After President Obama’s decisive reelection in 2012, the Republican National Committee commissioned an “autopsy report” to examine how the party could perform better among demographic groups that had overwhelmingly rejected Republicans that year. One of the groups the RNC was concerned about was women, many of whom had become alienated by the GOP’s “war on women,” a steady crusade of regressive policies paired with mind-bogglingly insensitive and out-of-touch remarks.
That project hasn’t exactly been a success. GOP-led state legislatures have continued their assault on safe and legal abortion, enacting 288 abortion restrictions in the past five years, more than a quarter of all of those enacted since Roe v. Wade. And some have considered drastic anti-abortion measures like a bill passed in Oklahoma that would have made providing an abortion a felony and so-called “personhood” measures that would ban all abortion and even threaten legal birth control that were considered in several states this year.
Further cementing the GOP’s continued problem with women voters is the success of Donald Trump, who is now the party’s presumptive presidential nominee.
Not only does Trump have a long history of making insulting and dehumanizing comments about women, he has suggested that there should be “some form of punishment” for women who have abortions, conceding that if abortion is recriminalized, as he would like, some women will be forced into the back alleys to obtain the procedure.
But the GOP’s war on women goes far beyond Trump and beyond the contentious issue of abortion rights. The party has shown few signs of relenting on key policy proposals that affect women’s economic freedom.
Paid family and sick leave, fair wages, access to child care, and the ability of women to start families without facing discrimination in the workplace are matters that affect millions of women every day.
These are causes that should unite those who identify as “pro-life” and those who call themselves “pro-choice.”
The right to reproductive freedom includes the right to choose to have a child without risking your livelihood or your economic future. And, while women should be free to obtain a safe and legal abortion for any reason, a truly “pro-life” approach would alleviate the economic risks around childbearing rather than putting women at risk by criminalizing abortion. As a 2005 study by the Guttmacher Institute found, three-quarters of women who sought abortions cited economic concerns or the pressures of work, school and caring for dependents.
What’s more, these policies are broadly popular with the American public. A 2015 poll found that 81 percent of voters, including 65 percent of Republicans, agreed that “workplace rules to ensure equal pay, paid time off to care for family members and affordable child care ‘is good for our nation.’”
Candidates running in both parties for all levels of office — especially those who identify as “pro-life” — should be asked where they stand on efforts to give women a true choice in their futures.
Paid Family Leave and Sick Leave
The U.S. is the only industrialized country in the world that does not guarantee paid maternity leave for new mothers. In fact, when the International Labor Organization looked at maternity leave policies in 188 countries, just the U.S. and Papua New Guinea lacked such a policy.
This means that even as companies like Google and Facebook earn headlines as they attempt to woo highly educated, high-earning men and women with offers of more and more generous parental leave, millions of parents are left behind. According to the Department of Labor, just “12 percent of U.S. private sector workers have access to paid family leave through their employer.” Public sector employees don’t fare much better. According to 2015 Bureau of Labor Statistics data, only 18 percent of state government employees and 15 percent of local government employees had access to paid family leave.
Although the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) of 1993 requires many employers to offer new parents an option to take unpaid leave without risking their jobs, as the Labor Department notes, “Too many workers still cannot afford to take unpaid leave because of the loss of income it entails, or have to cut their leave short because of financial or workplace pressures.” A 2015 analysis of a 2012 Labor Department survey found that nearly one in four women returned to work within two weeks of giving birth; while 80 percent of women with college degrees were able to take at least six weeks of maternity leave, only 54 percent of those without college degrees did so.
Five states have enacted their own paid family leave laws, although two have yet to take effect, and five have paid sick leave requirements, one of which is set to take effect next year. One study of California’s family leave law, which was implemented in 2004, found that “87 percent of employers surveyed noted that family leave did not result in any cost increases, and about 9 percent of employers noted that the program had generated cost savings due to coordination of their own benefits with the family leave program and reduced employee turnover.”
