Public workers see women’s pay inequity

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SEIU 503 announced it supports a living wage for its workers in Oregon, and is taking the issue to the bargaining table and possibly to the streets. While President Obama has proposed an increase in the Federal Minimum Wage to $9 an hour, SEIU doesn’t believe that is the solution. Oregon’s minimum wage is already close to what Obama is proposing, and still 800,000 Oregonians are receiving food stamps and 30% of the applicants are currently working.

The union is saying that no state employee should continue to qualify for public assistance. They propose raising the wages to at least $30,000 per year, which would be slightly above the threshold for a family of four to receive food stamps.

Heather Hoffman, the Statesman Journal’s columnist assigned to keep an eye on those pesky state workers, actually dug up some interesting statistics. In comparing salaries among different state agencies, she found that “many of the people in the pay sector below $30,000 work for the Department Of Human Services (DHS).” But she didn’t pursue research on the gender breakdown of the workers in the agency that has the most number of workers who are not receiving a “Living Wage.” Anyone who has worked for DHS knows the answer. And anyone who has walked into an office where food stamps or other poverty-level assistance applications are being received knows the answer. These workers are women.

So here we are again. In 1987, when SEIU went on strike, one of the main issues was pay equity for women who were in job classifications that were predominately female and undervalued. Many were on food stamps. In organizing for that strike, women workers spoke out in public hearings, met with women workers across the state and then voted overwhelming to strike. In fact, Michael Krivosh, the chief strategist of the strike, affectionately referred to our strike as “my mother’s strike.” Not only did the workers win pay increases for those undervalued job classifications but it changed the face of the union—literally.

Now in 2013, they are not looking at predominately female job classifications, as in 1987, but at the agencies with the most women workers. Those are the same agencies that have the most workers who qualify for food stamps. We are living in a system that continues to use women as a source of underpaid labor. We fought against it 26 years ago, and we need to fight against it again.

No changes of any magnitude will come about without organized pressure from women themselves. Certainly, no effective strike will happen without women activists stepping forward. The fight against gender-based wage discrimination requires a prolonged and consistent commitment. It didn’t end in 1987, and it won’t end in 2013; but there can be victories along the way if we do not give up.

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