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Lilly Ledbetter, Namesake of Fair Pay Act: From Discrimination Victim to Champion of Wage Equality

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The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act is named for a female employee of the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company who was paid 40 percent less than male colleagues doing the same job for 19 years. Ledbetter lost her gender pay discrimination lawsuit against Goodyear after the Supreme Court ruled she did not file a complaint on time. One day after addressing the Democratic National Convention, Ledbetter joins us to discuss her journey from victim of workplace discrimination to namesake of the first bill President Obama signed into law. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, “Breaking With Convention: War, Peace and the Presidency,” Democracy Now!'s special daily two hours of coverage from the Democratic National Convention, inside and out. I'm Amy Goodman.

We turn now to the woman whose name appears on the first bill President Barack Obama signed into law. Lilly Ledbetter addressed the Democratic National Convention on [Tuesday] night. She described how the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act was passed in response to a 2007 Supreme Court ruling that rejected her claim of pay discrimination at a Goodyear tire plant in Alabama, where she worked as an overnight supervisor for almost 20 years. This is an excerpt from her Tuesday night address.

LILLY LEDBETTER: After nearly two decades of hard, proud work, I found out that I was making significantly less money than the men who were doing the same work as me. I went home, talked to my husband, and we decided to fight. We decided to fight for our family and for your family, too. We sought justice because equal pay for equal work is an American value.

That fight took me 10 years. It took me all the way to the Supreme Court. And in a five-to-four decision, they stood on the side of those who shortchanged my pay, my overtime and my retirement just because I’m a woman. The Supreme Court told me that I should have filed a complaint within six months of the company’s first decision to pay me less, even though I didn’t know about it for nearly two decades.

And if we hadn’t elected President Barack Obama, the Supreme Court’s wrongheaded interpretation would have been the law of the land, and that would have been the end of my story. But with President Obama on our side, even though I lost before the Supreme Court, we won.

AMY GOODMAN: Lilly Ledbetter, namesake of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, signed into law by President Obama, addressing the Democratic National Convention on Tuesday night. Well, we’re pleased to welcome Lilly Ledbetter to our show in person today, joining us here in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Welcome to Democracy Now!

LILLY LEDBETTER: Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here.

AMY GOODMAN: Did you ever think, in 1980, 1990, whenever you were working at the Goodyear plant in Alabama, that you’d be addressing millions of people?

LILLY LEDBETTER: Never, never. My ambition in life was to work hard, have a good job, raise my family, save, build a nest egg, and play by the rules, and someday I could retire and enjoy the fruits of my savings and my retirement. It didn’t work out like that, because my employer did not play by the rules. They did not adhere to federal laws and guidelines. And I never dreamed that I’d be where I am today and have walked the millions of miles I have talking about pay equity.

AMY GOODMAN: Lilly, talk about when you first realized that you were getting different pay than people performing the same job, the men in your plant.

LILLY LEDBETTER: I learned that when I went in to work one evening. Someone had left me an anonymous tip. It had my name and four—three men. There were four of us that had the same exact job, nothing different, just a different shift. There were four of us, and my pay was 40 percent less than any one of those three. But the first devastating thought in my mind, when I turned sick, when I saw that, I knew it was true because mine was right to the dollar. And when I realized, the first thought was how much overtime that that had cost me. I was so embarrassed, so humiliated. I didn’t understand how I could get through a 12-hour shift facing people, not knowing who gave me the note, not knowing how many people in the factory knew the situation.

Well, I finally made it through my shift, but halfway through the night, it hit me like a ton of bricks: my retirement is based on what I’m earning. My contributory retirement was based on my salary. My 401(k) at the time was 10 percent, matched by 6 percent stock. And today, my Social Security. I am treated in my pay like a second-class citizen now for the rest of my life, and I have hit the ceiling, where I can’t do anything else about it. The Supreme Court even took away the two years’ back pay. And they shouldn’t have done that, but they did that, too.

AMY GOODMAN: In a five-to-four decision.

LILLY LEDBETTER: That’s correct, in the five-to-four decision.

AMY GOODMAN: How did you even decide to sue? I mean, for many women who are listening to this or watching you right now, how did you come to make this decision?

LILLY LEDBETTER: It was not right. The company I had worked for had government contracts from the day I hired in to the day I left. And having those contracts and not following the federal law—it was a federal law: 1963, John F. Kennedy signed into law pay equity, equal pay for equal work for women and minorities. And we had Title VII in 1964. This was not the law.

I was two years away from retirement at the time, and I thought about it. I really thought about letting it go. That’s why this decision was made, and jointly by me and my husband, because I knew, if I started it, these cases, they’re not solved overnight. And they’re not solved in a year. They drag on for years, because corporations and large employers, they’ve got deep pockets. They can spend you out. They can wait you out, and they will wear you out. And I knew, when I started the fight, I’d be in it for a long time.

But that’s not who I am. I had to fight and stand up. I couldn’t let a major corporation in this country not adhere to federal laws and treat me and my family. And I thought about all those years how much my children did without and how hard. They had to take jobs to get through college, working two jobs sometimes, the children, both my son and my daughter, to help themselves get through college. This was not right, and this was not because I didn’t work. I had a 35-year working career, and I had good jobs. I just did not get paid what I was entitled to legally under the law.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you lost the Supreme Court case, but the first bill President Obama signed into law is named after you.

LILLY LEDBETTER: That’s right. He put me in the history books, along with those Congress, the people in the House and the Senate. I have thanked them, the committee that started working on it. And President Obama was one of the initial senators, he and Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton and Senator Patrick Leahy from Vermont. There are so many senators and so many House of Representatives—Rosa DeLauro in the House, and there’s Senator Barbara Mikulski. I mean, these people have put Lilly Ledbetter in the history books. I have such an awesome responsibility. I see it now as my responsibility to make sure that young men and women, that this does not happen to their families.