Even as municipalities across the country work to enact their own paid parental and sick leave laws, a countertrend has emerged among states with conservative leadership, which have begun passing “preemption” laws blocking localities from guaranteeing paid leave.
According to the National Partnership for Women and Families, this strategy “first appeared in 2011 in Wisconsin, where the state legislature passed, and Governor Scott Walker signed, legislation to effectively void a Milwaukee paid sick days measure that passed in 2008 with the approval of nearly 70 percent of voters.” Behind that bill was the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a secretive group that helps corporate interests feed policy to legislators. The National Restaurant Association and a local chapter of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce also lobbied for the bill. ALEC and the Restaurant Association then helped to push preemption laws to at 16 other states, with even more states considering similar legislation this year.
The American Prospect notes that “The National Federation of Independent [Business], a Washington-based group that has received large donations from Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS and the Koch brothers’ American Prosperity Foundation (yet calls itself the ‘voice of small business’), has waged campaigns against at least 21 paid-sick-leave bills, issuing local reports with high estimates of the cost to businesses.”
Efforts to strengthen federal family and sick leave protections have also met resistance.
The Healthy Families Act, a bill that would allow “workers in businesses with 15 or more employees to earn up to seven job-protected paid sick days each year to be used to recover from their own illnesses, access preventive care, provide care to a sick family member, or attend school meetings related to a child’s health condition or disability,” has failed to become law in the more than a decade that it has been proposed. In 2015, a filibuster-proof majority of the Senate, including 14 Republicans, approved a largely symbolic budget amendment backing a similar plan, showing a possible path forward. Unfortunately, the already nonbinding language was watered down further before a final budget was passed by Congress.
Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York has introduced a bill called the Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act (FAMILY Act) that would provide eligible workers with up to 12 weeks of paid leave at two-thirds of their wages “for a personal or family member’s medical emergency, including those arising from service members’ deployment, or to care for a newborn or adopted baby.” The leave would be funded by a small payroll tax, split evenly between employees and employers, which the National Partnership calculates would come out to about $1.50 per worker per week.
Both candidates running for the Democratic presidential nomination support expanding family leave; Sen. Bernie Sanders supports the Gillibrand bill while Hillary Clinton has proposed a similar plan with a different funding mechanism.
In 2015, President Obama ordered federal agencies to advance up to six weeks of paid sick leave to their employees to care for a new child and urged Congress to pass legislation granting federal employees an additional six weeks of paid administrative leave after a birth or adoption. Before the president took action, the federal government offered no specifically designated paid family leave, a situation that New York Democratic Rep. Carolyn Maloney has called “embarrassing.” Maloney’s Federal Employee Paid Parental Leave Act, which would grant six weeks of paid family leave to federal employees, passed the House in 2009 with the support of most Democrats and 24 Republicans but was not acted on in the Senate. The bill has gone nowhere since Republicans gained control of the House.
Trump has signaled his resistance to federal paid family leave protections, calling pregnancy an “inconvenience” to businesses and saying that “there are a lot of people discussing it” but “we have to keep our country very competitive, so you have to be careful of it.” Trump’s closest competitor in the GOP presidential race, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, said of paid family leave: “I think maternity leave and paternity leave are wonderful things. I support them personally. But I don’t think the federal government should be in the business of mandating them.”
House Speaker Paul Ryan has taken a similar tone, speaking frequently about the importance of spending time with his family but saying that doesn’t translate into support for a paid family leave law: “I don’t think that sticking up for being a person with balance in your life, for wanting to spend your weekends in your home with your family… I don’t think that means signing up for some new unfunded mandate.”
One 2016 Republican presidential candidate, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, did technically propose a paid family leave plan. However, his plan to offer tax credits to companies that provide leave rather than requiring it would have exacerbated the inequalities that already exist in family leave policies.
Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, who chairs the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, has said that expanding paid family leave will “reduce” Americans’ “freedoms.”
