Thursday, April 26, 2012

"Grace and Grit" by Lilly Ledbetter (2012)

I have been waiting for this book. I recently wrote about the dichotomy between the Lily Ledbetter Act, which was signed into law by President Obama in 2009, and the Supreme Court’s decision in the Wal-Mart versus Doris Duke case last year. To my mind, that decision flew in the face of reason. Having heard about Ms. Ledbetter's fight for equal pay at Goodyear, I was more than interested to read her story. And, as usual, the local library came through with this up front, and gutsy book about Ms. Ledbetter, and her fight on behalf of all people, not just women.
With a keen ear for telling her story, Ms. Ledbetter begins at the beginning, in the small town of Possum Trot, Alabama. Growing up in the 1940’s was not easy in many small towns around America. Ms. Ledbetter’s father worked at the Army Depot after his discharge from the Navy at the close of the Second World War. But the real good jobs were over in the next town, New Liberty, which was home to most of the workforce at Goodyear Tire. This, to Ms. Ledbetter’s thinking, was upward mobility, and she aspired to be a part of that circle. To have a store bought dress was a luxury for her; in New Liberty it was the norm.

Picking cotton and corn were a way of life for her, and her family, as they struggled to make ends meet. When the 1950’s rolled in, although her family was among the first in their area to have a TV, Ms. Ledbetter wanted access to the American Dream. Excelling in school was a natural for her, having been instilled to a life of hard work at an early age. But, without money, Jacksonville State, just 8 miles down the road, was out of the question. So, as was customary at the time, she got married. With the arrival of two children, life should have been complete. But, her narrow and restricted life drove her to want more. Eventually, after working at General Electric; where she made filaments for bulbs; she landed a job at the very University where she had wanted to study. She even took courses in her spare time. But money remained an obstacle to be overcome, month by month. And that’s what brought her to Goodyear. With a hard work ethic and a desire to succeed; that’s what all it would take to win the dream, right? Not really.

Although Goodyear had many women working in their plants during the Second World War, by the time Ms. Ledbetter arrived, there were only a handful of women working among the thousands of men at the Goodyear plant in Gadsden, Alabama. This was around 1979, and though many things were changing for women, many doors were, and still are, shuttered for them. The author does an excellent job in describing the harassment endured by women in the more industrialized jobs at that time. The Unions were largely unsympathetic to the problems faced by their female members. Ms. Ledbetter describes in detail some of the more blatant abuses suffered by the women who dared to work there. One of these involved the threat of being “picked”, which is a practice in which the other men would strip, and then pluck the pubic hairs of a fellow employee. This was something that had been done to men in the past, and they were supposed to just endure it. It was like a rite of passage. When some of the women are threatened in this manner one brave woman simply dropped her pants and dared them to do it. No one ever bothered her again.

Throughout the book, Ms. Ledbetter does a wonderful job of relating the unique challenges suffered by all true trailblazers. And as she forges ahead, she also is busy raising her 2 children, while dealing with a loving, but unsympathetic husband. Mired; as he is; in his belief in the Bible, he wants his wife to be an appendage to him. This does nothing for her self-esteem. Added to this mix is the illness of her son, Phillip, who suffered from chronic allergies requiring health care which was simply not affordable. Eventually she brings her son to a very sympathetic woman pediatrician who helps her navigate through some of these difficulties.

But by far the most important, and far reaching decision she would make, involved working at Goodyear. There was no way around it, the Goodyear plant, with its higher than average wages, was the logical choice.  Against the wishes of her husband, she applies for work at, and is hired by Goodyear. And, ironically; in her quest to better herself and help her family; this is where her struggles really begin.

One morning, after arriving at work, she finds a slip of paper in her mail at work. This piece of paper lists the salaries of the men and women who are doing the same work, the only difference being that the men are being paid a lot more. After working at the plant for 19 years she was stunned to learn of the disparity in pay being doled out to the women. And, as a female area manager, she was a valued employee. This was like rubbing sand in the wound. She was rewarded with the promotions for her excellent work, but denied the financial reward of all her efforts.

With the salaries so skewed; she was making $44,724 per year versus $59,028 for the same work being done by men; Ms. Ledbetter sought  the counsel of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Their investigation would take some time, while she continued to work at the plant knowing how underpaid she was. Just reading this part of the book had me seething. I cannot imagine how she endured the next few years while waiting for the EEOC to finish its investigation, and prepare for a trial.

Through layoffs, and continued harassment, the author finally makes it to the trial in January of 2003, which took place in the Anniston County Courthouse. The trial was a farce, with Goodyear’s lawyers attempting to make her look like a fool. They had picked the wrong woman for such tactics. After all she had been through; they should have realized that she wasn’t going to be intimidated.

When the jury awards her $3.8 million dollars in damages and back pay, she is stunned. But, she would never see that money. Even if Goodyear lost the appeal, the law capped off damage awards at $360,000, which is just about the sum of back pay she was owed.  According to the laws in place at the time, under Title VII, Compensatory and Punitive damages were dictated by the company’s size. In addition,  race claims were not subject to this cap. Had Ms. Ledbetter been African-American, and able to prove discrimination, she would have been eligible to receive the original amount determined by the jury. But, as a white woman, she was only entitled to the lesser amount. This is one of many reasons why the ERA, which was never ratified by the Senate, is such an important issue for women to tackle.
The case reached the Supreme Court in 2007. She lost. The court struck the case down on a technicality; if a worker is being paid less than another for equal work, then that complaint must be filed within 180 days; or else the applicant is stuck with the unequal pay for the remainder of their employment. That, in itself, is ridiculous on its face, considering it could be years before the employee learns of the discrimination. But the firestorm ignited by her attempts would lead to the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act, spearheaded by Senators Steny Hoyer and Ted Kennedy. Senate Bill 1843 would take until April of 2008 to come up for a vote in the Senate. With both Secretary of State Hillary Clinton; who does receive equal pay as a government employee; and then Senator Obama pulling for her, the bill would eventually become law. It had been a hard battle by one courageous woman that hopefully would have a real impact on the question of Equal Pay for Equal Work.

And therein is the dichotomy I spoke of earlier. How can the President sign into law something that the Supreme Court had denied? And to top it off, how could the Supreme Court, only one year later, side with Wal-Mart on the issue of pay disparity within its  ranks? I have no real answer to these questions.
This is an engaging read, which raises many questions as it tells the story of one woman’s struggle to make a better life for herself, and her family. I only hope that many women will read this book and be inspired to make this issue of Equal Pay a hallmark of the coming election. We are one of the only industrialized nations in the world today without such protection for women. The Lilly Ledbetter Act is a nice piece of paper, but the Supreme Court is the final arbitrator of the issue. And with the courts recent Wal-Mart decision, we all have reason to be angry and ashamed.

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