The Mess in Texas

08.09.134:45 AM ET

Macy’s Gets Rick Perry to Veto Equal-Pay Bill

The Houston Chronicle published documents showing that retail chains like Macy's and Kroger leaned on the Texas governor to spike equal-pay legislation. Amanda Marcotte on why that’s just bad business.

Gov. Rick Perry of Texas is notorious for his willingness to bend over backward for corporate lobbyists, even if doing so is wildly unpopular or offends some of his most faithful supporters. Unsurprisingly, that appears to be the reason the governor recently vetoed popular equal-pay legislation, even though it passed with bipartisan support. The bill was hardly some kind of radical feminist rewriting of labor laws, but simply backed up federal legislation allowing women to sue for being paid less than male counterparts doing the same job and would have allowed Texas to join 42 other states with similar legislation. So why would Perry take a pass, especially considering how his role in the recent abortion wars in Texas is already inclining the public to see him as grossly sexist? It seems certain now that corporate lobbying is the reason.

The Houston Chronicle published documents Tuesday demonstrating that various corporate lobbyists, mostly representing the service sector, wrote letters to Perry requesting that he veto this bill. One group, the Texas Retailers Association, even provided language that was strikingly similar to Perry’s reasons for vetoing the bill, claiming “that existing law provides adequate remedies against employment discrimination.”

Texas Retailers and Perry, who said that the law was unnecessary because it “duplicates federal law,” are simply wrong. Conservatives continue to argue that the pay gap is simply a matter of women not working as much or doing different jobs than men, but as Bryce Covert pointed out in The Nation, even when you control for those factors, women still make less money. Federal legislation can help, but by having similar laws on the state level, women experiencing pay discrimination have more options to seek justice—and employers have more pressure to make sure they’re paying women fairly for their work.

Some of the more heavy-handed lobbyists were grocery stores such as Kroeger’s and Market Basket, as well as retail stores such as Macy’s. For anyone who has worked in retail, this should come as no surprise. The retail industry has a notoriously low glass ceiling, with women getting hired for low-level positions such as cashiers and sales and finding that no matter how hard they work or how much they learn, they routinely get passed over for raises and promotions, even as similarly qualified men who have done less time with the company get plum jobs.

Without the threat of legal consequences, retail shops have no incentive to change this culture. As it stands, there’s a lot of value in keeping hardworking and talented women in low-paying, low-level jobs, because that’s a lot cheaper and more efficient than rewarding them with promotion and having to retrain employees for those positions. Women are easier to do this to than men, because they’re often in more financially precarious positions and have very little leverage to demand more. In addition, there are still ingrained gender roles that cause the people in charge of raises and promotions to see women as belonging in the low-paying services jobs while seeking to promote men more quickly to higher-paid managerial jobs.

These kinds of problems are why some of the biggest wage-discrimination suits in recent years have been in the retail industry. While the litigation has been difficult for those attempting to sue Wal-Mart, for instance, the statistics demonstrating the problem are straightforward: 70 percent of Wal-Mart’s low-paid hourly wage force is female, but only 33 percent of its management employees are women. A similar lawsuit against Costco alleges that of the 561 Costco employees to be promoted to assistant general manager, only 103 of them were women, even though nearly half of the overall staff is female. Even between the two employers, you can see how women get squeezed into lower-paying jobs: a much larger percentage of Wal-Mart employees are female than those at Costco, and the latter just happens to pay more, even to employees on the lowest rung.

The more laws there are out there protecting women’s right to equal pay, the more vulnerable employers who regularly promote men over women are to lawsuit. Since the retail industry has a nasty little habit of doing just that, it’s absolutely no surprise that they’d be wary of a major state like Texas passing a law that makes it harder. If nothing else, it might make these employers take more initiative to make sure they’re not overlooking women when it comes time for raises and promotions, an effort that’s a little harder than just leaning on Perry with a one-page letter.

Of course, women aren’t just the bulk of the retail industry’s low-level, low-paid employees; they are also the bulk of its customers. This is no doubt why most of these corporations lobbied Perry with quiet letters instead of taking public stands during the legislative debate, but any efforts to keep their names out of this were lost with the Chronicle’s reporting. Now a group called Progress Texas is starting a petition for Texans to boycott Macy’s and Kroger, and the story is spreading rapidly across even the national media.

The timing of this couldn’t be worse for either the lobbyists or Rick Perry. The Texas Legislature spent two months and two special sessions so that Rick Perry’s pet project—a law meant to shut down 90 percent of the state’s abortion clinics—could be passed, despite some of the biggest protests the state capitol has ever seen. The battle made a national star out of Texas state Sen. Wendy Davis, who filibustered the abortion bill and helped defeat it in the first special session, which garnered a lot of negative attention for Perry. Perry then went on to make it worse by giving a bunch of condescending, know-nothing lectures that reminded everyone of why his presidential campaign flamed out so rapidly in 2012. There’s already heightened suspicion that Republicans are waging a broad war on women, and certainly going out of their way to block even meager efforts to strengthen protections for women in the workplace isn’t going to help change that narrative.

Now the expanding anger about the war on women is spilling out beyond just anger at Republicans and toward corporations like Macy’s and Kroger for making an alliance with sexist politicians in order to further strip women of their rights. Even if these businesses don’t have anything against women per se and only see this as an economic strategy to get the maximum amount of work out of people for the minimum amount of money, at the end of the day, efforts like this only make women’s lives harder and more unfair. This is particularly true for lower-income women who have to scrape by, often raising families, on the meager wages they get as grocery-store cashiers or sales clerks, often with no hope of getting promoted, because men end up taking most of those jobs.