STRIKING TECHNICAL and clerical workers at Yale University say that they are performing a service for all women whose skills are undervalued by the market. University officials say that claim is just a cover for plain old greed. Who is right?
The union might have claimed a substantial victory by simply accepting the three-year 24-percent pay hike offered by the university. Office workers have traditionally been hard to organize, so the formation of the 1,800 member union last April -- after years of effort -- was in itself a notable achievement. But the union's predominately female members insist that their pay is far below the value of their services.
As computer technicians, librarians, secretaries, hospital aides and administrative and research assistants, union members earn, on average, about $13,500. The university, however, pays its mostly male truck drivers about 36 percent more, although their jobs require less education or training. So the strikers are pressing for guaranteed increases and a partial cost-of-living adjustment that would boost their pay by 40 to 50 percent over three years.
Yale says that it has already given generous raises and can't afford more. It doesn't deny that occupations dominated by women generally pay less than male-dominated occupations. But the university says that it doesn't discriminate by sex in hiring and that it cannot remedy single-handedly discrimination resulting from centuries of sex segregation in the marketplace. Only a national law could do that. "Equal pay for equal work" is already the law of the land. Employers can no longer pay women less than men for the same job. But the notion of "comparable worth" -- endorsed by women's groups and this year's Democratic ticket -- goes much further. It would require equivalent wages for different kinds of jobs that are considered by various measures to have the same value to the society.
The "comparable worth" idea is viewed with understandable dismay by economists and businessmen who envision the havoc caused by a zealous bureaucracy charged with assigning "fair" wages to every occupation in the economy. Australia has had such a law for more than a decade. While economists disagree about its effect on economic growth and employment, the male-female wage gap has narrowed sharply. Still, whatever the equities, the idea is totally impractical in an economy as large and dynamic as this one.
That doesn't mean that workers in female-dominated occupations should not do exactly what the Yale workers have done -- organize, bargain collectively and, if they think it will do their cause more good than harm, go on strike and appeal to the sense of the larger community. The situation isn't pleasant for the university, the students or the strikers. But it's the time-honored way for workers in this country to try to better their lot.