BIRMINGHAM WEEKLY: Did you decide to go to work at Goodyear Tires in Gadsden originally just because it was the biggest thing in town?
LILLY LEDBETTER: When I went to Goodyear [in 1979] I was district manager for H&R Block, managing 14 locations with Anniston being the main office, and prior to that I was at Jacksonville State University as assistant to the financial aid director. But Goodyear built its radial division in 1976 in Gadsden, Ala., and the plant had been there since 1929. I had been running radial tires on my cars for a long time, and everyone was saying, ďRadial tires, what are those?Ē But I knew it was the wave of the future.
A big article in Business Week said they were going to use a different philosophy in the radial division than theyíd had on the old side of the plant, and that got my interest...
Did Goodyear have women in management positions there already?
No. It was mostly men. White men... in fact, when I first went on night shift, there was not a woman in the radial plant on stock prep. I was the only female anywhere. Not even a union worker that I saw.
Did that affect you adversely?
I just knew I had a job to do and I had an opportunity and a challenge to maybe pave the way for other people.
So you were conscious at that time that you were a bit of a trailblazer.
Yes. Because there was nobody around, not any women hardly there. And the ones who did get the [management] jobs either went out with their nerves or went back if they had been promoted from within. There was one lady promoted from within the factory when I was on the training program I was on, and she went back to work [in the factory]. She just decided it was better to be back in the union, work more overtime and do what she wanted to do instead of being dictated to, so to speak, because when youíre a manager, you work for the company, you donít belong to the union. You do what they tell you to.
Did you sympathize with women in those labor positions because of their situation?
No, because the ones who did their jobs, they were OK. No problems. In fact, some of the best tire builders I had were women. Absolutely. And they could build more tires.
You entered your management position not long after the first wave of the womenís liberation movement in the í70s. Did that affect the way people responded to you when you were trying to better yourself, especially in such an all-male environment?
It was very difficult for a lot of the men to ó well, theyíd say, ďA woman bosses me at home and youíre not gonna boss me in here.Ē
I feel like for women to get ahead in management we have to operate sort of like a coach. Weíve got to be like, This is our ball team ó weíve got the right players in the right positions; make sure theyíve got the supplies they need, then we manage it to win that game. And every day, every shift is another game... And so Iíd say, Iím not a boss, Iím a coach or Iím a leader, thatís all I am. Or a gopher, to get your supplies, make sure everything you need is OK, and you do your job and Iíll leave you alone.
One thing that helped me, I think, the most, was the last training for the division I was on ó I had to physically work all their jobs in that radial plant. So I could wrap beads [loops of wire enclosed by rubber] and pull salvage and some other things that I could keep up ó I could do the production. So what happened, they saw me working overtime on weekends, wrapping beads, and my hands were split, they were bleeding. So here comes a guy from two departments down with two kinds of tape. He showed me how to wrap my fingers and brought me some cotton gloves to wear.
They saw Iíd worked and that Iíd carried my weight. From the time after that, I was known as Miss Lilly. Everybody in that factory, on that floor, called me Miss Lilly.
Youíd earned their respect.
And thatís all I wanted. I told them they didnít have to like me, I wasnít on a personality kick ó all you had to do was respect me. And that goes with the job. Doesnít matter whoís got it.
When you became aware after many years of working at Goodyear that there was a pay disparity between your pay and the male supervisorsí, you made your objections known initially through the chain of command. How did things change for you at the plant?
People on the floor didnít have a problem with it that I could tell in any regard, but I will tell you my fellow managers and people above me, they didnít talk to me. They didnít speak to me, they didnít say, Hey, Lilly, how are you today? It was just like I didnít exist. I was just invisible.
And the thing of it is, once you stand up for yourself, even though if somebodyís working there and may agree with it, itís not healthy, job-wise and career-wise, for you to agree with me. You canít do it. I had a lot of people on the QT call me at home and say, Iím sorry, and Iíd say, Hey, I understand.