The National Federation of Independent Business, a Koch-funded group, has come out against expanded leave requirements. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the behemoth lobbying group that claims to represent American business interests as a whole but is instead largely funded by a handful of companies, lists as policy priorities opposing efforts to “make FMLA leave paid or to mandate paid sick leave.” This stance, however, runs against the priorities of many business executives, who, according to leaked documents from a conservative polling firm, overwhelmingly support increasing paid parental leave and requiring paid sick leave. Sixty-three percent of those polled were members of local, state or federal chambers of commerce.
According to the latest data from the American Association of University Women, women who work full time, year round still earn just 79 cents for every dollar earned by men, a gap that is even worse for Latina and African American women. Gaps persist even among those with equal educational attainment and those working in the same industry. Childbirth can exacerbate the gap: One 2014 study found that while men’s earnings increased when they had children, women saw their pay drop.
The National Partnership for Women and Families notes that “mothers are primary or sole breadwinners in more than 40 percent of families, and about 31 percent of female-headed households have incomes that fall below the poverty level.”
Trump has said that the solution to the pay gap is for women to “do as good a job” as men. One of Trump’s prominent supporters, anti-feminist activist Phyllis Schlafly, has claimed that “the pay gap, really, is something that women like” because women “like to marry a man who makes more than she does.”
From 2011 to 2014, Senate Republicans blocked the Paycheck Fairness Act four times. The act, which Clinton and Sanders both support, would eliminate loopholes in and add enforcement tools to the 1963 Equal Pay Act.
Threats to equal pay go beyond legislative inaction. In 2008, the conservative majority of the Supreme Court ruled against Lilly Ledbetter, a longtime employee of a Goodyear Tire plant who found out late in her career that she had been being paid less than her male colleagues for decades. After a jury awarded Ledbetter the back pay she had earned, Goodyear appealed the case to the Supreme Court, which ruled that Ledbetter had run out the statute of limitations for filing suit before she had even known that she had been the victim of discrimination. The Ledbetter decision was remedied in 2009 when President Obama signed a bill, passed over Republican opposition, that clarified the statute of limitations for pay discrimination claims.
The case highlights the importance of the court system in ensuring economic justice for women. The opinion in the Ledbetter case was written by George W. Bush appointee Justice Samuel Alito, whose ultra-conservative ideology is similar to many of the judges whom Trump has said he would consider elevating to the Supreme Court and those he would be likely to nominate to lower federal courts.
As the courts continue to determine the limits of workplace protections for women including, recently, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, it is important to have courts that will give fair consideration to working people, including women.
The National Women’s Law Center calculates that women make up “nearly two-thirds of minimum wage workers and two-thirds of tipped workers.” According to the Economic Policy Institute, raising the minimum wage to $12 by 2020 would result in a raise for 27 percent of working moms and 40 percent of single moms.
The National Women’s Law Center calculates, “A woman working full time at minimum wage earns just $14,500 annually, more than $4,500 below the poverty line for a mother with two children.”
What’s more, the Law Center has found that states with higher minimum wages also have lower gender pay gaps. An Economic Policy Institute study found that in states that increased their minimum wage in 2015 (either by legislation or a scheduled index increase), wages grew faster for low-wage workers as a whole.
The last time the federal minimum wage was increased was 2009, when it was bumped to $7.25 an hour; the tipped minimum wage has remained at $2.13 per hour since 1991. Periodic increases in the minimum wage have failed to keep up with inflation; in fact, adjusted for inflation, the federal minimum wage peaked in 1968.
President Obama backs a plan in Congress to raise the federal minimum wage to $12 an hour by 2020. Clinton also backs raising the federal minimum wage to $12 and has supported some state and local efforts to raise the minimum wage to $15; Sanders has called for a $15 federal minimum wage.
Both of these plans would phase out the tipped minimum wage so that all workers are entitled to the same minimum wage before tips. The National Women’s Law Center has found that eliminating the tipped minimum wage narrows the wage gap and lowers poverty rates for women working full time jobs. According to a study by the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, “Women living off tips in states with a $2.13 an hour tipped minimum wage are twice as likely to experience sexual harassment than women in states that pay the full minimum wage to all workers.”
