This amazing reality is the result of pay equity laws that AFSCME, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, helped pass and implement in the 1980s. These laws cover all state agencies and local governments. And they work.

Pay equity has eliminated disparities between job classifications that are filled predominantly by women and job classifications of similar or equal value that are filled predominantly by men. For underpaid state workers, “comparable worth” raised wages to a new level and kept them there. For current workers, those raises are worth about $5,000 a year.

Pay equity achieved something the private sector has failed to do – especially in the types of jobs AFSCME members work. Just as important, no state employee was laid off or took a pay cut to make pay equity work.

Timing made it possible
How the law passed – and achieved what it was supposed to achieve – can be hard to comprehend in today’s political environment. Success had a lot to do with timing, and with some very savvy decisions.

The first pay equity law – covering state workers – sailed through in 1982, with little visible opposition inside or outside the Capitol. It passed the Senate unanimously. It passed the House 100-13. Gov. Al Quie, a Republican, signed it during his last year in office.

Pete Benner
Pete Benner

“In the late ’70s and early ’80s, you could very overtly talk about women’s rights in a way that, in some respects, is harder today,” says Peter Benner, who was AFSCME’s executive director during the contract talks that implemented pay equity.

This was, after all, only a few years after the “Willmar 8.” That strike by female bank employees in western Minnesota planted pay inequity in the public consciousness. “There was an atmosphere of the righteousness of women’s compensation issues,” Benner says.

Staying one step ahead
“We had the data on our side, which was compelling,” says Carol Flynn, who was AFSCME’s legislative director at the time. “It was so clear. In those days, you could persuade someone with the facts. And remember, Republicans were different back then, too.”

“Before there was this hardening of the party positions, legislators could vote what they thought was right,” says Nina Rothchild, who chaired the state’s Council on the Economic Status of Women. “It was before the business community was paying attention. There was no national controversy over it.”

“It was nice being so early, in the sense that the opposition did not, in some ways, understand what this was going to mean,” Benner says.

Advocates deliberately structured pay equity in a way that made it easier for the Legislature to go along, Rothchild says. First, the law was a clean policy decision; no money was involved until the next year, when a new Legislature had to pass a new budget. In addition, legislators did not have to worry about the messy details of putting principle into practice, of deciding who would – or would not – get equity raises.

The responsibility of making it work was left to the normal contract negotiations among the state, AFSCME, and a few other affected unions. “That was a big internal issue for the unions,” Benner says, “that this would not be done unilaterally by the employer.”

Pay equity also was a preemptive step to keep Minnesota out of court. “There were lawsuits being filed in lots of places,” Rothchild says, “because there was lots of discrimination to file lawsuits about. This let us move ahead in a more orderly fashion, rather than waiting till some state employee filed suit.”

Pieces fall into place
The push for pay equity came from both inside and outside the state. AFSCME was agitating nationwide. In San Jose, Calif., librarians went on strike in 1979 to achieve their first pay equity adjustments. In Washington, AFSCME filed a discrimination lawsuit; the initial ruling ordered the state to pay about $400 million in back pay to women. The U.S. Supreme Court opened the door to pay discrimination lawsuits under the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

In Minnesota, advocates pursued equity through legislation. Their most persuasive argument was research done by Rothchild’s women’s council. AFSCME took part in the council task force that analyzed Hay ratings, which the state was using to evaluate the relative value of jobs.

The state’s Hay study, completed in 1979, assigned points to each job classification. Points were based on several criteria: the knowledge and problem-solving skills needed for the job, the level of accountability in the job, and the job’s working conditions.

“The state had instituted the Hay system,” Rothchild points out. “The Hay system was corporate America’s way of trying to have a rational pay system. So you couldn’t really say this was a feminist plot.”

In addition, it was the Legislature that had created the women’s council, Flynn notes. “This was an independent body. Labor was not the only one demanding this.”

Facts were overwhelming
The task force found that, with few exceptions, job classifications filled predominantly by women paid less – often substantially less – than classifications with similar Hay ratings filled predominantly by men.

“We would show that somebody taking care of animals at the zoo got paid a whole lot more than somebody taking care of children,” Flynn says. “That’s kind of hard to argue against.”

A famous “scatter gram” made it easy to see the range of disparities. The council also highlighted the 10 biggest “male” and “female” job classifications. Among these jobs, the “man’s” classification with the lowest Hay rating was paid more than the “woman’s” classification with the highest Hay rating.

Raises spread out over 4 years
When Rudy Perpich became governor in 1983, he made pay equity a priority. First, he appointed Rothchild commissioner of employee relations; that put her in charge of implementation from the state side. Flynn joined Rothchild’s staff, adding another level of advocacy and expertise.

Second, Perpich budgeted a salary supplement of $21.7 million to cover the first phase of equity raises in 1983 and 1984. He persuaded the Legislature to appropriate a second installment – $11.7 million – for distribution in 1985 and 1986.

In the end, about 8,500 state workers got a pay equity raise. Two-thirds of women got one; so did 9 percent of men. Overall, pay equity increased state payroll by about 3.7 percent.

Pay in the targeted jobs increased an average of 15 percent. A few classifications, such as switchboard operator, received raises of more than $7,000 a year. That’s the equivalent of $16,000 in today’s dollars.

Solidarity comes through
Approval at the state was not the only hurdle. So was getting buy-in among rank-and-file AFSCME members. Most of the equity raises went to job classifications in the health care and clerical bargaining units. Some bargaining units got no raises at all.

Fortunately, pay equity was not a zero-sum game, Benner emphasizes. When negotiators decided what went where, it was extra money. It did not come out of other members’ paychecks. It did not cost other members their jobs.

“If you look at the four contracts we negotiated in the ’80s, it was kind of the high point of state employee collective bargaining,” Benner says. “There were decent across-the-boards for everybody. The insurance stuff worked for everybody. So the pay equity stuff, which was an add-on for some, was happening when the general across-the-board increases were clearly acceptable.”

In addition, state employees had just come off a three-week strike in 1981. The strike created camaraderie that had not existed previously, Flynn says.

“The strike really did build unity across bargaining units, across local unions,” Benner says. “I think people understood that the women in the state hospitals who had gone out were essential to that strike succeeding. The fact that the clerical workers went out along with the highway maintenance workers was central to the strike succeeding.

“There was probably more, real working together than had happened in the union – ever. That solidarity, I think, was really crucial.”

This article is adapted from the March-April 2013 edition of AFSCME Council 5’s Stepping Up magazine.

For more information
Attend the free Untold Stories program:

Equal Pay for Equal Work
Wednesday, April 24, 7 p.m.
Highland Park Library, Village View Room
1974 Ford Parkway, Saint Paul

Fifty years ago, the federal government passed the Equal Pay Act, requiring that women be paid the same as men if they’re doing the same job. Thirty years ago, Minnesota went further. The state implemented landmark legislation to erase the pay gap between men and women in the public sector. It succeeded! Our panel talks about how it happened, and why it hasn’t happened more often. Featuring Nina Rothchild, head of the state Department of Employee Relations when the law was implemented; Bonnie Watkins, of the Pay Equity Coalition of Minnesota; and Peter Benner, of AFSCME, which pushed the legislation, then made sure it worked.

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