You are hereThe Nation: Justice for Betty Dukes and the Women of Wal-Mart?

The Nation: Justice for Betty Dukes and the Women of Wal-Mart?

March 30, 2011- “We, the women of Wal-Mart, will have our day in court,” Betty Dukes told me almost seven years ago, declaiming from a park bench near her lawyer’s office in Berkeley, California. “[Wal-Mart] will answer our charges—that they have treated us unfairly and we deserved better.”

Dukes, who still works at Wal-Mart, is the lead plaintiff in Betty Dukes vs. Wal-Mart Stores, the largest civil rights class action suit in history, which accuses the retail giant of sex discrimination in pay, promotions and hiring. The potential class has at times included more than a million women (recently, though, estimates have run closer to the hundreds of thousands). Dukes and her colleagues have yet to have their day in court, all these years later, and if an army of right-wing opponents has its way, they never will. 

The Supreme Court heard arguments yesterday on the certification of Dukes v. Wal-Mart. That means the justices must now decide, not whether Betty Dukes and her co-workers experienced discrimination—that crucial question may be left forever undecided by our legal system—but whether their case should move forward as a class action suit.

At issue is whether it is possible to make any legal claims at all about institutional discrimination at a large company, as Wal-Mart argues that the class is too large and that plaintiffs’ description of its practices not credible: How could so many women encounter sexism from so many managers? Yet female employees at Wal-Mart have been paid less than men in nearly every job category, and promoted less often, despite lower turnover rates and better job performance ratings.

Though legal arguments were made yesterday, a look at the authors of the amicus briefs on both sides shows that the certification of Dukes is really an economic and ideological battle. On Betty’s side, liberal groups like Consumers Union, the United Food and Commercial Workers and Public Citizen—anyone who believes that citizens should be able to use the legal system to wrest systemic change from large corporations—have weighed in.

On behalf of Wal-Mart, much fatter cats have rallied, including the US Chamber of Commerce, the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association, Intel, Altria, Bank of America, Del Monte Foods, Fedex, Microsoft, Costco and many more. In addition to these corporate interests, conservative champions of an even more libertarian order—the Washington Legal Foundation, Atlantic Legal Foundation, New England Legal Foundation—are also lending Wal-Mart their support. Dukes v. Wal-Mart’s opponents are united in their desire to suppress the ability of workers and consumers to sue large companies. 



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