Two years ago, a spat between President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) over Planned Parenthood funding sparked a national debate about birth control that helped lead to a historic gender gap in the 2012 elections, with Obama beating Mitt Romney by about 10 points among women voters. Now, Democrats hope to leverage women's support to pressure Republicans on a host of labor reforms, including the minimum wage, paid sick days and fair pay.
"A majority of Republicans voted against the Violence Against Women Act, and they only brought it to the floor this year with great reluctance because we made it too hot to handle out there," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told The Huffington Post in an interview. "That may be what we have to do with these issues -- paycheck fairness, child care, sick leave. As President Lincoln said, 'Public sentiment is everything,' and that's where we have to take our fight."
Pelosi and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) met with House freshmen two weeks ago to brief them on the new "women's economic agenda," which includes raising the minimum wage, guaranteeing workers the opportunity to earn paid sick leave, expanding affordable child care programs and passing the Paycheck Fairness Act.
Democrats have long supported such worker-friendly reforms. What's changing this year are their political tactics. Rather than frame these issues in the traditional terms of economic fairness, they'll be repackaging them as a matter of gender equality and family stability. As they push specific pieces of legislation, Democrats plan to roll out an aggressive communications effort to pressure Republicans who've declared the workplace measures job killers.
The strategy takes a cue from last November: If Democrats have managed to trounce Republicans with women voters, then why not turn labor issues into gender issues in pursuit of progressive reforms?
"I think it's an accumulation of issues that come back to a respect for women -- whether it's respect for a woman's judgment, when she decides or has no choice but to enter the workforce, or how she is compensated there in an equal way," Pelosi said. "All these [Congressmen] have mothers, daughters, sisters, wives that they must think are worth their value at the workplace, same as a man."
The unstated goal is to make opposition to, say, paid sick days or a higher minimum wage seem not merely callous but also sexist -- not an easy political feat, for sure, though the timing may be ripe for it. The bitter partisan battles over birth control, Planned Parenthood, equal pay and the Violence Against Women Act last year gave rise to a crop of new women-focused advocacy groups with very significant online reach and large female memberships.
"I think groups like MomsRising, Ultraviolet and EMILY's List, coupled with the power of public policy organizations like ours, makes this exquisitely the right time to talk about these issues in this way," said Judith Lichtman, senior adviser to the National Partnership of Women and Families. "That and the never ending ability of our opponents to put their foot in their mouths."
Of course, tying labor issues to women's issues only works as a political strategy because it's based on reality. As a Pew study found early this month, women are increasingly the sole or primary breadwinners in their families -- a fact that some conservatives, such as Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant (R) and Fox News pundit Lou Dobbs, quickly blamed for the disintegration of marriage and the decline of American schools. And even as their share of the financial burden grows, women make up nearly two-thirds of minimum wage workers, and they routinely face wage discrimination in their jobs.
Take the case of sick leave. Democratic bills in the Senate and House would make offering paid sick days to employees a requirement of most businesses. With nearly 40 percent of private-sector U.S. workers offered no paid sick leave at all, such a mandate would obviously impact men in the workforce as well as women. But as advocacy groups have discovered, the issue has a greater resonance when cast in terms of working mothers: Why should a woman have to choose between caring for a sick child and earning a day's pay? That kind of framing helped make Connecticut the first state in the U.S. with a paid sick day law on its books in 2011.
Republicans appear to sense some vulnerability on the working-family front. As part of its post-2012 rebranding efforts, the GOP made a big push on its Working Families Flexibility Act, a measure that would loosen overtime laws to allow private-sector workers to take time off rather than pay for the extra hours they work. The measure stands little to no chance of passage in the Senate -- Democrats have killed the proposal twice before, on the grounds that it's ripe for abuse by employers -- but having it on the docket has allowed Republicans to accuse their Democratic colleagues of voting against working moms.
Juanita Ibanez is among the working mothers who believes she could benefit from some of the Democratic proposals. A warehouse worker in Chino, Calif., Ibanez now earns $8.25 per hour, a quarter above the minimum wage in California but well below the $10.10 Congressional Democrats have proposed. She receives no paid sick days, meaning when she falls ill she has to choose between clocking in sick or losing a day's wages and falling further behind.
