Walmart’s Unsustainable Business Practices Lead to Class Action Lawsuit

Just over a week ago, Walmart asked the US Supreme Court to overturn a ruling from the Ninth US Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, that would allow 1.5 million current and former female Walmart employees to file the largest class-action lawsuit in history. The case, known as Dukes v. Walmart Stores, Inc., was originally filed in 2001, claiming that Walmart actively discriminated against its female employees by denying them job assignments, promotions, training, and compensation equivalent to their male counterparts. Ironically, over the past few years as Dukes v. Walmart has been gaining support, Walmart has undergone a massive PR campaign to promote their new and varied “sustainability” initiatives. These include offering a larger supply of “sustainable” products, making stores more energy efficient, and decreasing the amount of packaging waste generated.

However, this class action lawsuit serves as a reminder that sustainability means more than just energy efficiency.

Basis for the Case: Evidence of Gender Discrimination at Walmart

The Plaintiffs’ case is based upon detailed accounts of gender discrimination appearing in 110 sworn statements from women who worked in 184 stores across 30 states. Testimony from more than 100 Walmart managers and executives, electronic payroll data, and corporate financial records provide additional support for the women’s case and includes facts such as the following:

Although women outnumber men among hourly supervisors (by 4-1 in 2001), they are significantly underrepresented in salaried management positions, comprising 37.6% of Assistant Managers, 21.9% of Co-Managers, and 15.5% or Store Managers, according to a “Expert Report” testimony by Dr. William Bielby in 2003. In 1975, 38.4% of in-store management positions were filled by female employees. In 1999, only 34.5% of those positions were held by women. According to date-of-hire records, on average, women work 4.38 years before being promoted to Assistant Manager and 10.12 years before becoming a Store Manager. For men, the average is 2.86 years for Assistant Manager and 8.64 years for Store Manager.

Women who were hired in 1996 earned, on average, $0.35 less per hour than men doing the same job. Of these women, those who were still working for Walmart in 2001 earned, on average, $1.16 less per hour than men doing the same job. In 2001, women in salaried management positions earned an average of $14,500 less than men per year.

Additionally, plaintiff’s testimony document numerous accounts of sexist and discriminatory behavior coming from men in upper management positions such as being told that men “need to be paid more than women because they have families to support” and that “men are here to make a career and women aren’t. Retail is for housewives who just need to earn extra money.”

In fairness to Walmart, the company claims that significant changes have been made in hiring and compensation practices since 2001.

Supersized Retail Leads to Supersized Lawsuit

In recent court proceedings, Walmart’s lawyers have argued against the validity of the class-action suit based upon its size and, in effect, its centralization of claims. They contend that discrimination, if it exists at all, is the result of specific acts committed by individuals, not company policy… and that decisions made by local manages did not have the same effect on all female workers (i.e. all members of the lawsuit’s class.) However, Judge Jenkins, of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed, maintaining the plaintiffs’ assertion that managers’ actions were in line with an extremely centralized and “strong corporate culture that includes gender stereotyping.”

Ironically, it is an application of Walmart’s governing philosophy of centralization that even makes this lawsuit possible.

Wondering what you can do?

When it comes to sustainability, sometimes it’s easy to be distracted by glitzy new technologies, claims of energy efficiency, and financial savings, but it’s crucially important to remember that the concept has a social dimension, as well. Walmart will never achieve any kind of “sustainable” business practice until they begin to treat their employees fairly.

If you’re wondering what you can do about this, keep the following in mind: Walmart’s interpretation of “sustainability” means you, the consumer, shopping at Walmart in order to buy more “sustainable” products. However, as one female employee noted in an interview with attorney Jocelyn Larkin “people keep shopping at Walmart because they don’t connect the fact that the low price they’re paying is effectively subsidized by the woman at the checkout counter.” If you’re concerned about voicing your disapproval, then you, the consumer, can vote with your dollar, buying your “sustainable” stuff elsewhere. Or better yet, not buying it at all.