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Big-Box Battle

by Ruth Rosen
A review of Selling Women Short: The Landmark Battle for Workers’ Rights at Wal-Mart, by Liza Featherstone (Basic Books • 336 pages • $25.00)

When Betty Dukes, a 56-year-old African-American Wal-Mart worker in Pittsburg, California, first read about Sam Walton, the founder of the world’s largest retailer, she felt inspired. “I learned that Sam Walton had a profound vision and started Wal-Mart on a faith venture,” she said. “I have always deeply appreciated his visionary spirit and his efforts to reach for the stars.” Never did she imagine that she’d become the lead plaintiff in a class-action sex-discrimination suit against Wal-Mart.

In Selling Women Short, veteran journalist Liza Featherstone uses this historic lawsuit as a way to explore and expose the new face of the working poor in America: low-wage, mostly female retail workers. In 2000, Dukes joined five other women in the largest employment-discrimination case ever brought against a private employer. The suit charges Wal-Mart with systematic discrimination against women in pay, promotion, and job assignments, and with maintaining a corporate culture that encourages sex discrimination.

Four of the six plaintiffs are Christian fundamentalists. Of the 100 women who have joined the suit, many are conservative Republicans who have never had much sympathy for feminism or unions. Most of them believed that Wal-Mart was a moral, Christian company where they’d be rewarded for their hard work. When they repeatedly bumped up against a corporate culture that ignored their talents and discriminated against them, they felt deeply betrayed.

Wal-Mart, for its part, argues that differences in pay, promotions, or other aspects of work have been due to different job descriptions and rogue managers. But according to the lead attorney for the plaintiffs, Brad Seligman, the corporation insists on a common culture in all its stores. In 2003, Seligman asked a San Francisco federal court to certify the case as a class-action lawsuit, which it did in June 2004. The lawsuit, which will probably take five years to settle, now represents a whopping 1.6 million former and current women who have worked at Wal-Mart since 1998.

Attorneys for the women workers have plenty of evidence on their side. Seventy-two percent of Wal-Mart’s hourly workforce is female, but only 10 percent are district managers and regional vice presidents. Women routinely make less than men who have the same jobs. The few male cashiers, for example, earn $8.33 an hour, compared with $8.05 for the women. “The higher the management job,” writes Featherstone, “the greater the gap... At the store manager level, males earn $105,682 and women just $89,280.”

At the center of the case is the women’s claim that Wal-Mart, which began as a rural southern retailer, has remained stuck in a 1950s corporate culture that discriminates against its female employees. Women who worked in 184 stores in 30 states have testified that male managers forced their female counterparts to attend meetings at strip clubs or Hooters restaurants; told female employees, often single mothers, that they didn’t need promotions or equal pay because “men needed to support their family”; and regularly referred to them as “little Janie Qs” and “girls.”

Despite their initial success, both the plaintiffs and their lawyers know they’ve taken on a giant. Wal-Mart has grown into the nation’s biggest employer (1.2 million people) and the world’s largest retailer. It has more people in uniform than the U.S. Army. “If it were an independent nation,” The New York Times recently reported, “it would be China’s eighth-largest trading partner.” In 2003, it banked about $9 billion in profits, which suggests the company could afford to pay its workers a living wage.

Wal-Mart is also infamous for its anti-union practices. As soon as it hears about any efforts to organize workers, the Bentonville, Arkansas, headquarters quickly dispatches a team of anti-union officials who fire activists or the merely sympathetic. Many workers, however, grew up in Sam Walton’s culture and don’t believe in unions anyway.

Dukes and the other women know that the lawyers, not the plaintiffs, stand to make millions if a class-action suit is successful. Yet they also understand that because union action is nearly impossible, only a class-action suit can threaten — or perhaps even change — Wal-Mart. “I am participating in this case,” Dukes wrote 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.” Featherstone is particularly good at capturing Wal-Mart’s appeal to the overworked and underpaid American women who shop at the stores every week. The company’s goal is to attract low-income women who appreciate the stores’ easy parking, low prices, and one-stop shopping. In a few hours, a frantic working mother can get her glasses fixed, purchase medicines, and buy her groceries for the week.

And the prices truly cannot be beat. “As the nation’s largest employer,” writes Featherstone, Wal-Mart “has brought American women discrimination, disrespect, low wages and lousy health plans … as a shopping destination, it’s made them happy.” But as Featherstone ably points out, such low prices and convenience come at a tremendous human cost to its workers. Wal-Mart not only pays its own employees poorly; it also sets wage and benefit standards for much of the retail industry. Ironically, taxpayers end up subsidizing Wal-Mart and similar companies by paying for the food stamps and government-subsidized health care their employees need for themselves and their families.

Engagingly written, Selling Women Short offers us a penetrating portrait of the lives of the women who have decided to fight back against Wal-Mart’s degrading and humiliating labor practices. Featherstone is right to conclude, however, that a class-action victory would not fundamentally change the corporation. Although the suit may stop sexual harassment, women workers would still receive the same subsistence wages paid to male retail workers. Only unions and collective bargaining would give both female and male workers the collective power to raise their standard of living significantly.

Featherstone’s unique contribution is to emphasize Wal-Mart’s discrimination of women and to debunk the family, patriotic, religious, and bootstrap ideologies so successfully promoted by Wal-Mart. “Wal-Mart,” she writes, “is not only showing an indifference to hard work dramatically at odds with the company’s patriotic bootstrap rhetoric, it is also trapping them in overwork and poverty.”

The national debate over Wal-Mart is also part of the larger political and cultural battle over the values and morals that will govern our society. Wal-Mart, for example, refuses to offer health insurance that covers contraception, won’t allow its pharmacies to provide customers with emergency contraception (the morning-after pill), and censors the products it sells according to its religious values. Yet the corporation sees nothing immoral about refusing to pay workers a living wage that threatens to destroy the middle-class status once enjoyed by union members who have worked in the industry.

Betty Dukes wants her dream back. The trouble is that the rise of Wal-Mart reflects the decline of the American dream as working people have known it.

© 2004 The American Prospect, Inc. This article may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission from the author.

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