Fair Pay Law Strikes A Blow For Equal Pay

Lilly Ledbetter just wanted what was fair — to earn the same pay as her male co-workers for the same work. She took on Goodyear, her employer in Alabama, and her case went to the Supreme Court. Her years-long battle ends in triumph Thursday with a fair pay act named in her honor.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

President Obama signed his first major piece of legislation this morning, just a short while ago. The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. Standing with the president and first lady at the ceremony was the woman for whom the law is named, Lilly Ledbetter. NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg has the story on the events that lead to this day.

NINA TOTENBERG: Lilly Ledbetter is a diminutive blond, who at age 70 looks nothing like a crusading feminist who fought a multi-billion dollar company in the courts, then took her fight to Congress and emerged this week as the victor. Nor does this rather proper-looking Southern lady look like a woman who has spent nearly two decades in supervisory blue-collar jobs at Goodyear Tire & Rubber in Gadsden, Alabama. But she did. Her path to the White House signing ceremony today began in 1998.

Ms. LILLY LEDBETTER (Equal Rights Crusader): Someone left an anonymous - just a scratch piece of paper in my mailbox.

TOTENBERG: After 19 years as a Goodyear supervisor, she found that the 16 men who did her job all made more money. The lowest paid of them, a relative newcomer, earned $6,000 a year more than Ledbetter.

Ms. LEDBETTER: I discussed it with my husband first, and then on my next day off, I went to Birmingham, Alabama, and filed an EEOC charge.

TOTENBERG: A jury eventually awarded her the maximum $300,000 in actual and punitive damages, plus $60,000, the maximum two years of back-pay permitted under the law. But Goodyear appealed, asserting that regardless of when she first discovered there was a disparity in pay, under the statute, she could only win damages or back-pay for the hundred and eighty days prior to the filing of her claim. The U.S. Supreme Court agreed in a five-to-four decision in 2007. In Congress, the Lilly Ledbetter Law was born to put the law back to where it had been as understood by the lower courts and regulatory agencies before the Supreme Court's decision. The bill passed the House in 2007, but Republicans filibustered it in the Senate. Among those who opposed the bill was Arizona Senator John McCain.

Senator JOHN MCCAIN (Republican, Arizona): I don't believe that this would do anything to help the rights of women, except maybe help trial lawyers and others in that profession.

TOTENBERG: Mrs. Ledbetter, who'd initially declined to participate in partisan campaigning, was infuriated. After all she observed, the law caps damages at $300,000, limits back-pay to two years and does nothing to fix the effects of unequal pay on pensions and Social Security. She not only appeared at the Democratic Convention, she cut an ad for Barack Obama.

(Soundbite of Ad for Barack Obama, voice of Lilly Ledbetter):

Ms. LEDBETTER: I worked at this plant for 20 years before I learned the truth. I'd been paid 40 percent less than men doing the same work. John McCain opposed a law to give women equal pay for equal work. And he dismissed the wage gap, saying women just need education and training. I had the same skills as the men at my plant. My family needed that money.

TOTENBERG: Political consultant Frank Luntz tested every campaign ad on survey groups for Fox News, and this ad, he said, had a stratospheric effect.

Mr. FRANK LUNTZ (Political Consultant): It was one of the few effective negative ads in the campaign, because it delivered a statement that women looked at and said, you know what? This is right. John McCain, how dare you?

TOTENBERG: So it's puzzling that when the bill came up again and in the new Congress, only three Republicans in the House voted for it, and in the Senate only five Republicans, four of them women, plus Senator Arlen Specter. In short, Republicans, many of whom faced tough re-election contests in less than two years, were opening themselves up to the same kind of attack. As for the Supreme Court, for the first time in more than a decade-and-a-half, Congress has pushed back hard, and once again, as in 1991, it is a conservative court being repudiated on civil rights.

As for Mrs. Ledbetter, she took early retirement at age 60, after she was re-assigned to a job that required her to lift heavy Hummer tires for inspection. Just weeks ago, her husband, a retired Alabama National Guard sergeant major, died after a massive heart attack. In November, he, for the first time in their 53 years of married life, voted for a Democrat for President. Money remains tight for Mrs. Ledbetter, whose jury award was voided by the Supreme Court.

Ms. LEDBETTER: Money could not have bought what I have had the last two years since I've been in this fight.

TOTENBERG: So is she the same person today?

Ms. LEDBETTER: I'm still basically the same person, but my life has expanded, because I have met so many wonderful, great people. It's sort of shocking when I answer my phone and someone says, will you please hold for the president-elect?

TOTENBERG: Indeed, she even danced with President Obama at an Inaugural ball. And today, she's front and center at the White House. Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

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