Editor's note: With the recent death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Rubber & Plastics News is reposting this feature from August 2012. It's a conversation with Lilly Ledbetter, a former Goodyear employee whose landmark equity pay case against the tire maker reached the country's highest court. The court ultimately sided with Goodyear.
Ginsburg, well known for championing women's rights, wrote the dissent. You can read Ginsburg's full dissent here.
In her 2007 dissent, Ginsburg noted that it was up to Congress to help level the playing field with equal pay. Two years later, Congress passed The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act.
In 2012, RPN had the chance to speak with Ledbetter about her experiences, the law and moving forward.
Ledbetter's fight helps others, not herself
When Lilly Ledbetter began working at Goodyear's tire plant in Alabama in 1979, she had no idea she would become the catalyst of landmark pay reform.
A supervisor for 19 years, Ledbetter received an anonymous note informing her she had been receiving a far lower pay than her male counterparts. That led to a nine-year fight decided by the U.S. Supreme Court, which sided with Goodyear.
In the end, Congress passed legislation that reformed the law. The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act was the first piece of legislation President Obama signed as president in 2009.
Ledbetter had worked as a district manager for H&R Block for 12 years, and wanted to move to Goodyear's Gadsden, Ala., radial tire plant.
"I knew radial tires were the way of the future," she said. "In 1979 I had already been driving radial tires. My husband objected because it cost so much more than regular tires but the radial tires were safer, had more longevity and I knew radial tires were here to stay."
She joined Goodyear that year as one of the plant's few female supervisors. Mostly she had no problems with the men who reported to her, she said. But there were a few.
"I had a few older men who had been there a long time that did not want to work for a woman," she said. It never was a big issue, though.
Ledbetter also took on non-supervisory jobs to make extra money and help pay the expense of having a daughter in college and son who was a high school senior. She hoped to work at Goodyear until she turned 62.
"I wasn't planning to retire for a couple of years because at that point I was 59," she said. "I really hoped to stay until 62 because I desperately needed that social security to go along with my Goodyear retirement check." The note changed her plans.
"It was devastating," she said. "I was just sick, I wanted to leave."
Discussions about pay were discouraged, but Ledbetter said she still approached her superior to address the pay difference.
"He told me I was listening to too much BS from the men," she said, and wouldn't discuss it.
"When I got home I told my husband I have to file a charge unless you object," she recalled. "But I can tell you if we start we will be in this battle for about eight years because there is not a quick solution to cases."
Her husband simply asked what time they would be leaving to file the complaint, she said.
"We (with her husband Chris) were not going to let a major corporation take advantage of me just because I was born a woman," she said.
The U.S. District Court for Northern District of Alabama sided with Ledbetter, limiting the award to $360,000—instead of $3 million—because of state regulations.
Goodyear appealed the decision to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, and won.
It was during this time her family learned Chris Ledbetter had cancer.
"The hardest part (of all) was getting the news about the cancer," she said. "He hung in there with me all those years."
The case made its way through the legal system to the U.S. Supreme Court, which sided with Goodyear.
The Supreme Court decision
The Supreme Court declared she should have filed her complaint within 180 days of receiving her first discriminatory paycheck, under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.
"They changed the law when they ruled against me," she said.
The court didn't say she wasn't discriminated against, Ledbetter said, just that she hadn't filed in time. "I never planned on my life being controlled by their decision."
The retired supervisor received no financial award from the case.
"Shortly after getting that note it hit me that my retirement, my contributory retirement, my 401K, and my social security are all based on what I was earning," she said. "I worked a lot of overtime and I did not get paid what I should have."
Ledbetter knew she never would see a cent of the back pay she had won in the original case.
"It was a hardship for me, and it makes it even harder today because I have exhausted my 401K," she said. "What is so devastating when I got that note is how much my family has suffered and how much we had gone without because my employer did not adhere to federal law."
Goodyear, in a statement after the high court decision, applauded the ruling.
The Supreme Court decision didn't silence Ledbetter. She spent as much time as possible in Washington, and dedicated herself to getting her story out.
Ledbetter testified twice each before the House of Representatives and the Senate, hoping her story would resonate.
"I got absolutely nothing," she said. "But from the time I saw that note I couldn't let it go and that is not who I was. It was not so much about the money because most people in these cases don't ever get a lot of money."
Legislation reform sparked by her case stalled in Congress during the presidential election year. After Obama became president, Congress passed the bill and he signed it into law.
The act eases restrictions on those filing pay discrimination claims and gives people 180 days after each discriminatory paycheck to file their claim.
"What I am so proud of is the Ledbetter bill was sponsored and co-sponsored by both parties, the Democrats and the Republicans," Ledbetter said. "It's not a Republican problem; it's not a Democrat problem; it's civil rights."
She said she's honored to have the legislation named after her, and now travels the country speaking to crowds about her experience.
Ledbetter said she has heard from people who have been impacted by the Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. For example, a woman in Kansas City said she received a $40,000 raise after the law was passed.
"She works for the government and they looked at their pay," she said. "She stood up and said, I can't tell you how grateful I am."
Among others was a taxi driver who told her he'd heard Ledbetter speaking on the radio. His wife then filed a complaint against her company.
To this day, though, she still has not heard a word from anyone at Goodyear. "They don't have much dealing with me," she said. "They never have."
Shortly after the bill was passed, Goodyear called the Ledbetter Act a bad policy on its website.
The anti-discrimination law is the same as in the past, Ledbetter said, except that each check starts a new counting period for the person to file a claim.
"Goodyear also says that I was a poor performer, but I was not," she said. After 19 years and nine months with the company, Ledbetter asked why the firm would have kept a poor performer for that long?
"Companies in Alabama, that's an at-will state," she said. "You don't have to keep people when they are poor performers."
Ledbetter also rebuts the charge by opponents that women would use the new law as a savings plan, working 30 years and then filing a charge.
"This is not a big pay off," she said. "Most people in my category do not have money to hire a lawyer or a firm that can go for eight or nine years. All it does is give you the right to file a charge."
The situation is slightly better for women, Ledbetter said, and she said she is happy to see the efforts made by companies to include women in decision-making jobs.
But she warns women should wake up to the issues.
"We have not gained very much," she said pointing out that in 1963 women made 69 cents per dollar men made and today they make 77 cents per dollar.
"We are getting our benefits slashed and chiseled away and the women and their families better wake up," according to Ledbetter.
After pushing so hard for so long, she said she worries about losing ground instead of gaining some.
"We're going backward," she said. "We cannot afford to do that."