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Women and Wal-Mart

by Ruth Rosen

WHEN BETTY DUKES first learned about Sam Walton, the founder of Wal- Mart, in a sociology class, she never imagined she'd become the lead plaintiff in a sex-discrimination suit against the giant retailer. "I learned in that class that Sam Walton had a profound vision and started Wal-Mart on a faith venture. I have always deeply appreciated his visionary spirit and his efforts to reach for the stars."

As an employee at the Pittsburg store, Dukes had great dreams for her own future. She would work hard and take seriously the challenge to get "all the training and tools to reach your goals with a great company like Wal-Mart."

But that's not what happened.

"I was denied the training I requested to obtain promotions within the company. When I complained about unfair treatment, I was unfairly disciplined, demoted and forced to accept a pay cut. Moreover, I observed men receive promotions to positions over and over again."

Dukes' name is now associated with what may turn into the largest employment discrimination case ever brought against a private employer, in this case, the world's biggest retailer. On April 29, lawyers for women suing Wal-Mart asked the U.S. District Court in San Francisco to certify the case (Dukes vs. Wal-Mart Stores, No. C-01-2252 MJJ) as a class-action suit that would represent a whopping 1.7 million women who have worked at Wal-Mart since Dec. 26, 1998. A hearing on the motion for class certification is scheduled for July 25.

"I am participating in this case," Dukes writes in her sworn testimony, "in order to insure that young women such as my nieces and other women are treated fairly at every Wal-Mart store. The time has surely come for equality for women . . ."

Wal-Mart employs more than 1 million people who work in more than 3,400 U.S. stores. Although women make up more than 72 percent of the Wal-Mart sales force, they hold only one-third of the management jobs. Men hold 90 percent of Wal-Mart's store manager positions and only one woman is among Wal-Mart's 20 top officers.

Is this just a coincidence? Dukes doesn't think so. Nor do the other 110 women who have contributed sworn statements to the lawsuit and worked in 184 different stores in 30 states. They charge Wal-Mart with systematic discrimination against women in pay, promotion and job assignments. The suit also accuses the giant retailer of paying women 37 cents an hour less than men for identical jobs.

Reading these women's complaints is like visiting a corporate culture stuck in the 1950s: Male managers force their female counterparts to attend meetings at strip clubs or Hooters restaurants; they tell female employees they don't need promotions or equal pay because "men need to support their families;" and senior management regularly refers to women employees as "little Janie Qs" and "girls." In keeping with its conservative policies, the health insurance Wal- Mart offers its employees doesn't cover contraception. Women consumers suffer limited choice as well: The store refuses to dispense emergency contraception, or the "morning-after-pill."

Fortunately, the women of Wal-Mart have an ally in their battle. On June 22, the National Organization of Women, which has dubbed Wal-Mart a "merchant of shame," kicked off an "adopt a store" campaign to educate shoppers about Wal- Mart's exploitation of its women employees. Thousands of NOW members are visiting stores, wearing buttons that read "Wal-Mart Always Discriminates"-- a play on the retailer's famous slogan, "Wal-Mart -- Always the Lowest Prices." NOW activists are also handing out palm-size cards to shoppers that ask: "Wal- Mart: Always Low Prices, But Who Pays?" Kim Gandy, President of NOW, says, "Consumers across the country need to be able to spend their dollars with a clear conscience. Wal-Mart doesn't afford us this option."

Joining NOW is the Coalition of Labor Union Women, which has mobilized its 20,000 members to participate in the campaign.

Also involved is the United Food and Commercial Workers' Union, whose members work at competing retail stores and earn $2 to $3 an hour more than Wal-Mart workers with equivalent jobs. The union is all too aware of Wal- Mart's union-busting tactics. During the last four years, the National Labor Relations Board has filed 40 complaints against Wal-Mart, accusing managers in nearly 30 stores of coercing, intimidating and firing employees who showed any interest in joining a union.

Susan Phillips, UFCW vice president, calls the women's campaign a "direct way to bring an economic message both to consumers and workers in the stores." That way, "shoppers will make informed choices about whether they want to support that kind of discrimination."

For most women, working at Wal-Mart offers a dead-end job that barely covers the necessities of life. On average, a "sales associate" earns $6.10 an hour, or $13,688 annually if she works full time. Not surprisingly, many Wal- Mart workers live below the poverty level, use county pulic health services and -- at least half of them -- qualify for the federal food-stamp program. In other words, taxpayers subsidize Wal-Mart's profits by paying for the federal, state and county assistance that Wal Mart's workers require to survive.

Women are not the only workers who are underpaid. Men are, too. With any luck, the growing battle against sex discrimination and for union representation will force the giant retailer to grasp that womens' and workers' rights, are, in the new millennium, called human rights.

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