Equal pay for equal work – beyond discussion?

A friend of mine is constantly touting statistics on this or that (he finds stuff on the net so fast it might be said no one is his equal) – Recently he posted something which has led us to a discussion of “equal pay for equal work.” – And perhaps that a law and a program and a bureaucrat to monitor it all is quite necessary to ensure that the “national goal” now beyond discussion is achieved. Even the president might must be involved to ensure equality to the very last penny and moment, perhaps. What led to the discussion was one candidate, Elizabeth Warren of senatorial ambition in Massachusetts, saying ‘equal pay for equal work is simply beyond discussion.’ My friend quoted her, I questioned the very concept – I was, of course, then, automatically assumed to not know some salient facts that my friend and Ms. Warren were all excited about. Why my ignorance is presumed because I disagreed with the sentiment is not known. But, still, yes, well, when a problem is beyond discussion, because a politician says a quip, or glib “equal pay for equal work,” then we are right mad folks.

What is this equal pay for equal work? Does it mean that if there are two doctors they both must make the same amount of money? No matter what? If they are of different sexes, then they are to be paid the same, regardless of any actual ability, apparently, but merely on the basis of gender? Are characteristics of existence to be criteria for remuneration, and no longer performance or other things? It is always a noble goal to be fair, and equal, of course. I quibble not with the broad sentiment. I’m not for unequal pay for equal work, no, not at all. My problem is defining what might be equal in any step of the process. And in allowing anyone else to do the defining by legislative fiat too.

I recall several instances when I was a printer years ago when I was involved in such discussions. At companies like Louis Frey and Ebasco and Estebans, where I worked in New York City in the early 1980s I was, what I politely call, a copy-slogger. Yes, I made copies. And I always worked with other copy-sloggers. For there was much to be copied. My friend copied too, in Louisiana – so we have a similar knowledge of the work involved, and he is not unaware, then, of what I speak.

And in these jobs, with equal machines for equal workers it turns out that we got equal pay for the work was equal. Supposedly. Yes, in the definition of the work we were certainly equal: we were slogging copies on Xerox 9500s. That was the name of the machines we ran; our titles were the same. At Estebans, the company being new there wasn’t really even a seniority issue. But there was no quota of what work might actually be produced. That is, I might slog 1000 copies an hour while a coworker did 500. Why might this be so? Equal workers, equal definitions of work, equal machines, equal products, equal American men even – all very equal, and yet, um, unequal. And yet, for my 1000 copies per hour I was paid the same as the 500 copy per hour worker. For a while, at least.

I copied more for I moved faster. For instance, to walk from machine to paper stack took oh, say, 100 steps. I walked like a New Yorker, presto, paper gotten, back to machine. My fellow worker, well, a little slower – half as much even. Why, he took 2 minutes to do what I did in 1. Made not a difference what task – stapling, folding, inserting, collating, changing toner – his 2 minutes for my 1 minute. His reasoning (and there were many of these he’s, in my time,) was that if he moved slower he would have work later and tomorrow – he thought he was insuring his job. Yet, my value to the company was greater. In effect, mathematically, I was being paid ½ as much as my fellow slogger. For he made 500 copies for $5 bucks and I made 1000 copies for $5. Shouldn’t I have been paid $10? After all, while all else was essentially equal – we were not equal at all. My work was double. Not that I was forced to double my work by a Simon LaGree boss, no. I just moved faster. And the boss, he was in a pickle – for he could pay me by the copy – against union rules – or pay me equally even though the equality was in the words and not the deeds.

One could, weirdly, even argue that the boss (capitalist that he was,) was making a larger profit off of me – and so my unequal work enriched another while I was denied a portion of my labor, in the usual Marxist terms of equality. How are the two conflicting things to be resolved? The goal of equal pay for equal work torn asunder, and the goal of bosses paying workers what they are worth endangered. A boss profiting more from one worker, while one worker profited more from the boss – for the slower worker made twice as much as I.

The union, of course, ever on the lookout for outrage and unfairness, was quite sure that he and I were to be paid the same – equal work for equal jobs. And yet, well, my boss recognized that I was far superior, and so, well, we made a deal. Quietly, of course, lest any be upset. And the union none the wiser about it. Nor the co-worker – and so, despite the appearance of equal work, we were not equal, and despite the appearance of equal pay, it soon developed that that wasn’t true either. But the fiction was maintained, so the slogan could be secure and happy, and union and worker in love with union could maintain their countenance. And I happy with the raise.

I note that in 1985 I was routinely harassed in Lake Charles, Louisiana’s Andrus Printing Shop because I moved four and five times as fast as the locals. I was new in town, I got a job. And it was slogging copies. There were two of us – we were to be equal. And indeed, there, there was a woman Joan, doing the “same” job as I. We were paid the same – no, her a bit more, for she was there longer. In fact, I didn’t inquire of her salary, I just guessed. Yet because I worked faster she thought I was going to eliminate the job by leaving no work for the morrow. She perhaps thought these were the last copies to ever be made. Nor could she quite countenance the time I spent relaxing, my copies done, while she slogged on, in dogged pursuit of ¼ the output of me. At that point – not only was I “lazy” and a “slacker” – but she demanded that I assist her! So she could go slower! And I had to work more! And where, then, was the equality in any of this? No where, I assure you – and all the fine slogans served me not. All the sentiments were pointless to my defense and my well-being. For equal pay for equal work by definition was no where to be found but in platitudes and glittering generalities.

