When, on Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously against the right of more than one million of its women workers to sue Walmart for bias and discrimination in pay and promotions, Corporate America rose to its feet and sang a song of victory.
The lawsuit had been years in the making against the world’s largest retail chain and the largest private employer, but the court decided that the women did not have enough in common to be considered a class for the purposes of a lawsuit.
The court did not make a decision on the merits of the class action suit, but they clearly decided that the members of the class, working in 3,400 retail stores in every state and in various positions, management and line worker, did not have enough in common to satisfy the legal definition of a class under federal law.
Some of the women can, and some said they would, continue to try to prove that Walmart discriminated against them. The giant firm maintained that it gave much of its authority for pay and promotion to the supervisors and managers in each of its thousands of stores, and therefore, there could not have been a blanket policy of discrimination. Justice Antonin Scalia decreed it to be so and the other eight justices agreed.
Although the ruling was unanimous in that aspect, at least one justice said she would have allowed the class to pursue their case under another section of the federal rules governing class action lawsuits. But, said Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the court ruled that out by tossing the class action on the basis of failure to prove that all of the women had issues in common. The overall (unanimous) ruling precluded the women from continuing their lawsuit. Some of them indicated that they would pursue similar or ongoing cases on the store level or regional level, which will be much harder to sustain because of the high cost of litigation and the geographical breadth of the company’s properties.
Walmart knows that, as does the U.S. Supreme Court and the rest of Corporate America. Many large companies celebrated the victory over the women, especially since the decision is very likely to have the effect of discouraging future similar lawsuits and protect them from the bother of their workers seeking justice in the workplace. No one knows how long it will take before another lawsuit of this magnitude will be put together and eventually reach the high court.
One thing this decision shows is that Corporate America is inexorably tightening its control on the economy of the U.S. Its decades-long attack on unions has been an attack on the rights of American workers to even form unions. They hate unions because they tend to counterbalance the power of the combination of big business and the various legislatures, starting with the U.S. Congress. We have witnessed the recent coordinated attacks by Republican governors against their own workers, but those attacks also have a highly detrimental effect on all workers, whether in the public or private sector.
Most of Walmart’s workers reportedly are women and a sizable percentage of those women are black or other minority workers and the policies of the company, regardless of the source of the animus toward women, have harmed their ability to provide for their families. That is true whether they are line workers, supervisors, or managers. Now, for most of them, it’s back to the beginning.
Throughout America’s labor history, the militant unions continually reminded workers not to depend too much on presidents, senators, representatives, or their state or local governments to provide a measure of equity and equality in the workplace. They declared that the only way to achieve justice is to demand it. That same history is filled with examples of the struggles of workers, who were mistreated, exploited, underpaid, and made to die while working in unsafe and unhealthy conditions. When they joined the union, however, they found that they had the ability to somewhat equalize the balance of power.
Pay scales were standardized. Seniority replaced the favoritism and nepotism that are rampant in a non-union environment. For a time, workplaces became safer and healthier for all workers. It was unions that pushed passage of the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA), after all. Healthier workplaces also improved the quality of the environment outside the plant, as well.
Just last week (as if in anticipation of this week’s Walmart decision), about one hundred Walmart workers from across the country, representing the company’s workers from around the U.S., visited company headquarters in Bentonville, Ark. They are organized in a group called Organization United for Respect at Walmart (OUR Walmart). They went there with one request: that the company respect them (keep in mind that the company calls its workers “associates,” denoting something more than “employee”).
When OUR Walmart representatives went to Bentonville last week, they went with a message to company officials, contained in the new group’s “Declaration of Respect,” which is literally a list of grievances that the “associates” have with Walmart managers across the country. Basically, they said in their declaration: “The fundamental desire to be shown respect is what led us to join together as OUR Walmart, an organization of Walmart Associates, by Walmart Associates, for Walmart Associates. We are one Organization United for Respect at Walmart.”
They want the company to live up to the principles they say were established by Sam Walton, the late founder of the company, including free speech, the “open door” policy of management, freedom from bias and discrimination, and Sam Walton’s purported attitude of “respect for the individual.” When the group’s representatives stood in front of corporate headquarters in Bentonville, eventually a company spokeswoman came out to talk with them. They thought this was progress, but the company apparently made no promises on any of the issues, and then they went home.
Every one of the issues they cited in their Declaration of Respect and the problems that were addressed in the class action lawsuit (or would have been addressed, if the case had actually been heard by the Supreme Court) would be negotiated at the bargaining table, if the Walmart workers organized a union. It’s what unions do and the best of it is that the workers, including the “associates” who went to Bentonville, would be the leaders of their own union. They already have shown leadership by organizing and speaking out.
Be sure, however, that respect would come automatically if 1.5 million workers were organized into a union to talk to the bosses. The workers would not have to go to Arkansas to ask if the company would please show workers some respect. As a united front at the bargaining table or in the grievance procedure, they would face the company on equal footing and respect would come from that. No pleading. Just respect.
Surely, it will be a long process to form a Walmart union, but that’s what trumps all of the politicking, lobbying, and pleading: a union contract, as described in the laws of the land.
Whether the U.S. Supreme Court or Walmart bosses or Corporate America want to admit it or not, OUR Walmart said it all in describing the formation of their group and their visit to headquarters last week: “For many of us, this was the first time we had met other Associates who experienced similar problems from stores in other states. But when we spoke with each other for the first time, it became clear that we shared common concerns.”
Without knowing the result of the class action suit, the “associates” found that conditions were pretty much the same from store to store, all 3,400 of them. And that gave the lie to the court’s assertion that the workers were too disparate to have the wherewithal to bring a class action suit, never mind the merits.
Now, the only real advice to Walmart workers, past and present is that of the great trade unionist, organizer, and songwriter, Joe Hill, to his union brothers and sisters before he was executed by the state of Utah for a crime he didn’t commit: “Don’t waste any time in mourning… Organize!”