Donald Trump, meanwhile, said last year that not only would he not raise the minimum wage, but that American wages are “too high.” He later seemed to express openness to a minimum wage hike, only to clarify that he meant that the matter should be left to the states.
Many states and localities have indeed stepped in to fill the gap left by federal inaction on the minimum wage: 29 states and the District of Columbia now have minimum wages above the federal minimum and the National Employment Law Project counts dozens of municipalities with their own minimum wages, 18 of which have been passed in 2015 and 2016 alone. Still, this leaves 21 states, including a swath across the Deep South, that still rely on the baseline federal minimum wage.
A backlash against the recent wave of municipal minimum wage laws has come in the form of “preemption” bills similar to those used to stop sick leave protections, which prevent municipalities in a given state from enacting their own minimum wage protections. As of March, 19 states had enacted these laws, which have been promoted by ALEC and sometimes copied verbatim from ALEC model legislation. One such law recently enacted in Alabama was targeted at undoing a Birmingham ordinance that hiked the city’s minimum wage to $10.10.
At the federal level, resistance to minimum wage increases is led in part by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which says one of its policy priorities is to “oppose efforts to increase the minimum wage and to index the minimum wage to inflation or any other factor that will automatically increase labor costs.” Like with paid family and sick leave, the Chamber is out of step with many business leaders on the minimum wage issue: the leaked poll of executives found that 80 percent supported a minimum wage increase and just eight percent opposed it.
Another major player in the efforts to oppose minimum wage hikes, including a long-overdue increase in the tipped minimum wage, is the National Restaurant Association, a lobbying group for the restaurant and food service industry which, according to Pew, is “the single biggest employer of near-minimum-wage workers.” Women make up 52 percent of restaurant employees and 66 percent of tipped restaurant workers. According to a 2014 report by the Restaurant Opportunities Center United, “The median wage for tipped workers hovers around $9 an hour including tips.”
The Restaurant Association has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars opposing minimum wage increases at the state and federal level. The group spent $4.25 million lobbying at the federal level just last year. The Restaurant Association’s PAC has already contributed more than $400,000 to federal candidates this election cycle, the bulk of it to Republicans.
Corporate Accountability International notes that many candidates get additional contributions from major corporate members of the Restaurant Association. It’s these powerful transnational corporations like McDonald’s and Darden Restaurants — not small mom-and-pop businesses — that are “the driving force behind the [National Restaurant Association’s] policy agenda,” the watchdog group says.
Affordable Child Care
According to a 2015 report from the Economic Policy Institute, average child care costs exceed 30 percent of a minimum-wage worker’s income in every state. Child Care Aware has found that in 2014 in 28 states and the District of Columbia, the cost of center-based care for an infant was more than the in-state tuition at a public college. The group found that “In all regions of the United States, average child care fees for an infant in a child care center are more than the average amount that families spend on food.”
Clinton has proposed capping child care costs at 10 percent of a family’s income using a combination of tax credits and subsidized care, while Sanders has called for greatly expanded investments in child care. Trump, meanwhile, has suggested leaving child care to the whims of employers, saying that it’s “not expensive” for businesses to provide on-site child care for employees — even though only seven percent of employers currently provide on-site or nearby child care. Trump responded to one question about child care affordability by saying “I love children,” before telling his female questioner, “It’s a big subject, darling.” Trump revealed his lack of personal experience in this area in 2005 when he said that he doesn’t “do anything to take care of” his children, adding that men who participate in child care are acting “like the wife.”
As the American Prospect noted last year, “American child care policy has faced two uphill battles: opposition by economic conservatives to increased public spending and opposition by social conservatives to government policies they see as disadvantaging families with stay-at-home mothers.”