No doubt thatís why the note somebody slipped you at work informing you of the pay inequity was anonymous.
Iíve had a lot of information fed to me through the years, but if I knew who was giving it to me, theyíd tell me do not, do not, youíve got to protect me. And I mean that goes on into retirement.
Was the situation exacerbated when you went outside the family, so to speak, and filed complaints through the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission?
Well, youíre a bitch and a troublemaker then... Once I went to EEOC, they did get an arbitrator to offer me a small settlement, $10,000. Well, that was another slap in my face... my retirement, my contributory retirement, my 401(k), were all based on what I earned.
I said, Let me call you back. I didnít have a lawyer then. So I sat down and I took the lowest-paid person in the tire room and I calculated on base pay only for two years ó youíre only allowed to go back two years ó so I called back and said, I will settle for $60,000. And they wouldnít do it.
So I got a lawyer at EEOCís encouragement... I filed the charge in 1998, I met Mr. Goldfarb [Jon Goldfarb of the law firm Wiggins, Child, Quinn and Pantazis] in 1999. We got in federal court in January of í03 and the case then went to the Supreme Court in í06 and they ruled in í07. I mean, itís a long haul.
But I was still working. A lot of people thought that I was already retired or getting ready to retire. No. I was going to work till at least age 62, because, see, I left and my income dropped 75 percent. All I got was my Goodyear retirement, and it dropped 75 percent over my base pay. I just had 20 years, [it was] $574 a month, and then I got a little over 500 on the contributory part. So I got a thousand dollars a month versus about $45,000 [annually] that I was making. I spent all my 401(k) just trying to survive the first few years, till Social Security kicked in.
You must have been ecstatic when you won the first case and the Alabama jury awarded you $3.8 million in punitive damages.
I loved it. I loved it because I never got hung up on the money from Day One. Except the part I did get hung up on was the fact that I had not been paid fairly and equally. Now I got hung up on that. But as far as what I would get, because Mr. Goldfarbís firm would have gotten 50 percent, and that was fine, but I can tell you ó he earned it. He earned it. When they came to federal court in Anniston, they brought a truckload of documents in.
But then the award was rolled back to only $300,000. Is that Alabama law?
No, itís federal. And you could sue a smaller firm, and you would only have got $50,000. Thatís not right. So a person, like in my case, goes 20 years and lost all theyíve earned ó thereís nothing in the law that you can adjust their retirement with.
So when the Supreme Court comes back and says, by the way, youíre getting no money at all ó how did that feel?
I was upset, because that hurts a lot of people...
They kept talking about a big win, saying Iíd just waited all those years to file a case that I really knew about back in the í80s. I didnít know. If I had known, believe you me, Iídíve been in there knocking on the door, because I had two kids in college. We were like everybody else, we lived paycheck to paycheck, trying to get ready to retire and just get by and ó itís not right.
In the Supreme Court decision, were you surprised that Clarence Thomas didnít vote your way?
Oh, yeah. Heís a Southerner and a minority and he used to be over EEOC. Iíve talked about him in several interviews because it doesnít make sense.
What was your reaction to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburgís rather emphatic dissent?
I had reporters tell me that if I could have heard her words, her message that she gave that day, I would never look back on losing that case.
She really put it to them and she also issued that challenge to the Congress of the United States to correct it and make it right. And thatís what I loved about when the president signed that bill [The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009]. That told that Supreme Court, those five people, you got it wrong.
Were you surprised that your story became such a partisan issue in 2008, with John McCain and the GOP essentially coming out against the idea of fair pay for women?
Well, I lobbied on the Hill with the Republicans. A lawyer from the National Womenís Law Center and myself, and sometimes a representative from other organizations, we would have appointments and we would visit sometimes as many as five Republicans in one day. I stayed up there week after week and we visited these offices. A lot of times we would get in to see the representative or the senator, but most of the time it would be their assistants.
We lobbied for support from Republicans, and I never came out for a Democrat for president until the convention. I came off the stage, is when I endorsed Obama.
