June 23, 2004
The recent decision by a federal judge in the Wal-Mart case is a potential landmark for women and for labor.
By granting class-action status to women who allege that Wal-Mart has discriminated against them, U.S. District Judge Martin Jenkins told this nation's biggest employer that it's not above the law.
Three years ago, six women originally filed the lawsuit, alleging that the company systematically paid women less than men in comparable positions and passed them over for promotions.
The class-action lawsuit now involves up to 1.6 million women who have worked for Wal-Mart since December 1998, making this the biggest civil rights case against a private employer in U.S. history.
More than two-thirds of Wal-Mart's workforce is made up of women. Yet less than one-third of all salaried managers are women and less than 15 percent of its top managers are female, reports the Wall Street Journal. What's more, women were paid less than men in every department, according to the Impact Fund, a public-interest group that has helped lead the lawsuit against Wal-Mart.
Many women were paid 5 percent to 15 percent less than their male counterparts. And many of these men had inferior education, experience and performance reviews, a study by the plaintiffs' lawyers says.
After reviewing the case for several months, Jenkins determined there was enough evidence of discrimination for the class action. "Wal-Mart cultivates and maintains a strong corporate culture which includes gender stereotyping," the judge wrote.
Wal-Mart faces other alleged violations of wage-and-hour laws and discrimination.
In October of last year, the company was found to have employed more than 250 undocumented janitors at Wal-Mart stores in 21 states across the country. Even though Wal-Mart denies knowing the workers were undocumented, a federal grand jury in Pennsylvania is investigating whether the company contracted the jobs in an effort to skirt labor laws and bypass federal wage and benefits requirements.
In another case that may soon lead to legal action, overnight janitors and restockers at Wal-Mart have allegedly been locked in the stores overnight. Managers told them that if they left, they could be fired.
Company supervisors have also been accused of bullying employees to work "off the clock" for no overtime pay. As a result, 30 states filed class-action lawsuits against Wal-Mart on behalf of employees who said they weren't paid for all the time they worked, according to a February congressional report.
And the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has sued Wal-Mart 48 times since 1990, mostly for discriminatory hiring practices. The suits have led to changes in policy and training.
At the end of the last fiscal year, Wal-Mart made $256 billion in revenue -- roughly 2.3 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product. Some of those gains may have been ill gotten.
Wal-Mart has argued that local managers decide promotions, and that a class-action suit against the company is unfair.
Wal-Mart is the world's largest retailer, with more than 3,500 U.S. stores. This class-action lawsuit may curb its outsized power. Women who might otherwise not have pursued cases against the company individually can make their grievances known.
Now female employees will be talking the language the largest retailer can understand -- money. But the ultimate payment will hopefully be justice.
Sanhita SinhaRoy is editor of the Progressive Media Project (www.progressivemediaproject.org) in Madison, Wis. She can be reached at email@example.com.