A single mother to 12-year-old and 16-year-old boys, Ibanez said earning near the minimum wage means scrimping at every opportunity. She has little choice but to live with relatives in order to get by, sharing a multi-family home with her sister, her niece and her nephew, pooling their incomes to cover rent and utilities.
Her low wage also means relying on the government for help. Her two boys are on state-sponsored health care, Ibanez said.
"It's all minimum-wage jobs here," she said. "I've tried other industries, like cleaning people's homes or being a groundskeeper or a landscaper, and this is it. The maximum you earn is the minimum wage."
Ibanez works as a packer and labeler in one of Southern California's massive retail warehouses. Although the growth of the shipping industry has brought thousands of jobs to her area, many of them are temp positions that hover near the minimum wage and include no benefits. Ibanez prepares pallets of clothing for their shipment to stores, and she spends much of her day hunched over, sorting blue jeans and t-shirts by size and slapping labels on the stacks.
In order to adequately care for her two boys, Ibanez said, "$12 to $14 an hour is what I would need."
"The minimum wage now isn't enough to do anything," Ibanez said. "You have to buy groceries and food for the children and be able to pay your rent at the end of the month. It's hardly ever enough. I almost never have the luxury of going to name-brand stores to buy the things we need. I'm always bargain-hunting. This is what the minimum wage does to us. We have to live these types of shared lives."
Plenty of women working full-time earn even less than Ibanez. A woman working full-time, year-round, at the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, earns about $14,500 a year. For a family of three, that's $4,000 below the federal poverty line. And women disproportionately comprise the minimum-wage workforce. According to recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2012, almost twice as many women over age 16 earned minimum wage than men earning minimum wage. Women also make up the majority of workers in the 10 largest, lowest-paying occupations, according to the National Women's Law Center.
Further, women still only make 77 cents for every dollar that men earn, despite doing the same work and having the same experience in some cases, and they are far more likely to be forced to take unpaid leave from their jobs in order to care for a sick child or family member.
The bills House Democrats are going to be fighting for as part of this women's agenda include DeLauro's Healthy Families Act, which would allow workers to earn up to seven paid sick days a year; Rep. George Miller's (D-Calif.) bill raising the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour; and the Paycheck Fairness Act, which strengthens the Equal Pay Act of 1963 and closes some of the loopholes employers are using to pay women less than men for the same work.
As for affordable, quality childcare, Pelosi said President Obama's plan to dramatically expand pre-kindergarten in the U.S. by doubling federal taxes on cigarettes is "a good down payment."
Pelosi's spokeswoman, Ashley Etienne, said the male Democrats were surprisingly enthusiastic about the women's economic agenda. "Many of our male members were very excited about it because they personally identify with the issues," she said.
Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Texas) is one of those members. He said he and his twin brother were raised by their mother and grandmother, both of whom struggled financially to make ends meet. "My mom, the year before we went to college, made less than 20,000 that year and was sending two sons off to school," he said last week at a press conference on equal pay. "So I grew up in a household where this issue was very important. As soon as the leader asked me if I'd be part of this press conference, I said yes in honor of my mom."
The White House is on board with the agenda as well. In a speech commemorating the anniversary of the Equal Pay Act on Monday, President Obama asked Congress to act on paid sick leave and the minimum wage, in addition to paycheck fairness.
"Now is the time to make sure that we are putting in place a minimum wage that you can live on," he said, "because 60 percent of those making the minimum wage are women."
Packaging the issues together makes sense: New research suggests that the minimum wage is not entirely separate from the issue of equal pay. A recent analysis from the National Women's Law Center suggests that the gender pay gap is worse in the 31 states that haven't raised the minimum wage higher than the federal minimum of $7.25.
Of the 10 states with the highest wage gaps between men and women, eight use the federal minimum wage of $7.25, the analysis found. Of the 10 states with the lowest wage gaps, seven have set a minimum wage higher than the federal rate. On average, the wage gap is 3 cents smaller in states that have a higher minimum wage.
One likely reason for this is that women make up a majority of workers in the 10 largest jobs that pay under $10.10 an hour. These include maids and housekeepers, home health aides, cashiers, food preparers and childcare workers. Women also disproportionately earn the "tipped" minimum wage for workers. For decades, federal law and most state laws have allowed for businesses to pay servers, bartenders and other tipped employees significantly less than the normal minimum wage. On the federal level, that wage floor is $2.13 per hour, with businesses legally obliged to make up the difference when a worker's tips don't add up to the normal minimum wage.
