Friday, January 9, 2009

Democrats strike early with labor rights bills

Democrats strike early with labor rights bills

Congressional Democrats are wasting no time in promoting labor rights issues they argue have been thwarted during eight years of the Bush administration.

Two pay discrimination bills on the House floor Friday could be among the first that labor-friendly Barack Obama signs into law when he becomes president later this month.

"It is of the highest priority to us," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in explaining why the House is taking up the bills in the first week of the new session.

Last year, President George W. Bush threatened to veto both the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which would overturn a 2007 Supreme Court decision making it more difficult to sue over past pay discrimination, and the Paycheck Fairness Act, which closes loopholes allowing employers to get around the 1963 law requiring equal pay for equal work.

In contrast, Obama took time off from his campaign last April to speak on the Senate floor in favor of the Ledbetter bill. The House passed both bills in the last session of Congress, but the Senate last year fell three votes short of stopping a GOP-led filibuster on the Ledbetter bill. It did not debate the Paycheck Fairness Act.

The Senate, now with a fortified Democratic majority, plans to take up the Ledbetter bill next week. No date has been set for considering the second measure.

Votes on the two labor rights measures could be the opening salvo before Congress moves to a far more controversial bill that both unions and business groups see as fundamentally shifting the balance of power in labor efforts to organize workplaces.

The Employee Free Choice Act would take away the right of employers to demand secret-ballot elections by workers before unions could be recognized. Business groups, preparing to spend millions to lobby against it, say it is an affront to democratic principles. Unions say companies have used secret ballots to intimidate pro-union workers and that the bill could help reverse the downward trend in union membership.

Lily Ledbetter was a supervisor at a Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. plant in Gadsden Ala. She sued the company over pay discrimination when she learned, shortly before retiring after a 19-year career there, that she earned less than any male supervisor. A jury ruled in her favor, but the Supreme Court, in a 5-4 vote, threw out her complaint, saying she had failed to sue within the 180-day deadline after a discriminatory pay decision was made.

"This ruling just doesn't make sense in the real world," Ledbetter said in a telephone news conference Thursday. "In a lot of places you could get fired for asking your co-workers how much they are making."

The bill the House is considering would clarify that each paycheck resulting from discrimination would constitute a new violation, extending the 180-day statute of limitations.

"The Supreme Court's decision allows employers to get away with pay discrimination so long as they can keep it hidden for a sufficient period of time, and that's just unacceptable," said Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee.

Critics said the bill would allow people to file discrimination suits against employers for decades-old actions. But the liberal Alliance for Justice said the Supreme Court decision had already seriously impacted worker rights: it said that since the 2007 ruling federal and other courts had cited Ledbetter in 347 cases involving pay discrimination and other issues such as fair housing and the availability of sports programs for women.

The Paycheck Fairness Act seeks to close loopholes in the 1963 Equal Pay Act by making clear that victims of gender-based discrimination can sue for compensatory and punitive damages. It also puts the burden on employers to prove that any disparities in wages are job-related and not sex-based, and bars employers from retaliating against workers who discuss or disclose salary information with their co-workers.

Randel Johnson, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's vice president on labor issues, said his group would oppose the measure, saying it was a "giveaway to the trial lawyers" and would "make it difficult for an employer to defend any kind of pay disparity."

But Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., who first introduced the legislation 12 years ago, said that, with women still earning only 78 cents for every dollar men earn in the same job, Congress has to strengthen the law. "It is our moment to fight for economic freedom," she said. "To do anything less would be to shortchange women and their families everywhere."


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