By Kathy Durkin
Published Jul 1, 2011 8:03 PM
The U.S. Supreme Court recently dealt a brutal blow to women workers employed by Wal-Mart. On June 20 the justices dismissed the Dukes v. Wal-Mart lawsuit, decreeing that these workers cannot sue their employers as a class for sex discrimination.
Unsurprisingly, the high court handed corporations a big victory. In a unanimous decision of conservatives and liberals alike, the nine justices rejected class-action certification for the 1.5 million past and current women workers at Wal-Mart. This case would have been the largest employment discrimination class-action lawsuit in U.S. history against the biggest corporate employer.
The court said that the Wal-Mart workers must file individual lawsuits and not seek billions of dollars in damages as a class. The ruling will make it more difficult, time-consuming and costly for the women to pursue legal remedies, as they are low-wage workers who are suing for small amounts of money in back pay.
Moreover, five justices, the court’s more right-wing majority, severely restricted the criteria for future employee-class-action lawsuits against corporations. This will harm millions of women, low-wage, service-sector and other workers, making it harder for them to seek legal remedies from employers for unfair policies. It will stymie workers who seek to join together as a class to sue employers for sexist, racist or other discriminatory policies in any company.
By siding with the country’s largest corporate discriminator, the Supreme Court gave Wal-Mart the green light to squeeze millions of workers even more and to keep wages low for women, the majority of the company’s hourly employees. This was also a signal to other companies that they can continue to do the same without concern about large, national lawsuits.
Ten years ago, lead plaintiff Betty Dukes, a Wal-Mart worker, together with other workers filed a lawsuit charging the company with national gender discrimination in pay and promotion. They sought to end the company’s biased policies, establish equitable ones and recover billions of dollars of lost wages for the class of current and former women employees.
The plaintiffs presented evidence showing a corporate culture of sexism at Wal-Mart, where women are 70 percent of the hourly employees, yet only 33 percent of managers, and where executives deal with women in a demeaning way. However, the court’s majority claimed they hadn’t proven discrimination.
Part of capitalists’ war on working class
The pro-corporate court shot down one of the weapons in the workers’ arsenal to oppose corporate inequities, demand fairness, seek redress of their grievances and win financial compensation. Class-action lawsuits have been a helpful legal tool for workers to fight corporate discrimination; this ruling now denies this avenue to millions of workers.
In fact, plaintiffs’ attorney Joseph M. Sellers explained that the court’s majority reversed 40 years of legal precedents that “allowed for company-wide cases to be brought” challenging discriminatory practices against women and other workers. (New York Times, June 21)
This ruling is an extension of the capitalist class’s war on the working class, which aims to take back every right and benefit won through struggle and prevent any redress of grievances and inequities. It’s another manifestation of the corporations’ rampage to wrench back whatever they can from workers, to increase the level of exploitation — and profits — and to obstruct legal rights and recourse with which workers can fight back.
The capitalists’ offensive against workers is being carried out by state governments, backed in some cases by state courts, as in Wisconsin, where they have assaulted public sector workers’ collective bargaining rights and union protections and torn up union-negotiated wage, health care and pension benefits.
This ruling shows clearly that the courts are part of the capitalist state apparatus, not neutral bodies that hear the grievances of working people and make decisions based on fundamental fairness. The main purpose of the court system, especially the Supreme Court, is to protect the property, profits and reign of the capitalist class — the owners whose interests are antagonistic to those of the workers. Many of this court’s decisions of late have reinforced and advanced the financial and political interests of the super-rich, the banks and corporations.
Wal-Mart: huge profits, low wages
Wal-Mart’s revenue in 2010 was $408.2 billion. The world’s largest retailer, it is the number one Fortune 100 company. The average hourly wage for sales associates is $8.81, says the Food and Commercial Workers union blog, Making Change at Wal-Mart. The company can well afford to pay higher wages to all its workers. Yet their incomes are so low that many employees must use food stamps to feed their families and resort to Medicaid health care coverage.
By creating and maintaining poverty-level jobs and keeping wages low by all manner of inequities — super-exploiting its workforce here and worldwide — the corporate Goliath is able to make mega-profits. The company has operated in such defiance of workers’ rights that it has been sued and forced to pay hundreds of millions of dollars to U.S. workers for breaking state wage-and-hour laws.
This conglomerate has ferociously and ruthlessly fought all attempts at union organizing, at home and abroad. However, Wal-Mart’s workers need unions to fight workplace discrimination and inequities and to bargain for better wages and benefits. Women in unions get better wages and benefits than do their non-union counterparts.
Making Change at Wal-Mart says that despite the court’s ruling the struggle will go on: “[This] decision will not stop millions of Wal-Mart associates from joining together to demand justice and more from their employer.” It promised to continue to work with them “to ensure women at Wal-Mart can never be discriminated against.”
Dukes and the other plaintiffs, with the help of their attorneys, are already forming new strategies and have adamantly vowed to continue their fight to press this corporate giant to end its unfair policies.
With this restriction of what has been a key legal avenue for workers to challenge corporate discrimination, it is now more imperative for leaders in the working-class movement to shift their focus and move to more class-wide direct action. It will take a strong, militant working-class struggle to push back the corporations. This will help women workers at Wal-Mart and elsewhere.
What will also aid them in their fight is for all progressive groupings and individuals to stand up and show solidarity with these workers at every opportunity and in every arena.