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Corporate America is Backing Wal-Mart In its Class Action Lawsuit On Behalf of Women Workers - Solidarity America - By John Funiciello - Columnist

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Wal-Mart is fighting with every ounce of its considerable strength against a class action lawsuit, initiated about 10 years ago on behalf of hundreds of thousands of women who have or are working for the company, because if the world’s largest retailer loses, there could be repercussions throughout Corporate America.

The lawsuit charges that women, in general, are paid considerably less than men in the same jobs and positions throughout the company. According to the Associated Press, Brad Seligman, who conceived of and filed the suit, said that the average pay for a woman at Wal-Mart was $13,000, about $1,100 less than the average for a man.

Although that differential is significant, if you are making that low a wage, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to initiate a lawsuit on your own behalf and see it through to its final conclusion. That’s why class action lawsuits have been so important to Americans in every sphere of life, whether it’s an environmental issue, a consumer issue, or a working issue. That’s why Wal-Mart wants to deal with the pay discrimination issue on an individual-by-individual basis. They know working class Americans will run out of money or energy before they could ever hope to win a court case.

About 35 years ago, it was calculated that women made 59 cents for every dollar that a man made in the same job, in the same line of work. Today, that differential has been reduced by about 15 or 20 cents, but pay is still well below the amount that a man would be paid for the same work. Thus, the issue of pay equity was born.

Pay equity is the concept that women should receive equal pay for the same or comparable work. When there is a contract in the workplace, something that usually exists where there is a union, the pay for men and women in the same job is clearly written into the contract, in the pay schedule.

It is now decades since the concept of equal pay for the same or comparable work was defined, and toward which a great struggle was launched in the 1970s, yet that same fight is being fought against that bastion of worker maltreatment and exploitation, Wal-Mart, and it is culminating in a monumental lawsuit that involves as many as 1.5 million women workers, past and current employees of the Beast of Bentonville (Arkansas).

The U.S. Supreme Court is to decide first whether the case can go forward as a national class action case, or whether the plaintiffs should be directed to form their own class on a more local basis. That is, there might be thousands of lawsuits required, if the court rules in the direction of the latter prospect.

Naturally, the company would prefer to deal with small class action lawsuits all across the country, since the plaintiffs would have fewer resources and support for their individual cases. The plaintiffs in the current case, initiated in 1998, need the case to go forward as it is. Wal-Mart and dozens of other giant corporations want the plaintiffs to be forced to go it on their own, since a win on the part of all of the workers would have profound implications for all such corporations.

Having a union in Wal-Mart would have mitigated the worst of the discrimination, even though it is not likely that a union contract could have eliminated all discrimination inside the corporation that has been described as having a culture of discrimination against women. But unionization efforts at Wal-Mart have been fought, in essence, to the death and the company still is union-free.

The discrimination lawsuit will be a tough one, as indicated by the tactics used by Wal-Mart against unionization efforts in both the U.S. and in Canada. When workers at a store in Quebec voted for a union, the company (in an extremely unusual move) closed the store, on the basis that it was not performing well enough. When workers in a meat department of a U.S. Wal-Mart store voted to unionize, the company not only closed that department in that store, but it closed similar departments where they existed, so that it could not be charged with discrimination against unionized workers or their union.

There are women who work at Wal-Mart who will defend the company with every ounce of energy they have. Usually, they are those who are in positions of authority or in jobs that are in a (relatively) high pay bracket. Gisel Ruiz indicated to the AP that the suit is unnecessary, that women do very well at Wal-Mart. She is the executive vice president for people, the new Wal-Mart name for personnel or human resources. Ruiz said she was hired out of college and was running her own store in less than four years. Others also point out their positions as highly paid or supervisory workers, but what else would they be expected to say?

Under these circumstances, only a lawsuit at the company-wide level will show whether there is a culture of discrimination against women. One of the lead plaintiffs, Christine Kwapnoski, told the AP that she and many others were promoted into management shortly after the lawsuit was filed.

The American culture has become one in which euphemisms are its stock in trade. That is, they use terms and words that bear no resemblance to reality. The illusions that are created become part of the language and are embraced by the people as if they are true. For example, Wal-Mart began calling its workers “associates” a long time ago. Other corporations followed suit, because it was a way of giving workers the idea that they were somehow closer to equals to the bosses.

Since workers caught on to that, some corporations have started calling their workers “partners,” as if they have a say in the operation of the business. These tactics are simply a way to take some of the sting out of the conditions in which workers find themselves: low wages, few benefits, no pension, health care that is expensive or absolutely inadequate for the amount paid for premiums. And, perhaps, most important, they are made to feel a (false) sense of “ownership” of the enterprise and therefore, it is assumed, will work harder for little compensation to see that the business thrives.

The psychology of management has become more and more sophisticated through most of the 20th Century and it doesn’t seem to have slowed much. All of it is aimed to control the workers that remain on the job in the U.S. High unemployment makes management’s job easier, because every worker knows that there are five or 10 workers waiting to take his or her job, even though it might be temporary.

The class action lawsuit is vitally important for women, but it is important for men, as well. It is important for all workers that the suit go forward on a company-wide scale. American workers have seen the power of Corporate America over the past several months, as their minions in elected office do their bidding in such places as Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana, Maine, and many other places.

Ultimately, though, the answer to the power of faceless corporate bureaucrats is to unionize the workplaces of America. For that to happen, there needs to be a great awakening of workers, from coast to coast. Only when they are educated and organized will we see an end to the kind of abuse and discrimination that corporations have freely engaged in for many decades.

It looks as if that awakening is occurring. It is slow, but the peaceful demands for their rights by American workers is much preferable to the chaos that has been seen in times past, both in this country and in others. Agitate, educate, and organize! Columnist, John Funiciello, is a labor organizer and former union organizer. His union work started when he became a local president of The Newspaper Guild in the early 1970s. He was a reporter for 14 years for newspapers in New York State. In addition to labor work, he is organizing family farmers as they struggle to stay on the land under enormous pressure from factory food producers and land developers. Click here to contact Mr. Funiciello.

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Mar 31, 2011 - Issue 420
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