AMY GOODMAN: And the Fair Pay Act, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, now says?

LILLY LEDBETTER: It says basically the same as the old law. What it did, the Congress, when they changed it back and the president signed that, it put the law back to where it was before. It’s a little bit clearer, but it’s basically the same. We fought to keep the amendments off of it. It was so important to send that message that it was the same. If you are still getting a check that starts—each paycheck starts a new accounting period, and you have 180 days in any state in this country to file your charge, once you find out.

AMY GOODMAN: President Obama said last year women earn only 77 cents for every dollar men earn, with women of color at an even greater disadvantage with 64 cents on the dollar for African-American women, 56 cents for Hispanic women.

LILLY LEDBETTER: That’s right. That’s right. And this makes an awesome difference. And when women start out behind—you can do the math—there’s no way you can catch up. And what that Supreme Court ruling said—in some cases, when a young woman gets a job, versus the male, she started out at that particular time being discriminated against: because she’s a woman, they pay her less. Well, the raises are based on what you’re earning, so you can never catch up. But what the Supreme Court said in that ruling, that would mean that in a lot of cases, the person has got the first six months to file a charge. I don’t think people with a brand new job—you’re trying to learn how to impress the boss, how to learn what you should do and follow through and make a good impression, and you don’t want to upset anybody and make waves and become known as a troublemaker. You’re not thinking about filing a charge in the first six months of employment.

AMY GOODMAN: You are being cited all over this country. What do you say to women, young and old, on the factory floor or in a managerial position? What do you say? How do they find out this information to be even able to start to challenge their pay?

LILLY LEDBETTER: It’s very difficult. I’m trying to get people across the country to understand how critical paycheck fairness is. Had that been the law in my day and had—I could have. I could have. And I aggressively tried to find out where I stood with Goodyear. In fact, they said they wished I had come to them first. I did. And when I asked my immediate boss how I stood with my peers and how I rated and how was my income and how could I get it up before retirement, he said, “You’re listening to too much BS from the men.” Now, this is not—and he walked out of the office and left me. So, he would not respond. I could not get an answer. But I tell young women and men today to make sure they understand where they are. And a lot of the employers today will let you know that, but there are still some who don’t want to let people know what each employee is making.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you know who left you that tip that night?

LILLY LEDBETTER: I have no idea. It could be a janitor. It could be a former boss. It could be a co-worker. I have no idea. Someone came across that information and left me that tip.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn to a clip of one of last night’s keynote speakers, the senatorial candidate from Massachusetts, Elizabeth Warren.

ELIZABETH WARREN: People feel like the system is rigged against them. And here’s the painful part: they’re right. The system is rigged. Look around. Oil companies guzzle down billions in profits. Billionaires pay lower tax rates than their secretaries. And Wall Street CEOs, the same ones who wrecked our economy and destroyed millions of jobs, still strut around Congress, no shame, demanding favors and acting like we should thank them. Does anyone here have a problem with that? Yeah, well, I do, too. I do, too.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Elizabeth Warren. You are being cited by congressmembers, by senators, Republican and Democrat. In fact, when you speak with women of different parties, and men, what do they say to you? Are you finding support among Republican women?

LILLY LEDBETTER: I do. I do. In fact, I started out not being publicly a Democrat. In fact, I went to the convention in ’08 in Denver, like Ron Reagan did for John Kerry, not endorsing Obama because the people I was working with, the nonpartisan groups, felt that in Washington that I could get more Republican support if I did not come out publicly. But when I walked out on that stage that evening and I gave my four-and-a-half-minute speech and the emotion in the audience, I walked off and endorsed him. And I did—we did get Republican support. We had Olympia Snowe from Maine, Senator Snowe. We had Senator Collins from Maine. Both of those two senators were co-workers on the bill.

And this is so clear-cut. It’s a no-brainer. This is a no-brainer. This is American families. This is not Democrat, it’s not Republican. This is a civil rights, it’s a human, American right. And that is a no-brainer. If we don’t get these women and minorities paid, this country will never come up where we were at one time. And this is critical, because the women who are struggling—and now I find, in traveling the country, so many women, senior women, are in the poverty level, and their children are having to move them in their homes when their husbands die, not because those women didn’t have a long working career and didn’t work hard. It was because their employer chose not to give them a decent retirement or pay them a decent wage so they draw a good Social Security.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, how important was the support of your family, of your children and your late husband, who just died in December?

LILLY LEDBETTER: Critical, very, very critical. I tell the audiences today, when you start a fight like this, you need three things: first, you’ve got to be a strong individual, because you will really find out who your true friends are, and you will find a lot of people are very critical of when you stand up. But that’s—it’s like one of the speakers said last night, doing the right thing sometimes is not easy. But it’s very critical. You’ve got to have family support. You’ve got to have that. And the third thing an individual needs, you need a strong faith. You need a man upstairs. And I have relied on my Christian faith, because that determines and it’s opened so many doors. I’ve been places that I didn’t see how I would make it to where I was supposed to be, but God opened that door. This is meant to be. This was something that I think that was destined to happen, and it has really given me a ministry to do.

AMY GOODMAN: Lilly Ledbetter, I want to thank you very much for being with us. Lilly Ledbetter is the namesake of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, the first bill signed into law by President Obama. She addressed the nation and the convention this week here in Charlotte, North Carolina. This is Democracy Now! When we come back, voter rights, voter suppression. Ben Jealous, the head of the NAACP, will join us. Stay with us.

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