You are hereNew America Media: Why the Wal-Mart Case Is So Important to Women, Minorities

New America Media: Why the Wal-Mart Case Is So Important to Women, Minorities


March 23, 2011- EDITOR’S NOTE: The U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments March 29 in the biggest sex-discrimination case in history: Dukes v. Wal-Mart. Many pro-worker advocates are worried that the court—which has made a number of extremely conservative rulings in recent years—will decimate the ability of ordinary people to join together in class actions to sue large, well-financed companies that engage in wrongdoing and discriminate against women and minorities.

To understand more about the case, Nina Martin spoke with NAM contributor Irma Herrera, a civil rights attorney who spent almost 15 years as executive director of Equal Rights Advocates, one of the main law firms in the case.

What is this case about?

This is a sex-discrimination case brought by six California women on behalf of female employees at Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club stores across the country. The lead plaintiff, Betty Dukes, started working at the company in 1994 and still works at a Wal-Mart store in the town of Pittsburg, outside San Francisco.

The women’s claims are that: 1) they get paid less than men for doing the same jobs, and 2) the company denies them promotional opportunities even when they are better qualified and have more years of service than male co-workers. One of the things women told us repeatedly is they would train men who started working at Wal-Mart way after they did, and these men would become their supervisors. The women would think, “Wow, how unfair is that.”

Wal-Mart is a company that prides itself on promoting from within. But the women we surveyed reported innumerable obstacles when they tried to move into managerial positions, as well as discrepancies in pay that got wider and wider. At the management trainee level, women earned an average of $22,400, versus $23,200 for men. At the store manager level, it was $89,000 versus $105,000. By the time they reached the regional vice president level, women were earning $279,772, while men were averaging $419,000.

It is neither right nor fair that the nation’s largest employer can get away with widespread discrimination against women, who are the backbone of the business, both as workers and as the primary consumers who shop there.

The issue before the Supreme Court is whether the lawsuit should be allowed to continue as a class action.  Why is this issue so important, in the Wal-Mart case and beyond?

In many instances, problems in a workplace are so widespread that it is not feasible for individuals to bring separate lawsuits. Some situations call for systemic change. Wal-Mart is the largest private employer in the world. It is not a good use of court resources for thousands of separate suits to be brought by women who may have been shortchanged $2,000 a year, not to mention that an individual in that situation would never be able to find a lawyer to represent her. The injustice and violation of law would then persist year in and year out.

But when you bring together the interests of many people into one case—a class action— you’re talking about the possibility of real change, because restitution or back pay is so significant.

In order to be certified as a class, the plaintiffs had to show that Wal-Mart’s practices were widespread and affected large numbers of women. To do this, the legal team gathered evidence from many, many women around the U.S. In 2004, the federal court in San Francisco allowed the suit to proceed on behalf of more than 1 million current and former Wal-Mart employees. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld the class certification three times.

This is a case that seems especially important in the current economic climate— people are desperate for work, unions are under siege, and companies have more leverage than ever, especially in nonunion industries or states.

It’s true these are very challenging times for all workers, but especially true of low-wage workers. It used to be that many employees had unions, which collectively could demand fair wages and better treatment of workers. But there are no unions at Wal-Mart, and there, as at most other companies today, employees are on their own.

Wal-Mart started out in a small town in the South, and I think that many of its policies and practices are rooted in its origins. Historically, Wal-Mart’s senior managers embraced the notion that women are not the primary breadwinners. When some of our clients asked why John Doe was paid more than she was, it was not uncommon for her to be told, “Because he has a family to support”—even when the worker was herself the sole breadwinner in her family A number of key people also held the view that women weren’t interested in advancing to management, they were perfectly content to remain in entry-level jobs.

Wal-Mart is an enormously powerful institution. In my hometown of Alice, Texas, for example, many small employers that used to sell office supplies, groceries and housewares don’t exist anymore because of the Wal-Mart effect. Wal-Mart undercuts other businesses because of its sheer size and power in the marketplace. If you’re a small pharmacy in a town of 18,000 people, you cannot compete. That also ends up having an impact on the wages of workers.

FULL STORY HERE:

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