We Are One Will There Be Justice For Women Workers

Bill Scher

On April 4, “We Are One” community-based actions will be taking place all over the country, in honor of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination while trying to organize sanitation workers in Memphis, and in solidarity with working people all over America facing threats to their rights from conservative politicians.

The recent spark of grassroots energy to fight anti-worker policies comes from the Wisconsin fight against stripping civil servants of their right to negotiate. But that is far from the only arena where workers are suffering, and have been suffering for years.

Today, the Supreme Court is hearing a landmark case against Wal-Mart’s alleged systematic wage discrimination harming 1.6 million women workers. The Supreme Court will decide if the entire class of women workers can litigate collectively, or if Wal-Mart can divide and conquer, forcing each woman to litigate individually. Sarah Crawford of the National Partnership for Women & Families sums up the case over at the ACSBlog:

Statistical evidence shows that women were receiving significantly less pay and fewer promotions than their male counterparts – despite better performance reviews, greater seniority and fewer disciplinary issues. Anecdotal evidence demonstrates a corporate culture of gender stereotypes and a lack of objective standards for making personnel decisions…

…If Wal-Mart had its way, Betty Dukes – one of the named plaintiffs representing the class of women – would be litigating her case individually. The company’s strategy is to divide and conquer. Employers are well aware that most employees face powerful disincentives to bring individual claims. Employees may be unfamiliar with their legal rights. Due to secrecy in pay and promotion decisions, they may be unaware that their rights have been violated. They may also fear retaliation or lack the time or money to pursue individual litigation.

For these reasons, class action lawsuits provide a critical vehicle for workers to vindicate their statutory rights and obtain meaningful relief. The National Partnership for Women & Families joined with the U.S. Women’s Chamber of Commerce and California Women Lawyers to file an amicus brief in support of the class. Our brief cites critical reforms that have been achieved through employment class actions. Throughout our nation’s history, this kind of legal action has played a key role in rooting out discrimination. In this case, we have a true “Betty v. Goliath” situation – and failing to certify the class could mean that discrimination against more than a million women could go unremedied.

Over at The American Prospect yesterday, “Nickel and Dimed” author Barbara Ehnrenreich recalled her experience working for Wal-Mart — which has a workforce as big as a major city — its general dismissive attitude toward workers, and its attempt to evade the long arm of the law:

…the 2010 Citizens United decision, in which the Supreme Court, in a frenzy of anthropomorphism, ruled that corporations are actually persons and therefore entitled to freedom of speech …

…But Wal-Mart’s defense against a class action charging the company with discrimination against its female employees — Dukes v. Wal-Mart — throws an entirely new light on the biology of large corporations. The company argues that with “7 divisions, 41 regions, 3400 stores and over one million employees” (in the U.S., as of 2004, when the suit was first launched), it is “impossible” for any small group of plaintiffs to adequately represent a “class” in the legal sense. What with all those divisions, regions, and stores, the experiences of individual employees are just too variable to allow for a meaningful “class” to arise. Wal-Mart, in other words, is too big, too multifaceted and diverse, to be sued.

So if Wal-Mart is indeed a person, it is a person without a central nervous system, or at least without central control of its various body parts…

…Much has changed since my tenure at Wal-Mart. The company has struggled to upgrade its image from sweatshop to a green and healthful version of Target. It has vowed to promote more women. But one thing it hasn’t done, as far as anyone knows, is to reconfigure itself as an anarchist collective.

Bentonville still rules absolutely, over both store managers and “associates,” which is the winsome Wal-Mart term for its chronically underpaid workers, some of whom report that they are still being forced to work off the clock, for no pay at all, just as I found in 2000.

As Dr. King said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” And if America’s largest employer is still practicing wage theft from its predominantly female workforce, that’s a whole lot of injustice.

We have laws on the books to stop wage discrimination. But after decades of conservatives packing the courts with judicial activists, we don’t know if we currently have a judicial system that will reliably uphold the law.

And we can’t have a vibrant middle-class again if half of our nation still suffers from unfair pay practices.

Let’s keep their plight in mind as we organize on April 4 under the banner of “We Are One.”