At 24, Kim Miller had high expectations when she joined Wal-Mart as a cashier in Ocala, Florida. The company’s motto, our people make the difference, along with regular staff pep rallies, assurances of training and advancement, and an “open-door policy” for airing grievances were all signs of a promising future. But for nine years, Miller’s career stagnated while she watched men with less experience advance. Formal announcements about job openings were erratic. And when she complained that a boss called her a “bitch,” and that male coworkers watched a porn video during work hours, she was told the problem was a “personality conflict,” and no action was taken.
So on June 19 of this year, Miller joined five other current and former female employees of Wal-Mart and took some action of her own. Together, the women filed a lawsuit in San Francisco’s federal court, charging that Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the nation’s largest private employer, has a pervasive and conscious pattern of discriminating against women. And class-action status is being sought for an estimated seven hundred thousand current and former women workers, requesting back pay and unspecified damages and an end to Wal-Mart’s discriminatory practices. It is the biggest employment discrimination lawsuit ever, and though the battle will be long and brutal, a victory could spark major changes in how women everywhere are treated in the workplace.
The suit charges that Wal-Mart has the worst record of advancing women of any major discount retailer. Although 72 percent of its hourly workers are women, they comprise only 37 percent of the company’s managers. In contrast, the suit maintains that at Wal-Mart’s major competitors, women hold more than half of the management jobs. The importance of the lawsuit extends well beyond Wal-Mart because the company is held up as a model by those hoping to ape its success. From a single store in 1962, Wal-Mart has become a retailing legend, with more than four thousand stores and over one million employees worldwide. The chain is now bigger than Sears, J.C. Penney, and Kmart combined, and its enormous profits have made the descendants of founder Sam Walton one of the richest families in the United States.
Teresa Ghilarducci, an economics professor at Indiana’s University of Notre Dame, says this case breaks new ground not just because of the size of its target, but also because it deals with the deeply entrenched discrimination women face in low-paying jobs. “We can talk about the importance of women moving into the boardroom, but the majority of women don’t work in white-collar jobs,” says Ghilarducci.
While Wal-Mart prides itself on granting full-time status and benefits to people who work as few as 29 hours a week, author Barbara Ehrenreich, who took a low-wage job at Wal-Mart to conduct research for her book Nickel and Dimed, reports that the average employee is expected to pay $150 a month for health coverage, but many can’t afford it. In addition, says Al Zack of the United Food and Commercial Workers union (UFCW), “Wal-Mart managers are taught to use the open-door grievance policy to identify troublemakers.” Micki Earwood, a plaintiff from Urbana, Ohio, knows this all too well. “I was told I couldn’t be promoted unless I moved to New York, and there I was a single mother with a four-year-old,” she says. “In the next two years, I watched three men get promoted and none of them left the state. There were bike-assembly guys and stock boys making two dollars an hour more than a woman department head who had been there much longer.” Within a week of complaining about these disparities to the district manager, Earwood was fired in spite of her 12 years at the company.
The lawyers handling the case, who are from three private law firms and three public interest legal groups, say that more than three hundred women employees have contacted them since the case was filed. For the next year, attorneys will gat