Remarkably, the federal tipped rate of $2.13 per hour has not budged in more than two decades, thanks to a carveout won by the restaurant lobby during the Clinton presidency. As a result, diners have been subsidizing an increasing share of servers' wages over the years, and many workers now see their entire pre-tip paychecks swallowed by taxes. The Democratic proposals seek to raise the tipped minimum wage and peg it to inflation in perpetuity, so that restaurant servers' wages don't stagnate.
Even in tipped restaurant jobs, women are likely to earn less than their male counterparts. According to an analysis of BLS data by Restaurant Opportunities Center, a worker advocacy group, female restaurant workers earned $1.53 per hour less than male workers on average, and the wage gap was even wider when looking specifically at servers and bartenders.
Rebecca Williams, a server of 30 years in Atlanta, Ga., where the $2.13 rate prevails, told HuffPost that the stagnancy of the tipped minimum wage has helped erode her earnings over the years, leaving the 51-year-old to fret over retirement. "As far as income goes, I made more 20 years ago than I do now, effectively," Williams said.
Raising women's hourly wages by 10 percent would lift nearly 1.3 million people out of poverty, including more than half a million children, according to a report released Monday by the White House's Equal Pay Task Force.
But the GOP-controlled House isn't likely to move on the minimum wage or paid sick days bill this year, with Republicans declaring them too onerous on businesses. As for Republicans' proposal to alter overtime laws, the White House has already said it would veto such a measure if it reached the president's desk, arguing that it could allow employers to pressure workers into taking flex time rather than pay.
"I think it was a fraud," Pelosi said of the House bill. "The fact is that it gave all the flexibility to the employer and really wiped out some opportunities for overtime for the worker. So it was a Trojan horse, or a wolf in sheep's clothing, whatever the cliché you want to use. That's [Republicans'] stock and trade: make it sound good, and then we can undermine the strength of the worker."
A spokesman for the House Education and Workforce Committee, which is chaired by Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.), called the Democratic proposals "empty rhetoric," and he specifically criticized the Democrats for their opposition to the flex-time proposal.
“It’s encouraging that Democrats are finally focusing on the challenges facing working women in the Obama economy," he said in an email to HuffPost. "Unfortunately, they continue to oppose commonsense solutions that will help make life work for all Americans. They opposed legislation that would allow working moms to accrue paid time off to attend a parent-teacher conference or care for a sick child. They also opposed a balanced budget that is critical to a strong economy that can create jobs and higher wages for men and women.
"Instead of supporting these efforts," he added, "Democrats want to pile more costly mandates on employers at a time when more than eight million women can’t find a full time job. Working women deserve more than empty rhetoric and flawed policies; they deserve real solutions that will create jobs and improve their lives.”
The Paycheck Fairness Act has also been rejected twice by Republicans, who claim that it would be a handout to trial lawyers and cause problems for small businesses. The bill would prevent employers from retaliating against employees who disclose or ask for each other's salary information, and it would require employers to be able to show a justification other than gender for paying employees differently for the same work.
Pelosi said she is confident that public opinion will force her conservative colleagues to take paycheck fairness seriously in the next few years, even if the current Congress isn't ready for it.
A poll conducted in November 2012 by EMILY's List, a group dedicated to electing Democratic women to office, found that 78 percent of female voters considered support for equal pay laws to be the most important or a very important reason to vote for a particular candidate, and women make up more than half of the electorate.
"Our rule in life is, how do you shorten the distance between what is inevitable to you and what is inconceivable to others?" Pelosi said. "You know this is going to happen, so how do we shorten that distance? Same as we did with LGBT issues. Hope springs from youth, another generation of people who think in a different, more open way, unburdened by some of this old thinking on these subjects."
Pelosi says that while Democrats will not hesitate to talk about these issues during their campaigns in 2014, the intent of her women's economic agenda is to pave the way for those laws to eventually pass.
"This is a legislative agenda -- we'd rather them accept this than have an issue in the campaigns," she said. "I'm always hoping some way or another we can negotiate a better deal for women, even under a Republican Congress."