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The Future of Labor Rights: The Supreme Court, Wal-Mart & Class Action Suits

On Tuesday, March 29, The Supreme Court heard arguments in what might be the largest, most important class action lawsuit in American history.  The top court is not deciding whether the women in the case were indeed victims of large-scale sex discrimination.  At issue is a procedural question: can a large, diverse group of women across the country claim class status? The stakes are quite high: class actions are a legal tool that “makes it much easier for little-guy and little-gal victims of discrimination to sue.”  Workers, Labor Rights Activists, and Workers’ Compensation Attorneys across the country are watching this case carefully to determine if the Supreme Court will uphold Labor Rights or turn over more power to Big Business.

On December 8, 2010 Time.com reported that a “group of women employees is suing Walmart for discrimination, charging the nation’s biggest retailer with underpaying female workers and denying them equal opportunities for promotion.”  Slate.com describes the genesis of the case: “In 2001, Betty Dukes sued Wal-Mart for sex discrimination in a lawsuit filed on behalf of every woman who worked for the company since 1998–roughly 1.5 million women.”  Dukes alleged several grievances against Wal-Mart.  The central claim was lack of equal pay, even for women with greater seniority and better performance reviews.  Also, Dukes claimed the path to promotion was much more difficult and longer than for men and that women were routinely subjected to sexist language.

Beyond the sworn declarations of 120 women who describe their experience of sex-deiscrimination at Wal-Mart, the plaintiffs argue Wal-Mart’s hierarchal structure as directly contributing to the systematic discrimination.  Wal-Mart gives store managers discretion when making promotions and hiring decisions, using such criteria as “teamwork, ethics, integrity, and the ability to get along with others.”  The plaintiffs contend that it was just such subjective criteria decided by mostly male managers that allowed the system to be vulnerable to common sexism and gender stereotypes. This was, after all, the 1990s.  The claim rests on the idea that mostly male managers with little oversight tend to either consciously or unconsciously apply gender stereotypes when it comes to such nebulous concepts as the “ability to get along with others.”  Unfortunately, as many women continue to know today, long-held sexist attitudes about gender roles continue to influence managers in their decision-making process.

It is just this argument that Wal-Mart claims undermines the very status of the class.  As Slate.com notes, “Because Wal-Mart gives managers at the store store level almost complete discretion make personal decisions, there’s nothing that connects the decisions of one Wal-Mart manager to those of another.”  Thus, even if female employees across the country DID suffer sex discrimination, Wal-Mart claims those events were ultimately unconnected.  And while the company acknowledges that such discrimination might have existed, they want the employees to file the claims independently.

Of course, this is where the importance of  the current Supreme Court battle becomes key.  While the decision before the court is narrow (can all these women constitute a class?), the stakes are enormous: can large groups of injured employees band together together to face the legal might and deep pockets of large corporations like Wal-Mart?

When arguments commenced before the Supreme Court on March 29, it soon became clear the Justices had questions in line with Wal-mart’s claims.  The New York Times reports that Justice Anthony M. Kennedy said he found the issue of manager discretion as a foundation for proving systematic abuse “internally inconsistent.”  Justice Antonin Scalia, one of the most conservative and consistently pro-business members of the court argued “One the one hand, you say the problem is that they were utterly subjective, and on the other hand you say there is strong corporate culture that guides all of this.  Well, which is it?”

The chief worry of the court seemed to be the large number of companies that could be liable if this diverse class was certified. However, as many labor rights activists note, class actions were designed in part to hold companies accountable for abuses on a large scale and that these cases should work as a deterrent to prevent future abuses.  So the court must decide who is more important: corporations or American workers?

We will continue to provide updates on this important case and others.  Workers who believe they have experienced workplace discrimination of any kind should contact an expert Washington Labor and Industries Attorney immediately.

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Emery Reddy