Democratic lawmakers and Wisconsin's primary corporate lobbying group clashed Tuesday over the repeal of the state's Equal Pay Enforcement Act.
A group of state lawmakers and others held a news conference at the State Capitol admonishing Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce for a fundraising plea that characterized a woman advocating for pay equity as "anti-business."
A graphic used in a fundraising solicitation shows the silhouettes of six protesters holding signs with a variety of slogans. One sign, held by the only female silhouette in the graphic, reads, "Pay Equity NOW!" The silhouettes are accompanied by a plea: "Anti-business voices are loud and clear! Make sure the business voice is heard in 2014!"
"Equality is not a radical and anti-business value, it is a core American value," said Jenni Dye, Dane County supervisor and research director for the liberal advocacy group One Wisconsin Now. "As a woman who is the daughter of a small business owner, I struggle to understand what is anti-business about thinking that the women of our country and in our state who work for our great state businesses deserve equal pay, and how that is undermining our growth. In fact, it’s undermining our growth not to support these women and their families, and their productivity in the workplace."
State Rep. Chris Taylor, D-Madison, said she was appalled that WMC would try to mobilize corporate donations by highlighting advocacy seeking to ensure women are paid as much as their male counterparts.
Taylor said ensuring women are paid equally is the most significant thing the state could do to bolster its economy.
Rep. Chris Sinicki, D-Milwaukee, authored the state's Equal Pay Enforcement Act, passed in 2009. The law gave workers greater access to the court system to challenge pay discrimination based on gender, age or military status.
Gov. Scott Walker repealed the law in 2012, arguing that lawyers were using it to "clog up the legal system."
WMC was among many business interest groups that registered in favor of repealing the law.
Opponents of the Equal Pay Enforcement Act have said adequate protections already exist to fight wage discrimination, and the law could lead to costly, unnecessary lawsuits against business owners. Supporters argue that it's important for those who have been discriminated against to have an avenue at the state level to pursue their case.
According to the National Partnership for Women and Families, women in Wisconsin make, on average, 78 cents for every dollar paid to men. For women of color, the gap is larger. On average, nationally, African-American women are paid 64 cents and Latina women are paid 54 cents for every dollar made by white, non-Hispanic men.
Martha De La Rosa, state director with 9to5 Wisconsin, called attention to that disparity.
"It's like saying they're second-class citizens, that they don't deserve a fair shot," De La Rosa said. "And we can't — working women cannot afford the constant discrimination against them as it relates to pay equity."
WMC lobbyist Scott Manley said the gathering was a display of Democrats' loyalty to trial lawyers.
Manley said there was nothing about the repeal of the law that changed the fact that it's illegal to pay women less based on their gender. WMC supports equal pay for equal work, but it does not support the Equal Pay Enforcement Act, he said.
During the two years the law was in effect, it was never used as the basis for a lawsuit, Manley said. Democrats agreed, but said the law acted as a deterrent, causing employers to pay attention to enforcing pay equity.
"We don't support, nor do we think it's good for our business climate to have additional lawsuits against employers," Manley said. "They're expensive to defend, and every dollar that an employer spends defending itself in a lawsuit is a dollar that they can't pay their employees in additional wages, that they can't use to hire additional employees, that they can't use to invest in the business."
He called the Democrats' claims "shameful" and "unfounded."
Manley said he didn't know if WMC's position — that pay equity is the law of the land, but the Equal Pay Enforcement Act is harmful to business — was made clear in the fundraising graphic.
Asked whether WMC would continue to use the graphic, Manley said he didn't know whether the organization was still using it, and he would have to take a look at it.
The graphic was still on the organization's website at the time of the press conference.
Asked again whether WMC supports pay equity, he responded, "Yeah, it's the law of the land. It has been for a long time."