Why is the campaign talking about "equal pay for equal work", you ask? Isn't that brand of discrimination already covered by law? I thought so too. Well, it turns out, yes and no. It is indeed a violation of the Civil Rights Act to pay a female employee less just for being female, but the trick is finding out you're a victim and then proving it in court. Unfortunately, the laws governing that procedure have not been helpful, especially as interpreted 5-4 by the Roberts Court last year.
In the Ledbetter decision, Justice Alito determined that under federal statute a claim must be made within 180 days of the employer's initial payment decision. Of course, by the time you find out you've been discriminated against, the decision to pay you less is likely to have been made long ago. So, it was left to Congress to fix this problem. Just change the statute, right? In her dissent, Justice Ginsburg indeed laid the responsibility squarely on Capitol Hill:
This is not the first time the Court has ordered a cramped interpretation of Title VII, incompatible with the statute’s broad remedial purpose. Once again, the ball is in Congress’ court. As in 1991, the Legislature may act to correct this Court’s parsimonious reading of Title VII.In fact, led by Speaker Pelosi, the House passed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act 225-199, which would have done just that: undo the basis for the Court's harmful ruling. But the Senate - requiring 60 votes to overcome a filibuster - fell 4 votes short. Skipping that vote but announcing he was against the bill? John McCain. That is why a commitment to equal pay for equal work is an issue in the campaign. Obama has clearly decided to make it a new focus. He has an ad this week targeting that vote, which you can see below.
By the way, one of the fabulous speeches at the DNC that did not receive TV coverage was made by the plaintiff in that case, Lilly Ledbetter. She closed with this:
We can’t afford more of the same votes that deny women their equal rights. Barack Obama is on our side. He is fighting to fix this terrible ruling, and as president, he has promised to appoint justices who will enforce laws that protect everyday people like me. But this isn’t a Democratic or a Republican issue. It’s a fairness issue. And fortunately, there are some Republicans—and a lot of Democrats—who are on our side.
My case is over. I will never receive the pay I deserve. But there will be a far richer reward if we secure fair pay. For our children and grandchildren, so that no one will ever again experience the discrimination that I did. Equal pay for equal work is a fundamental American principle. We need leaders in this country who will fight for it. With all of us working together, we can have the change we need and the opportunity we all deserve.