Pay equity: back-to-back wins for women athletes

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Ice hockey’s U.S. Women’s National Team (USWNT) beat their governing body, USA Hockey, in March and took women’s fight for living wages a huge step forward. Long notoriously underpaid, hockey’s women players were expected to keep winning world medals while working for about $1,000 per month, for 6 months, only in Olympic years, and on less than half the food allowance of male players.

The team definitely earned the right to a raise. It holds six world championship trophies and silver in successive Olympics. Their demands were minimal by sports standards: decent pay, benefits, investment in youth programs and an end to practices like being forced to fly coach while the men’s team flies business class. Bosses stonewalled until the women announced a boycott of the upcoming world championship. Management then tried to recruit scabs. The response from other professional players, high schoolers as young as 16, and tavern teams was to tell USA Hockey to get lost.

Solidarity wins a round. On the eve of the world championships, unions representing players for the National Football League, the National Basketball Association, the Women’s National Basketball Association, and Major League Baseball, all announced support for the USWNT. When men’s team players started saying they would also refuse to play in the world championships, management folded. While USNWT didn’t win pay equity with male players, their victory is impressive. They went from an every four years pittance to a guaranteed $70,000 per year, chances for bonuses, equal meal money, travel accommodations and insurance with male players, a commitment to develop young players and greater promotion of the women’s game.

Winning is contagious. One week after the victory in hockey, the U.S. women’s soccer team won a new contract with USA Soccer. The settlement followed a rancorous year-long battle in which the union filed sex discrimination charges against management with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and USA Soccer bosses sued the union for demanding a new contract. The agreement provides wages of up to $300,000, parental leave, and player input on longstanding grievances regarding working conditions, travel, and accommodations.

Far from over. Female athletes have fought sex and race discrimination for decades — for the right to compete at all, for the right to get paid, and for the right to equal pay. Women’s pay has always been a fraction of that paid to male athletes, regardless of how much revenue the sport makes. Lower pay for women means higher profits for team owners.

The modern women’s movement won the 1972 Title IX amendment to the Higher Education Act that banned discrimination in any school receiving federal assistance. Women’s college sports grew swiftly, growth that led to more professional women’s sports and to the fight for equal wages in the modern era. Billie Jean King threatened to boycott the 1973 U.S. Open Tennis Tournament, forcing equal pay from an unwilling management. It took until 2007 and Venus Williams’ demand for equal pay to force the Wimbledon tournament to equalize the purse. Now, although tennis is the most lucrative sport for women, outside of the four major tournaments, women’s purses average 80 percent of that paid to men.

The victories in hockey and soccer show that solidarity can win, and that the public and other athletes will support those who stand and fight. Players in the Women’s National Basketball Association, whose league has a maximum pay that is lower than the minimum pay of its male counterparts, are way overdue for a raise.

If women athletes can take on management and win, with a union busting misogynist in the White House, all of organized labor should take note, and use the same game plan.

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More labor stories in this issue:

Time for unity: Labor defense critical for immigrant workers

Labor Weather Report: A glance at how some workers and their unions are faring in the class struggle.

A cruelly missed opportunity: Black and white workers after the Civil War

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