Proponents of that bizarre movement known as "comparable worth" were whooping it up last week. The City Council of Los Angeles had voted 12-1 for a union contract reportedly intended to equate secretaries with garage attendants and librarians with gardeners. Unless I am misinformed, there is much less here than meets the eye.
These days, to speak or write of "comparable worth" is to evoke the solemn foolishness witnessed in the state of Washington. There the state engaged in an elaborate evaluation of its mostly male and mostly female job classifications. A five-member committee adopted a plan of numerical values. Points were awarded according to the committee's judgment of 1)the knowledge and skill required for a given job; 2)the mental demands of the job; 3)the workers' accountability on the job, and 4)the working conditions. When the scores were tallied, it appeared that the jobs of laundry worker and delivery truck driver, for example, were jobs of "comparable worth," and a federal judge late in 1983 decreed that the jobs must be equally paid.
The Los Angeles case was nothing like that. In Los Angeles the city government met with negotiators for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, representing about 3,950 of the city's 26,800 workers. As it happens, the union's collective bargaining unit is made up of members in jobs that historically have been "women's jobs," e.g., secretaries and librarians. The union argued eloquently that these "women's jobs" were irrationally underpaid. No portentous study of "comparable worth" ever was made. The union won its point. The city agreed to raise the entrance salaries of these AFSCME members.
Nothing in the Los Angeles process should set off cries of alarm among those of us who regard the Washington state process as essentially loony. The voluntary agreement reached in Los Angeles was the product of old-fashioned arm's-length bargaining; the underlying premise was not comparable worth, but simple equity. By contrast, Washington let itself be transfixed by arbitrary numbers, and U.S. District Judge Jack E. Tanner swallowed the numbers whole.
Charles W. Baird, professor of economics at California State University in Hayward, believes Tanner's opinion may well be overturned on appeal. Writing in Government Union Review, Baird contends that the subjective judgments of the Washington committee are unimpressive as hard evidence of unlawful discrimination on account of sex. The comparative job scores, he says, are necessarily arbitrary.
To the extent that the pay scales voluntarily are adjusted, only the most rabid male chauvinist could object. What Baird deplores is the prospect of substituting the decrees of seers and diviners for the function of the marketplace in fixing the value of labor. It is only a matter of time before some nitwitted member of Congress proposes to write such wage boards into the 1963 Equal Pay Act. When that day comes, let us pray for a resounding vote of "no."