By GAIL COLLINS
John McCain — this is the guy, you may remember, who’s going to be the Republican presidential nominee — has been visiting the poor lately. Appalachia, New Orleans, Rust Belt factory towns. This is a good thing, and we applaud his efforts to show compassion and interest in people for whom his actual policies are of no use whatsoever.
McCain’s special It’s Time for Action Tour was in the impoverished Kentucky town of Inez on Wednesday, so he was unable to make it to Washington to vote on the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. This is the bill that would restore workers’ ability to go to court in cases of pay discrimination.
But McCain was not ducking the issue. After all, this is a man who told the folks in Youngstown, Ohio — where most of the working single mothers cannot make it above the poverty line — that the answer to their problems is larger tax deductions. He is fearless when it comes to delivering unpleasant news to people who are probably not going to vote for him anyway.
So McCain made it clear that if he had been in Washington, he would have voted no because the bill “opens us up for lawsuits, for all kinds of problems and difficulties.”
How much straighter can talk get? True, this is pretty much like saying that you’re voting against the federal budget because it involves spending. Still, there is no denying that a bill making it possible for people who have been discriminated against to go to court for redress would open somebody up to the possibility of a lawsuit.
Lilly Ledbetter was a supervisor at a Goodyear Tire plant in Gadsden, Ala., for almost 20 years — the only woman who ever managed to stick it out in what was not exactly a female-friendly environment. When she was near retirement, she got an anonymous letter listing the salaries of the men who held the same job. While she was making $3,727 a month, the lowest paid man, with far less seniority, was getting $4,286.
“I was just emotionally let down when I saw the difference,” she said on Friday.
The company declined Ledbetter’s offer to settle for the difference between her earnings and that lowest-paid man’s — about $60,000. A jury awarded her $223,776 in back pay and more than $3 million in punitive damages.
Goodyear appealed, and the case arrived at the Supreme Court just as President Bush’s new appointees were settling in. The court ruled 5-to-4 against Ledbetter, saying that she should have filed her suit within 180 days of receiving her first paycheck in which Goodyear discriminated against her.
The fact that workers generally have no idea what other people are making when they start a job did not concern the court nearly as much as what Justice Samuel Alito, writing for the majority, called “the burden of defending claims arising from employment decisions that are long past.” In other words, pay discrimination is illegal unless it goes on for more than six months.
Ledbetter did not even get her back pay. And Goodyear billed her $3,165 for court-related costs.
The bill being voted on this week would have made it clear that every time a woman like Ledbetter got a check that was lower than those of the men doing the same job, it triggered a new 180-day deadline. That was the status quo before Alito and John Roberts arrived on the scene. But the sponsors needed 60 votes, and they only got 56. “I would never have believed this in the United States of America,” said Ledbetter, 70, who watched from the Senate gallery.
McCain’s vote wouldn’t have made any difference. But his reaction does suggest that on his list of presidential priorities, the problems of working women come in somewhere behind the rising price of after-dinner mints.
Having delivered his objections to the Ledbetter bill this week, McCain went on to tell reporters that what women really need is “education and training, particularly since more and more women are heads of their households, as much or more than anybody else. And it’s hard for them to leave their families when they don’t have somebody to take care of them.”
Maybe George Bush isn’t all that incoherent after all.
Was McCain saying that it’s less important to give working women the right to sue for equal pay than to give them help taking care of their families? There have been many attempts to expand the Family and Medical Leave Act to protect more workers who need to stay home to take care of a sick kid or an ailing parent. “We’ve never gotten his support on any of that agenda,” said Debra Ness, the president of the National Partnership for Women and Families.
We also have yet to hear a McCain policy address on how working mothers are supposed to find quality child care. If it comes, I suspect the women trying to support their kids on $20,000 a year are going to learn they’re in line for some whopping big income-tax deductions.
Let them eat dinner mints.