WFSE's Fights for Gender Pay Equity and Wins

Return to WFSE History

Next Page: WFSE Strike and Full-Scope Collective Bargaining 

Not a union member? Join your union today.

Our union has fought gender discrimination since its earliest days.

In 1957, WFSE defeated a plan to restrict state employment to only one member of a household, a ban that would inevitably have taken jobs away from many working wives. We equalized pension benefits and put an end to the practice of paying women less in retirement benefits because they were expected to live longer than men.  

But by the mid 1970s, state jobs that were predominately held by women were still systematically underpaid.  

The Equal Pay Act, signed into law by President John F. Kennedy in 1963, made it illegal to pay men and women different wages if they were doing the same job. But what if the jobs were different, and the woman’s work is just as valuable as the man’s, but the woman is still paid less? 

Winning this kind of pay equity meant proving that many of the jobs predominately held by women had the same or greater “worth” or value as many jobs that were paid more. It was a high bar, requiring a reexamination of sexist beliefs that are baked into our society.  

Our union had started the ball rolling in this direction with a win for state psychiatric hospital workers in the 1960s. Ward attendants and nurses, primarily women, who had by far the most contact with patients, were paid less than carpenters, painters and truck drivers. Our union made the argument that workers should be paid “on the basis of how important their job was to the mission and the role of that institution.” This line of reasoning resonated and resulted in significant raises for many women.  

WFSE Executive Director Norm Schut sent a letter to Governor Daniel Evans highlighting the fact that discrimination was baked into salaries statewide and asked for a study.  

Evans agreed, moving forward with an evaluation of 121 female-dominated and male-dominated jobs to establish a benchmark. It assigned numerical scores to the key facets of the work WFSE members did for the purposes of comparison. If the metrics showed two jobs – a secretary and a maintenance worker, for example – provided similar value, then they should be paid the same. 

The results were conclusive. Women were paid 20 percent less than men for work of comparable value. In one example, a Clerk Typist and a Warehouse Worker 1 both received scores of 94 based on the four components of the study. But Clerk Typists were paid ten salary ranges below the warehouse workers. For some, the results were a revelation. For many women, they confirmed what had been obvious all along: their contributions were systematically undervalued. 

At this critical juncture, WFSE experienced a major change in leadership. Norm Schut retired in 1974 after over twenty years of service. Taking his place, and taking on the comparable worth fight, was George Masten, a long-time WFSE staffer and former member at the Department of Labor and Industries.  

WFSE’s Executive Board passed a resolution calling on the state to incorporate the findings of the study into their budget, which Evans did in his proposed budget for 1977. 

But then the political tide began to turn. On the national level, anti-worker billionaires began blaming unions for rising unemployment and inflation. Public sector unions were a favorite scapegoat. The big-business-driven backlash against the New Deal and the social safety net it created was wholesale, finding its most dramatic expression in the 1980 presidential election of Ronald Reagan, who famously uttered: "Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem” and “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.’” 

Never mind that empowering workers through unions and investing in public services pulled America out of the Great Depression and created the middle class – big business sought to reduce taxes and maximize profits. That put public sector unions like ours in the crosshairs.  

In the midst of this backlash, the state’s first woman governor, Dixy Lee Ray, was elected in 1976 and wiped Evans’ $7 million comparable worth appropriation from her budget. The next governor, John Spellman, refused to resurrect the funds.  

Tired of waiting, in 1981, our union filed a complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) arguing that Washington’s pay disparities violated the Civil Rights Act. But the Reagan-era EEOC did nothing. 

So in July 1982, WFSE filed a discrimination lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Tacoma with eight women plaintiffs. In September 1983, the U.S. District Court ruled that the state was guilty of “direct, overt, institutionalized discrimination” and ordered back pay and raises for 15,000 state workers in female-dominated jobs. The tab was estimated at $840 million. The celebration was short-lived. 

The state appealed to the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, where it drew worldwide attention. The case made the front page of the New York Times. Walter Mondale, John Glenn and other Democratic presidential candidates declared their support. Meanwhile, President Reagan called the notion of comparable worth “cockamamie.” Members of congress labeled it “The Sexist Socialism Act” and “Feminist Folly.”  

In September 1985, the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the District Court ruling.

But WFSE members did not give up. Through letters, phone calls and rallies, we won a key ally, gubernatorial candidate Booth Gardner, who came out as a vocal supporter during an appearance at WFSE’s 1984 convention. 

Because the odds of winning an appeal all the way up to the United States Supreme Court were low, the hope was to negotiate a settlement. Now elected, Governor Gardner agreed to negotiate a settlement with our union in 1985. Our lead negotiator was WFSE Executive Director George Masten. 

11 years following Washington’s historic gender equity study, WFSE and the Gardner administration reached an agreement on Dec. 31, 1985. The settlement brought $482 million and significant pay raises to 35,000 workers whose jobs had been undervalued on the basis of sex. 

Comparable worth faced one last test: getting Legislative approval to fund the settlement. Again, corporations and anti-worker billionaires mobilized to defeat comparable worth, fearing that pay equity for women in the public sector would create pressure for a similar policy in the private sector. The Association of Washington Business, Safeco and Boeing sent teams of lobbyists to prevent funding.  

Two Boeing lobbyists camped out in an office used by the Senate majority leader and succeeded in delaying a Friday vote until the following Monday, giving them more time to massage senators. 

But when the vote was called, the result was decisive, 30—16 in favor of the settlement. 

Raises began showing up in paychecks three months later. A quick glance at how the plaintiffs in the lawsuit benefitted from the decision drove home the significance of the win. Willie Mae Willis, a Food Service Worker II at the University of Washington, Seattle, saw her monthly salary increase from $1,087 to $1,614, a 67% increase in pay.  

To this day, new state employees today continue to benefit from these massive increases to their base pay. 

There is more work to be done. While the gender pay gap nationwide fell by a penny a year in the first eight years after WFSE’s comparable worth win, the pay gap has remained relatively stable over the past 20 years, with women earning on average 82 cents per every dollar earned by men.  

But if WFSE’s comparable worth victory is any guide, there is no problem that cannot be tackled if WFSE members stand together.

Learn more: WFSE Strike and Full-Scope Collective Bargaining 

Return to WFSE History