However, in recent years there has been some bipartisan progress made toward expanding access to affordable child care. In 2014, the Senate passed 97-1 and the House passed by voice vote legislation reauthorizing the Child Care and Development Block Grant, which provides federal funding (matched by state contributions) to states to help low-income families afford child care and improve the quality of care. The reauthorization increases health and safety requirements for child care, encourages greater improvements to the quality of care, and aims to make it easier for families to get and keep child care assistance. (Unfortunately, Congress has not provided the significant new funding necessary to cover the increased costs entailed in meeting the law’s requirements.) When President Obama proposed expanding the child care tax credit in his State of the Union speech the next year, then-House Speaker John Boehner seemed receptive to the idea, saying that it was “certainly something we’d look at.”
Measures that give all women and families a true choice in shaping their futures should appeal to Republicans and Democrats, pro-choicers and pro-lifers. These are a few places to start.
Major Players Working to Stop Women’s Economic Freedom Measures
American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC)
As People For the American Way wrote in a report on ALEC, the organization “is a one-stop shop for corporations looking to identify friendly state legislators and work with them to get special-interest legislation introduced.” Corporations pay dues to the organization and earn the privilege to meet with state legislatures and present them with corporate-friendly model legislation.
ALEC bills that have spread across conservative state legislatures have included voter ID restrictions, tax cuts for the wealthy, attempts to undercut the Affordable Care Act, and so-called “right to work” laws that are meant to weaken labor unions.
U.S. Chamber of Commerce
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is a behemoth lobbying group that, while claiming to represent the interests of American businesses as a whole, is sometimes at odds with its local chapters and its individual members.
The Chamber is one of the largest spenders in U.S. elections. In the 2014 election cycle, the group spent more than $35 million in independent expenditures, mostly on behalf of Republican candidates. Already in 2016, the Chamber has spent $13 million in independent expenditures — again, mostly on behalf of Republicans. The Chamber also spends an enormous amount of money lobbying Congress and federal agencies, $124 million in 2014 and $84 million in 2015.
While the Chamber says it represents members ranging “from mom-and-pop shops and local chambers to leading industry associations and large corporations,” in reality much of its funding comes from large corporate interests and political groups. An Open Secrets analysis has found multimillion dollar contributions to the Chamber from Freedom Partners, the main group through which the billionaire Koch brothers funnel their considerable political spending, and Crossroads GPS, a political group started by former George W. Bush strategist Karl Rove. In fact, half of the money that the Chamber took in in 2012 came from just 64 large donors.
The Chamber is an ever-present force in efforts to stop paid family leave and sick leave and raising the minimum wage, all of which it lists as among its 2016 policy priorities. The group also opposes the Paycheck Fairness Act and it opposed the bill undoing the Ledbetter decision.
National Restaurant Association (NRA)
Known as “the other NRA,” the National Restaurant Association is a lobbying group funded by some of the largest U.S. restaurant chains that has worked to fight restaurant regulations including menu labeling requirements and guidelines on marketing junk food to kids. The Restaurant Association has been a leading opponent of minimum wage hikes across the country, along with opposing paid sick leave legislation and working to limit the scope of the Affordable Care Act. In one extreme example, the group spent $100,000 to defeat a paid sick leave ballot measure in Denver. The Restaurant Association has worked with ALEC to push for state “preemption” laws that prevent municipalities from enacting their own minimum wage and paid sick leave laws.
So far this year, the Restaurant Association has spent $1.5 million on federal lobbying and its PAC has contributed $400,000 to federal candidates, 87 percent of it to Republicans. This is on top of hefty contributions from some of the association’s largest members.
National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB)
While the NFIB describes itself as “the voice of small business,” it has received millions of dollars “in secret contributions from groups associated with Karl Rove and the Koch Brothers” according to the Huffington Post, and uses the vast majority of its political spending to back Republican candidates.
As Mother Jones noted in 2012, “few among the legions of small business owners that [NFIB] represents will benefit from its lobbying,” which has skewed toward the priorities of the ultra-rich, including opposing tax hikes on the wealthy. NFIB has fought to stop drinking water protections and climate change action and was the lead plaintiff in NFIB v. Sebelius, a major challenge to the Affordable Care Act. The NFIB has used its status as the supposed “voice of small business” to oppose paid family leave and sick leave policies and minimum wage increases.