By Marian O’Connor
Supermarket giant Wal-Mart is currently involved in a class-action lawsuit that could revolutionize the role of women in the workplace. For the past six years, the Dukes v. Wal-Mart lawsuit has resulted in a number of policy changes on the part of Wal-Mart, as well as several other large employers across the country.
On Tuesday, Feb. 6, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the class-action lawsuit would go to trial. The suit involves over 1.5 million female employees who claim they were discriminated against in pay and promotions because of their gender.
Joshua Cuy, a fourth-year Latin American studies and global economics double major, believes the case represents a reflection of gender discrimination within society at large.
“It’s an infrastructure in our society that results from a system that places men in front of women,” Cuy said. “The problem with Wal-Mart is that it practices capitalism too perfectly.”
In 2001, Betty Dukes and five other former female employees of Wal-Mart sued the corporation for discrimination in the workplace. On Apr. 28, 2003 lawyers for the group filed a motion for class certification, and the next year U.S. District Judge Martin Jenkins of San Francisco ruled that the case warranted a class-action lawsuit based on the evidence.
The company took the case to a San Francisco appeals court, but the court responded by ruling that the “Plaintiff’s expert opinions, factual evidence, statistical evidence and anecdotal evidence present significant proof of a corporate policy of discrimination and support [the] plaintiff’s contention that female employees nationwide were subjected to a common pattern and practice of discrimination.”
Wal-Mart has declared its intention to seek further appeals in response to last Tuesday’s ruling. With more than 3.400 stores throughout the United States, Wal-Mart is the nation’s largest employer, and the lawsuit will be the largest class-action suit in the United States history.
If Wal-Mart is found guilty of discrimination against female employees, the corporation would be forced to pay millions of dollars to women employed by the company since 1998.
Kate Flanangan, a feminist studies major at UC Santa Cruz, believes that in order for women to achieve a certain degree of change in society, it is important to recognize what elements of discrimination are institutionalized.
“When you recognize what’s happening to you isn’t because of your individual actions, but that it’s a structural problem, it is very empowering,” Flanangan said.	 She went on to suggest that the lawsuit could promote consciousness, and thus provoke change.
“[The lawsuit] could be a catalyst for change in that way,” Flanangan said.
Wal-Mart alleges that each of its stores operate as independent businesses.
In an attempt to secure an interview with the Gilroy Wal-Mart manager, City on a Hill Press was directed to corporate headquarters. The manager declined to comment on the lawsuit.
UCSC Community Studies Lecturer Mary Beth Pudup teaches a class entitled “Wal-Mart Nation” in alternating years. She believes that this suit could be a landmark case, potentially changing not only Wal-Mart, but society as a whole.
“If you want to affect change, then you are going to go after the biggest employer,” Pudup said. “[The case] has already forced Wal-Mart to change. Wal-Mart has [since] made explicit efforts to promote women.”
Wal-Mart was actually awarded the American Bar Association’s 2007 Corporate Award on Feb.12 for its diversity both within its own legal department but also among the many law firms throughout the country that represent Wal-Mart.
“I think that often people think Wal-Mart is so big that you can’t change it,” Pudup said. “It’s the very fact that Wal-Mart is so big that makes it so amendable to change.”