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December 2010, Week 2

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Mon, 13 Dec 2010 22:36:45 -0500
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WOMEN v. WALMART

Black Radio Network / Minority News <[log in to unmask]>

WASHINGTON - When Betty Dukes decided in 2001 to take
on the world's largest retailer, Walmart Stores, Inc.,
she first thought she would be a lone soldier.

Yet as the years have passed, more than 9,500 women
openly have stepped forward to join Dukes in a
nine-year crusade to thwart alleged persistent
discrimination against Walmart's female employees in
pay and promotions. The fight has become the largest
gender-bias class-action lawsuit in U.S. history--
representing about 1.6 million former and current
female employees and possibly costing the Bentonville,
Ark.-based retailer billions of dollars.

Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear
arguments in the closely watched case. A decision--which
could have huge implications for the rights of workers
to sue their employers --is expected by next June.

At first, "I found myself standing alone, but I wasn't
standing alone," says Dukes, 60, who joined the
retailer's Pittsburg, Calif., store in 1994 as a
part-time cashier for $5 an hour.

Dukes, a native of Tallulah, La., saw the job as a
chance to better her life by climbing the corporate
management ladder at Walmart, she says. But in 1997, by
which time she had advanced to the level of customer
service manager, she found out that each step beyond
that point was becoming steeper--and more frustrating.
The company, she says, offered her little chance for
advancement. She went to her many managers to complain,
though that turned into an ongoing quarrel and
eventually led to a demotion to cashier and pay cut of
about 5 percent, she says.

Her struggle became central to the federal lawsuit,
filed in June 2001 in the U.S. District Court. In late
April 2010, the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals
upheld a decision allowing the case to go to trial as a
class action on behalf of the millions of former and
current female Walmart employees-- which the suit says
represent 72 percent of all hourly employees.

Dukes and the five other main plaintiffs charged in the
suit that Walmart violated the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
The retailer consistently paid its male employees more
than women for the same work, and women have had to
wait longer than men for promotions, they maintain.

The lawsuit claims that women account for only
one-third of what Walmart considers management. At the
store level, they hold "traditionally 'female'
positions, such as assistant managers whose primary
responsibility is supervising cashiers, and the lowest
level of managers."

A Climb Too Steep

Dukes came to Walmart with 20 years of retail
experience, working at chain stores such as Pleasanton,
Calif.-based Safeway, Inc. "I was definitely familiar
with the retailing industry, and I had the basic
skills," she says, adding that she had never faced any
problems in her prior jobs.

Her troubles at Walmart began just a few months after
she was promoted to be a customer service manager in
1997, she says. "It was a combination of things," she
says.

She complained to a district manager about her
situation, resulting in several disciplinary write-ups
from the store's management. The initial written
warning said she returned late from breaks, which she
says many of her male and white colleagues did as well.
Some even failed to clock out for breaks.

The last straw came in mid-1999, says Dukes. She needed
change to make a small purchase during a break and
asked a fellow colleague to open the cash register with
a one-cent transaction. While Dukes says it was a
common practice among Walmart staff, she was demoted to
cashier for misconduct, resulting in the pay cut. She
once again went to the district manager, stating that
the punishment was too severe and was in retaliation
for her numerous prior complaints. Nothing was done,
she said.

In fact, she began to see her hours rolled back, making
it hard for her to make ends meet. Dukes, who is
divorced and childless, eventually moved in with her
mother. "It was just so outrageous," she says. "From
that point, I started looking for some venue of change
to hear my call."

She found the platform with the Equal Rights Advocates
and the Impact Fund, who have represented Dukes and the
thousands of other women who have come forward to share
their story.

The Sky Wasn't the Limit

Take Edith Arana, 49, who had worked in retail for more
than 10 years before joining a California-based Walmart
store. She was hired as a personnel manager, but she
also filled in for numerous departments. That included
handling store merchandising and payroll. "We were
always told for the beginning that this is a
family-based company. This is a company that you can
come in as a cashier, and the sky is the limit," Arana
says.

However, Arana says those promises weren't kept, and
she quickly hit the ceiling when she pushed to run a
department within stores. The promotion would have
helped her chances to get in the company's assistant
management training program -- and eventually oversee
an entire store. The higher-paying position would have
also helped her care for her dying husband and three
young children at the time.

While store management alluded to her chances of moving
up and taking part in the training, she says she
consistently was passed over for promotions that were
given to men with less experience. Many of the
available positions she discovered after they were
filled, and those she applied for, she didn't even get
an interview. She says when she inquired about the
reasoning behind the decisions, she was offered little
explanation, if any at all.

"I was so destroyed and devastated by this," says
Arana, whose husband passed away from liver cancer
during her struggle with Walmart. Arana now works in a
public library. "I'm hoping that we get everything we
ask for."

The Stakes for Big Business

Walmart has fought hard against the allegations--arguing
that the discrimination cases brought by the six women
were isolated instances, and not a company policy. "We
do not believe the claims alleged by the six
individuals who brought this suit are representative of
the experiences of our female associates," said Jeff
Gearhart, executive vice president and general counsel.

Supporters of the retailer have lined up in its corner,
just as its staunch critics have backed the plaintiffs.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other organizations
have raised concerns about the suit's ramifications for
other companies as well as the merits for the district
court's approval to make it a class-action suit. "It
will have a potentially destructive effect on the
Chamber's members, who will likely face billions of
dollars in new class-action claims, brought on behalf
of putative classes that fail to satisfy the
requirements" for being certified as a class-action
suit, "without any opportunity to present evidence in
their own defense," the chamber said in its legal brief

Washington-based National Women's Law Center (NWLC) is
among a host of civil rights advocates that have
applauded the women's push. "They are really brave to
be able to stand up to a big company and say what
you're doing isn't fair," said Fatima Goss Graves, vice
president for education and employment at NWLC. "That
takes a lot."

Not One to Quit

Dukes is mostly quiet about her background, except to
proudly talk about her family's journey to California
from Louisiana 50 years ago and her work as an ordained
minister. She has stood strong within her faith during
the battle and to help her get through the workdays at
the Pittsburg store. So far, she says there have been
minimal troubles at work during the court case.

"I'm just not one to quit," says Dukes, adding that
with since the case and the connected media attention
began her pay has been raised to $15.23 an hour.

But that's not enough to erase what has happened, she
says. "I'm demanding justice. I want justice for every
woman past and present that has been discriminated
against."

Because of that notion, she was lauded as the next Rosa
Parks in the book entitled, Selling Women Short: the
Landmark Battle for Workers' Rights at Walmart. Dukes
believes she's not worthy of that comparison.

"Rosa Parks is an icon of change," she says. "We're
still working for change. This is a universal movement.
Not only will it have significant impact on the lives
at Walmart, but it will resonate around the country for
change."

By Monee Fields-White, New America Media

___________________________________________

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