In what is being called the largest class action lawsuit in the nation’s history, lawyers representing 1.5 million current and former female workers March 29 argued a sex discrimination case against Wal-Mart Stores Inc. before the Supreme Court.
The case was originally filed by six women in 2001 who alleged that the retail giant’s male managers underpaid female employees and used discriminatory measures in employee promotions. The matter is now being considered by the high court in a class action covering an estimated 1.5 million people.
Betty Dukes, an African-American woman who is among the lead plaintiffs in the case, worked as a part-time cashier at a Walmart store and insisted that, despite her 20 years of retail experience, her superiors paid her less than her male counterparts and never considered her for a promotion.
According to TheGrio.com, some have likened Dukes’, now an ordained Baptist minister, to Rosa Parks, the Alabama seamstress whose arrest for refusing to comply with a Montgomery segregation law served as the catalyst for the dawn of the civil rights movement in 1955.
“Wal-Mart may be a big company, and that is no doubt, but they're not big enough that they can't be challenged in a court of law,” Dukes told ABC News. “If you do wrong, then you should be held accountable, from the least of us to the greatest of us.”
Another woman, Christine Kwapnoski, told ABC News, “Before I got promoted when I was asking what I needed to do, I was told to blow the cobwebs off my make-up and to doll up.”
Wal-Mart, which operates 4,300 stores in the U.S., denies the allegations.
“Wal-Mart is working hard every day to ensure more women are represented in our management ranks,” Wal-Mart Executive Vice President Gisel Ruiz said in a statement. “We continue to have strong anti-discrimination policies in place, a strong record of advancement of women and we are always looking to be better.”
The corporation insisted the women involved in the suit do not have enough in common to file a collective case.?
In a class action, the complaint of a large group is collectively represented in a lawsuit.
Ruiz said the company insists on equality.
“We've had policies—strong policies—against discrimination in place long before the lawsuit was filed,” she said. “I remember learning about those policies when I joined the company, and as I grew up with the company then it became my responsibility” to apply them.
Civil rights lawyer Brad Seligman, the plaintiff’s lead lawyer, said data shows women make up two-thirds of hourly employees at Walmart stores but account for less than 14 percent of store managers.
“There've been complaints about discrimination, there's a statistical pattern, and more importantly Wal-Mart senior management and their board of directors got periodic reports for the last 15 years telling them exactly what's going on out there,” he said.
The Supreme Court is expected to rule on the case by June.