Elections have consequences, as Sen. Barbara Boxer famously said in 2007. Now Republicans and big business interests are horrified by the prospect that the new Democratic Congress seems poised to pass two major fair pay for women bills that can help all workers. They're scheduled to be voted on by the House of Representatives this week.Why have pro-business leaders, such as the National Association of Manufacturers, denounced these bills as "another open invitation to sue business owners and operators on thin grounds"? One important bill, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act , would overturn a 2007 Supreme Court decision that barred workers from filing anti-discrimination lawsuits because they waited too long to sue. (You can hear Lilly Ledbetter tell her story here.) A second measure, the Paycheck Fairness Act, aims to strengthen labor laws and legal remedies to stop the discrepancy in womens' pay: they average only 78 cents for every dollar men make. Both bills passed the House in the last session, but were defeated by Republican legislative maneuvers in the Senate. As the Center for American Progress summarizes the case for passing these bills:Women in the United States still earn only 78 cents on the dollar compared to men more than 45 years after the passage of the Equal Pay Act in 1963, and these two bills are key to narrowing this gap.Lilly Ledbetter helped shine new light on this issue when the Supreme Court denied her the $223,776 in additional wages she would have earned had she been a man in its 2007 decision, Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act would correct this decision and ensure that future victims of pay discrimination can bring a lawsuit after any act of discriminatory pay. The Paycheck Fairness Act goes even further in strengthening equal pay laws through measures such as allowing victims of gender-based pay discrimination to fully recover damages, enabling the government to collect better data on wage discrimination and closing loopholes for employers defending against wage discrimination claims.Women have made enormous advances toward economic equality, but gaps in income between men and women persist and only multiply over time, as the following numbers from Jessica Arons’ Center for American Progress Action Fund report, “Lifetime Losses: The Career Wage Gap” show. Passing these two bills is an important first step in addressing this problem.In fact, the Center report found, a full-time female worker loses a median of $434,000 in wages over a 40-year period as a direct result of the gender pay gap, also known as the “career wage gap.” Making up that gap, or the 22 percent difference in annual pay, could certainly help with the economic recovery as well.Republicans resent that they're being pressured to vote so quickly on these measure. The Hill reports:Business groups are not pleased with the early votes on labor bills, and complain they were not subject to hearings and markups in this Congress. They also say the two scheduled votes are an indication of the rough year they could have with the Democratic House.It was “ominous” how quickly the House leadership was moving on the legislation, said Randy Johnson, vice president for labor policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, who also complained about the lack of debate.Of course these same issues were fully aired in hearings in the last Congress, where Ledbetter testified, and the Paycheck Fairness Act was first introduced eleven years ago. But, hey, who's counting?Yet while anti-labor groups and Republican leaders are sharpening their attack lines, or lies, about these measures and the upcoming Employee Free Choice Act, some businessmen are seeing the value to the broader economy of strengthening workers' rights to unionize.As cited by the AFL-CIO NOW blog:Joe Diecedue, a state agent for American Income Life Insurance, has written a great piece that explains what the Employee Free Choice Act is and why we need this vital legislation.Written from the perspective of a businessman and employer who knows his business needs economically secure consumers, the article [ in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette] is a great antidote to the short-sighted and false attacks that are coming from industry lobbyists and anti-worker lawyers:"When a worker does well, business does well. Business can sell and retain customers who can afford to pay. No one wins when everyone struggles."…Diecedue cuts through the anti-worker spin and misleading arguments, and focuses on the problem the Employee Free Choice Act is aimed at fixing: Workers have less and less power to bargain for a better life, and the economy is suffering as a result. A fair economy that works for everyone, Diecedue says, is a stronger economy for workers and business alike:"As a businessman, I see the best short-term strategic, sustainable solution as more local and immediate: paying workers higher wages that puts immediate money into the economy…"Historically, collective bargaining agreements have resulted in building a robust middle class with true shared prosperity."As Diecedue points out, CEOs and top executives wouldn’t think of working without a contract, yet they’re trying to deny the same bargaining power to employees. It’s creating a fundamental weakness in our economy as wages stagnate and benefits disappear.Diecedue is right: The Employee Free Choice Act is essential to turning the economy around. The union movement and progressives will be using such common-sense arguments to rally support for early passage of the majority sign-up legislation. The two pay equity bills being considered this week by the House of Representatives are a good sign that pro-worker legislation will get a fair hearing in this new Congress.UPDATE: Page Gardner, the president of Women's Voices, Women Vote of provides a link in her Huffington Post column to a website that enables you to tell legislators about the need to support these bills.
Art Levine, a contributing editor of The Washington Monthly, has written for Mother Jones, The American Prospect, The New Republic, The Atlantic, Slate.com, Salon.com and numerous other publications.