Many people suggest that gender pay disparity should not be a partisan issue.
Iíve talked about that. It doesnít belong to Democrats or Republicans. Itís a civil rights matter, actually, and itís a family affair.
Family affair? How so?
If your wife doesnít get paid fairly, it affects you. If youíve got children, it affects them. Iíve even had single men say that they would support me, and theyíd never buy another Goodyear tire because of their sistersí struggle. Maybe sheís got two children and sheís divorced, or her husband got killed and sheís supporting them. Itís a family bill. And a lot of the young lawyers who worked on my case, they talked about their mothers and their grandmothers, and thatís what made my case so important to them.
Do you consider yourself a civil rights icon now?
Do you consider yourself a feminist?
Not really. Iím always a believer in the individual, whether it be a man or woman, black, white or whatever nationality... I just never thought about myself in that way.
How did your husband deal with this kind of pressure at home?
He supported me. He did. I called him my secretary. He would take my phone calls and keep the lists and check the e-mails when I was out of town.
Did he get heat from his friends?
No. If he did, he never did share it. I donít think he did, because a lot of times, him being a full-time Alabama National Guard and working at [Fort] McClellan, a lot of the guys would leave Goodyear and go out there to work for him. So theyíd always have conversations about what I was doing at the plant.
He had to have been hugely proud of you.
He was, he really was, and I was so sorry he didnít live to see that bill signed. [Charles Ledbetter died Dec. 10, 2008.]
As a former supervisor, how would you rate the new President after sixty-odd days in office?
Heís good. Heís one of the smartest people. See, him coming out of Harvard and working in a bad part of Chicago with people who have nothing, making twelve thousand a year ó he learned. He and his wife are two of the smartest, most compassionate people Iíve ever been around. And theyíre comfortable with me and theyíre comfortable with the Queen of England.
So it was quite the thrill to bring your family to Washington for the signing of the bill with your name on it.
We walked up to the gate at that White House that morning, and all these women were waiting, and they went to chanting, ďLilly, LillyĒ and hollering, and my kids and those grandkids, they just couldnít believe it. I looked around to see who they were hollering for... It was just very humbling. And a lot of the womenís organizations told me they had not been in the White House in eight years.
Whatís your take on the Employee Free Choice Act [a bill to make it easier for working people to unionize]?
Itís good. Good. A lot of times, whatís happened in the past, people cannot make a choice because itíll take their job. That forces people not to be who they really are or how they feel.
The next thing that I want to see passed is the Paycheck Fairness Act. Thatís got to come, because that will protect workers on the job, give them more ability to learn what the pay structure is.
Will you campaign for this bill?
Oh, I have already. One thing ó when the Ledbetter bill passed in the Senate, I left Washington and went to New Jersey for an AAUW [American Association of University Women] meeting. I was their speaker, and the hotel where they put me, they told me to just sign the ticket for my breakfast. Well, the first morning, the lady ó I was reading the Wall Street Journal, and on the third page my picture was there and a big article about the bill. She looked at the picture and looked at me and I said, Yep, thatís me. And then she wanted to know about it. The waitress, then, when I asked for my ticket, she said, Itís paid for. And the waitresses had paid for my breakfast because of that bill.
The next morning when I came down the housekeeping people were lined up in the hallway when I got off the elevator, to shake my hand. And again ó again ó all of these staff people had chipped in and paid for my breakfast. That was $25, plus the tips, for two mornings.
I tried to get them not to do that. They couldnít afford that. I said, Look, these AAUW womenís got money; let them pay for it.
Thatís an amazing story.
It is and Iíve got millions of them. Thatís just the most recent that touched my heart...Those kind of stories let me know that what I did was worth it...
You just want to look up and say, Thank you, God. And my faith, itís strong, and thatís one of the reasons Iíve always believed whatís right will come out in the end.
Courtney Haden is a Birmingham Weekly columnist. Write to email@example.com