majority because there is no comparable male-dominated job that can be used as a basis of pay comparison. A minimum of four factors are used to compare jobs: skill, effort, responsibility and working conditions. Where employees are represented by unions, it is up to the union and the employer to establish a pay equity plan for each bargaining unit and for those parts of the work force that are not unionized.
Women's working experiences in Ontario are similar to those of American women. In Ontario, 46 percent of the women are working, as are 45 percent of American women. They earned 65 percent of what men earned in 1988, while American women earned 66 percent of what men earned. A significant difference, however, is that 38 percent of Ontario's women were unionized while only 13 percent of American women were.
Carrol Anne Sceviour, director of human rights and women's issues for the Ontario Federation of Labor, traces the success of pay-equity legislation in Ontario to union resolutions in the early 1900s, which were fueled by male unionists' concerns that they would be replaced by cheaper women workers. In a speech before the annual luncheon of the National Pay Equity Committee here, Sceviour outlined the political strategy that led to the pay equity act of 1988.
A law requiring equal pay for the same job was passed in 1953, a decade before a similar law was passed in the United States. Then, in 1976, a coalition was formed of women's organizations and trade unions to broaden the scope of change to include equal pay for different jobs that have the same value.
"Several activities were begun that ran parallel to each other," Sceviour said.
"The major effort was education -- within the labor movement, the women's community, and by using the media to inform the public. The other major strategy was turning pay equity into an election issue." The entrenched male leadership of unions often dropped pay equity in the first round of negotiations. But in the last 20 years, union membership among women more than doubled and they rose to leadership and bargaining table positions. Three of every five new union members in Ontario are women.
"We pointed out how zoo keepers taking care of animals earned more than women taking care of children, how trained secretaries earned less than untrained janitors. These stories made an impact on the public."
Then the coalition made equal pay an election issue and pressed at each election for the party leaders to make pay equity an election issue. In Ontario, party members vote their leaders' positions. In 1985, the Conservative government called an election. The coalition got the Liberal and New Democratic parties to promise to introduce pay equity if they formed a government. The Conservative government won by one seat over the Liberals, which gave the New Democrats the balance of power. The New Democrats agreed to support the Liberals if they agreed to a series of demands. That included introduction of the pay equity act that was eventually passed.
"Fundamental to the sucess was the coalition that was formed between the women's community and the labor movement," said Sceviour. While the act is by no means perfect, she said, it is a beginning. "If there is the political will, there will be the flexibility to do whatever it takes to get it right." And that political will paid off: In September, the voters of Ontario elected a New Democratic Party majority government, breaking more than four decades of Conservative Party rule. Pay Equity was one of the key planks in the New Democratic platform. And that should be a new lesson for some of the Old Democrats down here.