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U.S.: Supreme Court Walmart Decision Is a “Blow to Justice”

Elizabeth Whitman

NEW YORK, Jun 21 2011 (IPS) - Labour and women’s rights groups are strongly criticising the Supreme Court’s rejection of a class action suit brought by current and former female employees of Walmart who sought to represent 1.5 million female employees who claim that the company discriminated against women.

The largest retailer in the world, Walmart raked in over 405 billion dollars in sales last year and employs 2.1 million associates around the world.

Employees who want to sue Walmart for sexual discrimination will now have to proceed individually, or in smaller class action suits.

In ‘Dukes vs. Walmart Stores Inc.’, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that the plaintiffs lacked the common ground by which to proceed as a class in further legal action – overturning previous decisions made by lower courts.

In 2004, the San Francisco District Court authorised six individual plaintiffs to represent 1.5 million female employees of Walmart in a national sexual discrimination lawsuit. After Walmart appealed, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit upheld the federal district court’s decision.

Nevertheless, in August 2010, Walmart filed a petition to the U.S. Supreme Court requesting it to review the Ninth Circuit’s upholding of the federal court’s ruling.

The Supreme Court decision did not determine that Walmart does or did not discriminate against women, although Justice Antonin Scalia did write as part of the justification for the Court’s decision that the evidence presented lacked “significant proof” that Walmart “operated under a general policy of discrimination”.

According to the official website for the class action suit (, when the women originally filed the motion for class action, they supported it with 110 detailed sworn statements from women who worked in 184 Walmart stores in 30 states, along with over 1,200,000 pages from Walmart’s corporate files and other testimonies from Walmart executives.

They sought to sue Walmart for sexual discrimination that displayed itself in unequal pay and promotion opportunities, job assignments, and other aspects of the Walmart workplace.

Girshriela Green has been an employee at a Walmart store in Los Angeles for nearly three years. She told IPS that hearing the Supreme Court’s decision was “saddening”. She is not part of the lawsuit, but said she certainly would be part of a future lawsuit.

“I don’t understand why we don’t get the same respect as the male associates” when male and female employees do “equal work,” she stated. Green has experienced firsthand the pay discrimination that plaintiffs in the case referenced.

When Green was promoted to being a department manager, her pay raise was 45 cents per hour. Men who were promoted to department manager, however, received an 80 cent per hour raise.

Although Green cited those grievances, she also noted that Walmart “could be a wonderful workplace”, there are “changes and adjustments that should be made that are fair to everybody”.

A “Deeply Disturbing” Decision

Jennifer Stapleton, assistant director of ‘Making Change at Walmart’, told IPS that the Supreme Court’s decision was “a blow to justice”. Making Change at Walmart is a campaign run by the labour union United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW).

The average employee at Walmart makes 15,000 dollars a year, Stapleton said, and “the idea that a woman making below poverty-level wages is going to sue” an enormous corporation like Walmart “by herself is not realistic”.

“This situation is exactly why class action suits were created,” Stapleton added.

And now the highest court in the nation has rejected this class action suit.

In a statement released Monday, UFCW International President Joe Hansen called the ruling “deeply disturbing”, because “the highest court in our nation has turned its back on collective remedy for workers facing widespread injustices”.

The National Organisation for Women (NOW) also unequivocally expressed its disapproval in a statement Monday declaring that in this case, the Supreme Court majority had “ruled against women by siding with the country’s largest employment discriminator”.

Numerous other non-profit, nongovernmental, and labour groups responded similarly to the ruling.

Walmart, however, said in a statement Monday, “Every female associate and every customer can feel even better about the company as a result of today’s decision.” It said it was pleased with the ruling, believing that the Supreme Court had made the right decision and cited the fact that Walmart “has had strong policies against discrimination for many years”.

All companies are required to have anti-discrimination policies; not to have them is illegal.

Walmart’s History of Discrimination and Labour Violations

Walmart has long denied claims that it discriminates against women in pay and promotion opportunities, job assignments, and in general in the workplace.

In 2007, New York-based group Human Rights Watch published a report, ‘Discounting Rights’, about labour conditions at Walmart. Among other conclusions drawn, it found “significant proof of a corporate policy of discrimination” and that “female employees nationwide were subjected to a common pattern and practice of discrimination”.

According to plaintiffs in the case – whose claims were used as evidence in the report – at Walmart gender stereotypes were used as a basis for making decisions, including ones regarding job assignments and pay. Walmart gives managers leeway to make these decisions, and plaintiffs argued that the result was that male workers benefited disproportionately from this leeway, in both pay and leadership positions.

Encountering highly discriminatory comments was not uncommon either. One female employee shared that a Florida store manager said men were paid more because “men are here to make a career and women aren’t. Retail is for housewives who just need to earn extra money”.

‘Discounting Rights’ also found evidence of wage and hour violations in addition to sexual discrimination at Walmart. By the year of the report’s publication, three class actions suits against Walmart claiming wage and hour violations had succeeded, and the company has awarded workers over two million dollars in damages, attorney fees, and costs.

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