WASHINGTON - When Betty Dukes decided in 2001 to take on the world's largest retailer, Walmart Stores, Inc., she first thought she would be a lone soldier.
Yet as the years have passed, more than 9,500 women openly have stepped forward to join Dukes in a nine-year crusade to thwart alleged persistent discrimination against Walmart's female employees in pay and promotions. The fight has become the largest gender-bias class-action lawsuit in U.S. history— representing about 1.6 million former and current female employees and possibly costing the Bentonville, Ark.-based retailer billions of dollars.
Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear arguments in the closely watched case. A decision—which could have huge implications for the rights of workers to sue their employers —is expected by next June.
At first, "I found myself standing alone, but I wasn't standing alone," says Dukes, 60, who joined the retailer's Pittsburg, Calif., store in 1994 as a part-time cashier for $5 an hour.
Dukes, a native of Tallulah, La., saw the job as a chance to better her life by climbing the corporate management ladder at Walmart, she says. But in 1997, by which time she had advanced to the level of customer service manager, she found out that each step beyond that point was becoming steeper—and more frustrating. The company, she says, offered her little chance for advancement. She went to her many managers to complain, though that turned into an ongoing quarrel and eventually led to a demotion to cashier and pay cut of about 5 percent, she says.
Her struggle became central to the federal lawsuit, filed in June 2001 in the U.S. District Court. In late April 2010, the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals upheld a decision allowing the case to go to trial as a class action on behalf of the millions of former and current female Walmart employees— which the suit says represent 72 percent of all hourly employees.
Dukes and the five other main plaintiffs charged in the suit that Walmart violated the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The retailer consistently paid its male employees more than women for the same work, and women have had to wait longer than men for promotions, they maintain.
The lawsuit claims that women account for only one-third of what Walmart considers management. At the store level, they hold "traditionally 'female' positions, such as assistant managers whose primary responsibility is supervising cashiers, and the lowest level of managers."
A Climb Too Steep
Dukes came to Walmart with 20 years of retail experience, working at chain stores such as Pleasanton, Calif.-based Safeway, Inc. "I was definitely familiar with the retailing industry, and I had the basic skills," she says, adding that she had never faced any problems in her prior jobs.
Her troubles at Walmart began just a few months after she was promoted to be a customer service manager in 1997, she says. "It was a combination of things," she says.
She complained to a district manager about her situation, resulting in several disciplinary write-ups from the store's management. The initial written warning said she returned late from breaks, which she says many of her male and white colleagues did as well. Some even failed to clock out for breaks.
The last straw came in mid-1999, says Dukes. She needed change to make a small purchase during a break and asked a fellow colleague to open the cash register with a one-cent transaction. While Dukes says it was a common practice among Walmart staff, she was demoted to cashier for misconduct, resulting in the pay cut. She once again went to the district manager, stating that the punishment was too severe and was in retaliation for her numerous prior complaints. Nothing was done, she said.
In fact, she began to see her hours rolled back, making it hard for her to make ends meet. Dukes, who is divorced and childless, eventually moved in with her mother. "It was just so outrageous," she says. "From that point, I started looking for some venue of change to hear my call."
She found the platform with the Equal Rights Advocates and the Impact Fund, who have represented Dukes and the thousands of other women who have come forward to share their story.
The Sky Wasn't the Limit
Take Edith Arana, 49, who had worked in retail for more than 10 years before joining a California-based Walmart store. She was hired as a personnel manager, but she also filled in for numerous departments. That included handling store merchandising and payroll. "We were always told for the beginning that this is a family-based company. This is a company that you can come in as a cashier, and the sky is the limit," Arana says.
However, Arana says those promises weren't kept, and she quickly hit the ceiling when she pushed to run a department within stores. The promotion would have helped her chances to get in the company's assistant management training program -- and eventually oversee an entire store. The higher-paying position would have also helped her care for her dying husband and three young children at the time.
While store management alluded to her chances of moving up and taking part in the training, she says she consistently was passed over for promotions that were given to men with less experience. Many of the available positions she discovered after they were filled, and those she applied for, she didn't even get an interview. She says when she inquired about the reasoning behind the decisions, she was offered little explanation, if any at all.
"I was so destroyed and devastated by this," says Arana, whose husband passed away from liver cancer during her struggle with Walmart. Arana now works in a public library. "I'm hoping that we get everything we ask for."
The Stakes for Big Business
Walmart has fought hard against the allegations—arguing that the discrimination cases brought by the six women were isolated instances, and not a company policy. "We do not believe the claims alleged by the six individuals who brought this suit are representative of the experiences of our female associates," said Jeff Gearhart, executive vice president and general counsel.
Supporters of the retailer have lined up in its corner, just as its staunch critics have backed the plaintiffs.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other organizations have raised concerns about the suit's ramifications for other companies as well as the merits for the district court's approval to make it a class-action suit. "It will have a potentially destructive effect on the Chamber's members, who will likely face billions of dollars in new class-action claims, brought on behalf of putative classes that fail to satisfy the requirements" for being certified as a class-action suit, "without any opportunity to present evidence in their own defense," the chamber said in its legal brief
Washington-based National Women's Law Center (NWLC) is among a host of civil rights advocates that have applauded the women's push. "They are really brave to be able to stand up to a big company and say what you're doing isn't fair," said Fatima Goss Graves, vice president for education and employment at NWLC. "That takes a lot."
Not One to Quit
Dukes is mostly quiet about her background, except to proudly talk about her family's journey to California from Louisiana 50 years ago and her work as an ordained minister. She has stood strong within her faith during the battle and to help her get through the workdays at the Pittsburg store. So far, she says there have been minimal troubles at work during the court case.
"I'm just not one to quit," says Dukes, adding that with since the case and the connected media attention began her pay has been raised to $15.23 an hour.
But that's not enough to erase what has happened, she says. "I'm demanding justice. I want justice for every woman past and present that has been discriminated against."
Because of that notion, she was lauded as the next Rosa Parks in the book entitled, Selling Women Short: the Landmark Battle for Workers' Rights at Walmart. Dukes believes she's not worthy of that comparison.
"Rosa Parks is an icon of change," she says. "We're still working for change. This is a universal movement. Not only will it have significant impact on the lives at Walmart, but it will resonate around the country for change."