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“Unequal pay is immoral”: Debating the Equal Pay Act of 1963

Recommendations by the National War Labor Board during World War II to pay male and female workers equal wages yielded few changes in the gender wage gap. Women continued to receive less money for comparable work, and into the 1960s want ads characterized jobs as “male” or “female” with resulting salary differences based on gender. The Equal Pay Act (EPA) made it illegal to pay men and women differently for similar work. Although the EPA was passed in 1963, it was debated in workplaces and courtrooms for decades thereafter. In this passionately argued Senate hearing testimony, Caroline Davis, Director of the United Automobile, Aerospace, and Agricultural Implement Workers of America (UAW) Women’s Department declared wage discrimination immoral and inefficient. She rebutted EPA’s critics who claimed that women were more expensive to employ than men and compared unequal pay based on gender to workplace discrimination against immigrants, African Americans, industrial workers, and workers in colonial societies.


In summary, the UAW has presented evidence, testimony, and has been a witness in support of five economic and moral justifications for the equal pay principle (1) unequal pay is immoral in that it deprives women of a payment that is rightfully theirs; (2) it is inefficient in that it generates unnecessary resentments and frictions in the work place; (3) it is unjust in that it unfairly penalizes the lowest paid workers in the community; (4) it is uneconomic since it puts an incentive on the inefficient use of workers; (5) it is contrary to the community interest in that it provides a cost bonus for economic chiselers to the disadvantage of employers who refuse to exploit the economic and social disabilities of women in order to cheat them by paying substandard, that is unequal, wages (no employer ever pays women on the plus side of the unequal scale).

What the UAW has contended in its presentations here on Capitol Hill is self evident to the American community, expresses the sense of justice and of fair play of most Americans, and is generally accepted by all except kept economists as sound economist practice and policy (the principle, for example, is properly enshrined in the pay and allowance schedules of male and female Senators and Representatives).

The aspirations of the people of the world, as expressed in the Declaration of Human Rights, recognized that the realization of equal pay is precedent to the achievement of justice in the world.

The free labor movements throughout the world are taking steps to write the equal pay principle into the fundamental law of their countries.

In the last 10 years, 39 nations have accepted the “equal pay for equal work” convention of the International Labor Organization, among them nine Iron-Curtain countries. The United States is conspicuously absent from the rolls. You may be certain that American labor hears about this failure when it attends ILO meetings. You may also be certain that lack of an equal pay law and U.S. failure to adhere to the ILO convention has been grist for the Communist mills.

Within the UAW we have carefully read the testimony of those witnesses who oppose this bill. For the most part the witnesses represented employers who work the side streets of the economy relying on the social disabilities of women to get economic advantages they fear might escape them if they competed fairly on the basis of standard and equal pay rates. Some of this testimony was in naked defense of an employers right to pay as little as he can get away with. Some was a Dickensian hand-wringing, and weeping by paid bleaters crying disaster against the day their employer would be required to assume his moral and ethical responsibilities in the community.

For example, the argument has been made that women live longer than men and for this reason, pension programs cost disproportionately more for women and, hence, justify a lower than equal wage.

This is one of a number of frivolous arguments which hardly deserve notice. The fact is, most of the employers who insist on their immoral right to pay women less than men for the same work do not provide pensions for the same reasons they pay unequal wages now. Their women employees tend to be unorganized and economically too weak to enforce fair standards of pay and benefits.

However, more than 1 million members of the UAW do receive employer paid pensions in addition to their social security retirement benefits when they are too old to work and too young to die.

The employers with whom the UAW deals range from General Motors to machine shops and foundries which hire as few as a handful of workers. Not one has argued at the bargaining table that the presence of women in the plant adds to the cost of pensions because of the prolonged ripeness of their old age. Not one has had the intellectual pettiness to suggest that longevity is a justification for unequal pay. Actual experience within the UAW according to union actuaries has revealed that women in general pay excessive amounts into the pension fund in relation to the benefits they receive and that their presence in the work place, in fact, reduces rather than increases the pension cost.

Again employers, who in most cases do not undertake to pay for the health care of their employees, have come before the Congress to justify lower wages for women than for men because they assert that the medical and sickness insurance costs are greater for women than for men.

In UAW contracts, as is the case in most standard collective-bargaining agreements, medical and hospital insurance is provided for the worker and his family, so that the presence of the woman of the family in the plant rather than at home neither adds to nor subtracts from the cost of medical, surgical, and hospital insurance. They are covered at home or at work.

