Pay secrecy as an institutional weapon may be weakening but we still have a lot further to go.
By Aditi Natasha Kini
I recently asked my social media followers: Has any white male coworker divulged his salary to you? On Twitter—where the poll was open to men—64% of people said no white man had ever shared salary information, and only 15% voted “more than one.” On Facebook, where I polled only women and nonbinary people, this number dropped to 1%, with 81% voting “never.” This highly unscientific poll is nevertheless representative of an issue intertwined in conversations of allyship and organizing: Under present capitalistic structures, white men earn the most. If those white men presume to be in alignment with the baseline concept of equality and feminism, they need to share pay details with women and non-binary people in the office, and in their industry.
To the white men reading this—hopefully, there are some—did that last sentence make you cringe a little? Did it make you feel awkward and apprehensive? The mechanism of that cringe is two-fold: One, pay secrecy is to your advantage as a demographic and as an individual, so giving away that information would hasten the rate with which you’re losing your edge in society, and two, pay secrecy is fostered and upheld by institutions to protect employer overlords.
No capitalist wants his workers to know these details.
Pay secrecy as an institutional weapon may be weakening. Now we can share spreadsheets and encourage others to talk salaries. The shame associated with talking about money may very well be morphing; before, salaries were something to discuss in hushed tones in whisper networks, if at all. Google famously retaliated against Erica Baker, an employee who started an internal spreadsheet in interest of radical salary transparency three years ago. In 2014, President Obama announced two executive actions to close the pay gap by increasing workplace transparency: he directed the Department of Labor to collect more salary information from their contractors, and prohibited federal contractors from retaliating against employees who share compensation details. These executive actions were seemingly unnecessary: after all, the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 allows “concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection.”
While around half of workers have been discouraged or prohibited from sharing information, the roots of this crackdown are obvious: vicious anti-union tactics are becoming increasingly common in the American workforce. Management’s anti-union tactics have pushed down the unionization rate from 22% in the ’80s to 12.4% now, according to a 2009 study that found that employers fired union workers in 34% of organizing campaigns, threatened to close plants in 57%, and threatened to cut wages and benefits in 47% of cases.
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