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 By Dick Meister

For 36 years now, the law has promised working women "equal pay for equal work." Yet their wages continue to lag far behind those of working men. Back in 1963 when President Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act, women were making an average of 58 cents for every dollar earned by men. The gap has been narrowing, but at a snail's pace of less than a half-cent per year.

Women's pay still is more than 25 percent less than that of men -- currently 74 cents per dollar. Recent surveys show that the $430 a week working women average is almost $50 less than the average pay of men. The disparity is even greater for minority women, who average about $370.

Secretaries earn $100 less a week than male clerical workers, for example, and even though 95 percent of registered nurses are women, male nurses average $30 a week more. Elementary school teachers get $70 less than their male colleagues, food service supervisors $60 less than men doing the same work, and waitresses $50 less than waiters.

Same thing among professionals. Male lawyers average nearly $300 a week more than their female counterparts, male doctors $500 more. The difference can mean the loss of hundreds of thousands of dollars over the working life of a woman and retirement benefits much lower than those of most men, since pension amounts are based on earnings. Many women lack pensions entirely and such other standard benefits as paid sick leave and health care.

It doesn't matter whether women have the same levels of education, experience and skills as men in their line of work. It doesn't matter if their jobs involve the same effort, responsibility and working conditions. Their average pay still lags behind.

Higher education doesn't help a lot, either. Women with bachelor's degrees do average $3,000 a year more than men with only high school diplomas, but are $12,000 behind male college graduates, Those with advanced degrees are twice as far behind men with the same credentials. Although increasing numbers of college-educated women are filling relatively high-paying managerial and administrative jobs -- albeit for less pay than men -- most working women are still doing traditional low-paying "women's work" in the sales, clerical and service fields.

Their jobs pay them comparatively little, give them little power, little control, little chance for advancement and often subject them to sexual harassment as well as discrimination.

Most of the working women provide half or more of their families' incomes. That includes about 40 percent who are single mothers providing the only income. Closing the male-female pay gap could add an average of $4,000 or more a year to the families' incomes -- $200 billion in all. Collective action would do much to raise the women's second-class status, but only about 16 percent of them are unionized.

The AFL-CIO is trying to substantially raise the percentage through a major organizing drive launched by its newly-created Women's Department. Guaranteeing women equal pay, notes Linda Chavez-Thompson, the labor federation's executive vice president, is "not just a woman's issue. It's a bread-and-butter issue for America's working families. For many families, equal pay could mean living above the poverty level, decent health care, child care, a college education for the kids and a secure retirement." The AFL-CIO, women's groups and civil rights, religious and community organizations have joined to press hard for new equal pay laws in two dozen state legislatures and Congress.

The proposed federal legislation, backed by the Clinton administration, would allow women to seek unlimited compensatory and punitive damages from employers who violated their right to equal pay. Currently, only workers charging employers with wage discrimination based on race or ethnicity may take such action. Women charging discrimination may seek only the difference between what they and male workers were paid.

In the meantime, the administration has been cracking down on employers who've shortchanged women. Lasst year, for instance, a Labor Department audit led oil giant Texaco to award $3.1 million to 186 women who had been paid less than men doing the same work.

President Clinton also put $14 million in his new budget for greatly stepping up enforcement of the Equal Pay Act, helping employers comply with it and alerting women to the rights it grants them. On the state level, organized labor and its allies are seeking to strengthen and tighten enforcement of equal pay laws where they exist and to enact new ones where there are none.

It's especially important that they are aiming to expand the narrow legal definition of "equal work." Women claiming wage discrimination generally have had to prove they held the same positions as men whose pay was higher. But though a woman's job may be different, that does not necessarily make her work any less valuable to her employer and society at large than that of a man holding a different job.

As the reformers insist, the standard should not be "equal pay for equal work," but the much fairer and sensible, "Equal pay for work of equal value." ___________________________________________________________ Dick Meister, a freelance columnist in San Francisco, has covered labor issues for four decades as a newspaper and broadcaster reporter, editor and commentator. c 2000 Dick Meister

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