It can be argued, of course, that the maternity provisions in a sick pay plan add a fraction of a cent per hour to the labor cost. These may or may not be offset by the lower pension cost for women or by other variable labor costs. Indeed there are factors that suggest even if the cost of pregnancy to the employer were substantial when it occurred, in reality, most employers tend not to experience this contingency. Women’s Bureau studies show that most working women go to work before marriage, stop at their first child, and do not return to the labor market until they cease having children. This is very likely to be true in many workplaces where the unequal pay for equal work is a serious problem. In any event the requirement to pay for the maintenance of motherhood and childbirth is actually negligible as a serious factor in wage costs.

The final Big Bertha argument which is supposed to demolish all the little wage working Berthas throughout the country is the claim that women wage earners are not entitled to a man’s rate because they are tardy and absent more often and less regular in their employment habits. Without exception every available study reveals that in comparable situations the difference in attendance and in continuity are negligible.

Historically, the same charges have been levied against immigrant workers, Negro workers, factory workers in general, and in certain colonial countries where unequal pay is an expression of the colonial oppression of workers. This supposed inconstancy at work also appears as a defense of unequal pay, which is universally acknowledged to be an essentially immoral practice.

Yet, here again, economic historians and industrial psychologists deny the employer imputations. They assert that absenteeism and tardiness, and other similar work interruptions, are measures of the level of morale on the job and that this kind of behavior is to be expected where there are grievances, the pay is low, working conditions are bad, and there is a context of exploitation and injustice. Equal pay for equal work, equal job opportunities, equal rights to promotion and transfer, in short, the establishment of a moral, ethical, and just work context for all workers, male or female, Negro or white, Jew or gentile, Catholic or Protestant, whatever their national origin, would deal finally with the complaint registered concerning inattention to the requirements of the job, which is less a job disability than it is a complaint against unfair or unsound employment practices.

Without reforming the entire society, it should be noted that nothing in an equal pay law would prevent an employer, in any event, from establishing work rules requiring employees to arrive at work on time and not to absent themselves without an acceptable excuse. Some men, like some women, are irresponsible in relation to their jobs. Actually, some pay classification schemes weigh regular attendance into the job rate. Whether or not this practice is proper, at least simple justice would suggest that the rating system be applied equally to men and to women. The individual is the one who should be adversely affected because of failure on the job, not everyone.

The purpose for taking up these pseudoarguments is merely to demonstrate that they are a special kind of testimonial jabberwocky, meaningless in themselves, which serve to screen the basis in greed for the hostility of a particular witness to a piece of legislation whether it is right or wrong, is moral or immoral. If the bill will cost some employers money they are against it, and no questions asked about whose money it is. But if these judgments prevail, every fair-minded employer, every employer who accepts his responsibility as an honorable member of a just community, is penalized along with the unequally paid women workers by the lack of a rule of fair play that is evenly enforced.

The Nation has recognized the need for protecting the overwhelming majority of ethical employers against the chiseling fringe in the case of minimum wages. Now the day is overdue for the extension of this principle of economic justice by legislating the equal pay rule.

Testimony before both the Senate and House committees has underlined the need for a rule which is more than a legislative prayer. There must be in effective enforcement mechanism provided in the law, and there must be authority in the law for a responsible Government agency to seek out violations, just as is given to police to enable them to enforce the law properly. Anything else would pay a bonus to bootleg employers. The Equal Pay Act of 1963 contains such provisions, and the UAW strongly urges their retention in the bill we hope you will enact.


In the world today, the American people have been challenged to make substantial in their own lives the morality which has been proclaimed in every major U.S. document from the Declaration of Independence to the Declaration of Human Rights (which given Mrs. Roosevelt’s authorship is essentially an American statement).

Equal pay, equal opportunities, equal rights, so that every American can accept an equal obligation to the community, if established will ultimately enable the American community to endure. The profits that a few ethically marginal employers make by paying substandard wages will not help the Nation prevail, nor will exploitation based on economic and social discrimination.

America, as many people have said, is a promise to its people of equal justice. The enactment of this law would be, in part, a redemption of the original and often repeated promise.

Source: Hearings on Amending the Equal Pay Act of 1963, Subcommittee on Labor, Committee on Labor and Public Welfare, United State Senate, 88th Congress, 1st session, April 2, 3, and 16, 1963 (Washington D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1963): 151–154.