Friday Brain Fire: 1958

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We lived in a small house, 850 square feet, six kids, Daddy and Ma. The neighborhood was all southerners that had moved north to work in the factories. Daddy told me late in his life that he had left the sharecropping of cotton in Mississippi to move to the unknowns of Michigan for $1.25 an hour. The goal was to get a job in a car factory but he had no connections.

Ma got work as a waitress in a burger joint. She waited on tables that filled up with workers from the Fisher Body Plant on those days when they wanted to escape the noise of the shop and eat hot food. The Greek man who owned Louie’s Roadside Inn paid her 55 cents an hour plus tips. Most of Ma’s tips were nickels and dimes. She often worked 80-hour weeks and brought home less than $80 dollars.

Neither of my parents had high school educations. Daddy said he “quituated” in tenth grade to help out on a farm during the depression. Ma only made it to eighth grade in Newfoundland.

“We just did what we had to do, buddy boy,” Daddy told me in that long ago conversation. “We had you six kids and there was clothes and food we needed to buy and we got what work we could get.”

There remain too many similarities between 2014 and 1958 with regards to earning power based on gender and opportunity. Women still earn historically less, even when they are performing the same jobs as men. President Obama is traveling the country pushing the Paycheck Fairness Act to end imbalances and provide for various types of family leave. Current federal law does not deliver sufficient protection against income disparities.

Especially in Texas.

Although the state legislature passed an Equal Pay Act last year, which was co-authored by St. Sen. Wendy Davis, the Democratic candidate for governor, Rick Perry vetoed the measure when it reached his desk. Forty-two states have approved equal pay laws, but not Texas. Studies show women in Texas earn on average 82 cents for every dollar that is paid to a male counterpart.

Conservatives here have argued that the federal Lilly Ledbetter Equal Pay Act is sufficient regulation to prevent income disparity. In a wage and race discrimination case at Prairie View A&M, however, the Texas attorney general, who is the Republican candidate running for governor, argued that the federal law did not apply in the state. Greg Abbott’s pleadings to the Texas Supreme Court led to the dismissal of the case against the state, and the female professor, who had brought the suit was not awarded damages.

And this is where it gets humorous, as Texas politics generally does.

Greg Abbott is now saying that he would also have vetoed the state Equal Pay Act from Wendy Davis because it is not needed and the federal law already provides protections against wage discrimination, which is the exact opposite of the position he argued in the Prairie View case. The fact is that federal law does not generally supplant state law in wage discrimination cases, which is why those previously mentioned 42 states have passed their own legislation.

Abbott appears to have caved in to pressure from the business lobby because he had previously avoided answering the question of whether he would veto the Texas Equal Pay Act. Here is how he did not answer the question in a television interview WFAA-TV in Dallas.

Abbott’s position becomes more precarious after reporting by Peggy Fikac of the San Antonio Express News, which indicates he pays female attorneys in his office an average of about $3000 less annually. The explanation offered is that the men have generally been licensed and employed for a greater period of time. Abbott has said publicly that he thinks there should be equal pay but he clearly does not believe that should be codified into law. Let businesses do what businesses will do and the market will take care of things.

Not a very comforting thought to the estimated 400,000 women who are heads of households in Texas. Nor should it be comforting to Abbott, who is increasingly framed as being part of a new type of war on women. When wage discrimination became a campaign issue recently, Texas Republicans sent two women out to defend Abbott’s position and they immediately flubbed their defense. One argued women were simply “too busy” with their lives to worry about equal pay and the executive director of the Texas GOP, Beth Cubriel, suggested women could avoid the courts over equal pay if they just “became better negotiators.”

And then it was reported Curbriel makes about $4000 less annually than her male predecessor.

In a sane electorate, Abbott is likely taking a hit that hasn’t yet been measured. He has fought a woman’s right to choose in a manner that has prompted Planned Parenthood to target the state for campaign spending. Their efforts are credited with helping turn the governor’s election in Virginia. Cecile Richards, daughter of the late Texas Gov. Ann Richards, has announced a political action committee to work against Greg Abbott and to fight to defend abortion rights. If women decide the Texas governor’s race, Wendy Davis is not the long shot as she’s been portrayed. She might win, if common sense can prevail.

And 2014 Texas won’t look so much like 1958.