So, while I outperformed her, and out-produced her, and she had seniority, and she made more money – under the Warren slogan we should have been paid the same. And in fact, in this case – a woman made more than a man for what is, by word-definition, equal work. The pay was not equal. But somehow I don’t think Warren would have run to my defense. Then it would have been: “but men got away with so much for so long, time for woman to get ahead,” or something – or perhaps even that since I was part of the male power structure I didn’t deserve such equality at all – that my equality couldn’t even be contemplated for I had the advantage no matter what I did. Still, I did more work than Joan, and got paid less. And I got harassed for doing more work to the point of this woman just screaming at me for working so fast. So much for “equal pay for equal work” reality.

And I wonder, since I couldn’t be the only one in this situation – then or now – if it’s possible to adjudicate, or officiate, or monitor, or define what exactly the fine slogan means. Yes, it is a fine sentiment – I cannot argue with it; I will not. That’s arguing emotions – and I can’t do that. I think to be fair one must indeed pay equal for equal work. But who is to decide this? Some bureaucrat in Washington? Or a state capital? Or merely city hall? Are they to make an accountability form for me and Joan to fill out at the end of each week or month to send to said bureaucrat for monitoring and compliance? Were we to be paid by piece? That is – I copied 1000 and she 250 – and thus the pay be equal in that I got a penny a page and she too the same penny per page? Or by the hour? Or by the genitalia? For is the work in the output or the time or the title or the gender? Was I to be ordered to slow down? Particularly since it seemed I was “stealing” her work, “endangering” her job, as she said.

Indeed, deleteriously, in effect, I lessened the number of employees Andrus needed, for had they hired another Joan, they might have needed a third person. I caused unemployment, it might be said, by working faster. What a social ill-causer I must be! It wasn’t to upstage the lady, nor to wound her obviously gentle soul and frazzled nerves. It was just, well, I moved faster. I thought faster than her. It’s God’s work, almost. Perhaps if we all slowed down, we’d have to hire more people, lessening unemployment.

Then too, is the government, in the effort to ensure equal pay for equal work, now to gather vast statistics to ensure that I and Joan made equal pay? Was Joan to be given a pay cut to join my level – in disregard for her seniority? Is the seniority, so beloved by congress and unions, and I’m sure Warren, now to be ignored? Or, was Andrus to be ordered to pay me from the get go what Joan earned – so that it could be equal? Or, was Joan to be required to work faster? Already puckered out from her laconic efforts, I don’t she could have taken it; that would have negatively impacted health care reform, I’m sure, what with the rush to the hospital at her exhaustion. Or, to help the economy was I to be fired and two Joans found to fill my place?

These are not light questions in the search for “equal pay for equal work” – and I’m sure this is not true in just the copy industry. Who is to define this? In what detail? By what measure? Time? Output? Effort? Are we to get to the point of Erg-monitors on our bodies to see if our hands move at the same rate as our fellow employees? Are we to have electrodes to the head to ensure that each thought is precisely measured so that an equal number of thoughts equals and equal number of dollars?

Or are we simply to hand it all over to a bunch of bureaucrats to make the decisions for our pretty little heads? And then, in a sure sign of equality – Joan and I, and the he’s of NYC, all be taxed a bit more, equally, and fairly, of course, to pay for the bureaucrats.

And I wonder too, then, down at the Office of Equal Work & Pay – what if one bureaucrat authorizes or disapproves the statistical forms for compliance in equality at a different rate than a fellow bureaucrat?

I wonder too, if Ms. Warren is so sure of her premise, that she’s willing to get paid by the piece of legislation passed, or the number of words, or the number of dollars saved, or spent, or the problems solved or the efficacy or disasters of her proposed solutions to the many things I’m sure she worries about and is capable of deciding for the entirety of the nation in a one size fits all platitude and bromide for equality? Or is it merely that she might be a new woman legislator and thus entitled to the same pay as a senior male senator – indeed – would her output be the same as her hopeful colleague John Kerry? How could their work be equal? He’s been there so much longer, knows so much more – though I’m sure, he’s too, for “equal pay for equal work” while ignoring the very reality that he and her wouldn’t be equal whatsoever – no matter how one measured it.

And I recall, too, that at Ebasco, a man named Bobby, an equal co-worker at equal pay to me who worked a bit slower than me one day worked a bit less carefully, too, and mangled his hand in an AB Dick 360 press, and so had to take time off. The work still needing to be done the boss came to me and asked: “can you run both machines at once?”

“Of course,” I said.

“Good, then here’s Bobby’s work for the day …”

And I said, “Oh, well, that I can do it is one thing, that I will do it is another – for to be fair – one machine one salary, two machines two salaries. That’s only fair.”

And thus a different argument was started with that boss – as to whether I was willing to be one of the team – to take up the slack due to another worker’s self-negligent behavior. For Bobby increased costs, decreased productivity, got paid time off – and I was to double my work (already larger in output than Bobby,) and yet – get the same pay. Well, where is the equality? Where is the fairness?

Yes, equality – good, very good – ah, but so darn difficult to define – and a one size fits all federal law about the single worst way one could ever devise to figure it out. And giving bureaucrats power over these decisions even worse.


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