Kunin: Who is Lily Ledbetter?

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(HOST) Commentator Madeleine Kunin says that one bill sceduled to be signed into law by President Barak Obama, will reverse a recent Supreme Court decision and have special importance to working people in the United States.

(KUNIN) One of the first bills that President Barack Obama is due to sign tomorrow is the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, passed in the Senate last week, 61 to 36. Women are cheering…  But who is Lily Ledbetter?

She is not Joe the Plumber, who had a moment of fame as the average working guy during the primary season. Lily Ledbetter will go down in history as the woman who helped establish equal pay for working women, the elderly and the disabled.

The law reverses a five to four Supreme Court decision announced a year and a half ago which denied Ledbetter’s suit of pay discrimination. The reason the court gave was that Ledbetter did not file her case within 180 days of experiencing discrimination.

Her story is typical of what many Americans have experienced. She had worked at the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company in Gadsden, Alabama. for 20 years as a supervisor on the factory floor.

One day, she received a letter telling her that she had been paid significantly less than the men who did the same job.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg wrote the minority opinion. She felt so strongly about it that she took the unusual step of reading it from the bench. She explained to the court that discrimination is often not detected by workers because they do not know what the person next to them is earning. Furthermore, small pay discrepancies may not seem important enough to file a suit, but over 20 years, the discrepancies amount to a significant sum. In addition, Ginsberg noted, women who work in non-traditional fields, may be "averse to making waves."

The Supreme Court’s decision had a wide impact, not only on sex discrimination cases, but also on age and disability discrimination. All had become subject to the 180 day requirement. The new law eliminates that restriction and allows more people to seek redress for present and past instances of pay discrimination.

Opponents argued this bill would open the door to law suits and would make it harder for businesses, particularly at a time of economic downturn. Senator Barbara McCulski retorted that the best way to avoid a lawsuit, is to pay people equally for equal work. A simple idea, but one that is far from complete acceptance. Women still make 77 cents on the dollar earned by men.

A companion bill, called the Paycheck Fairness Act, which would close loopholes in existing law, is still awaiting action.

But this first step being taken by the new Congress and the new President, to establish pay equity is worthy of applause. They have acted swiftly, sending a powerful message that all Americans, especially in these turbulent economic times, deserve to get what they have long been promised – equal pay for equal work.

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