Women are demanding accountability from the world's largest corporation in the biggest civil rights class action lawsuit ever filed in the United States. The case, Dukes v. Wal-Mart Stores, was filed by six current and former female Wal-Mart employees in 2001, and certified as a class action suit in June 2004. It now represents an estimated 1.5 million female workers employed by Wal-Mart or its affiliates since December 1998. Wal-Mart is the world's largest public corporation, with $350 billion in revenues in 2006 and 1.2 million employees in 3,500 stores across the United States.
The plaintiffs in the Wal-Mart case are asking for punitive damages (no amount has yet been set), recovery of lost wages and benefits, and an order to reform Wal-Mart's employment practices. They claim gender-based discrimination in decisions affecting promotions, job assignments, pay and training. For example, one employee testified that when she asked her manager why men in her position earned more than women, he told her, "Men are here to make a career and women aren't. Retail is for housewives who just need to earn extra money."
Statistical analysis of Wal-Mart's personnel database conducted by expert witnesses for the case found that from 1996 to 2002, women represented 65 per cent of hourly employees, but only 33 per cent of management positions. In addition, women earned less than men in the same positions: female hourly workers earned about $1,100 less annually than men in hourly positions, and female managers earned $14,500 less than male managers, for an average of $5,200 less overall in 2001.
Since the lawsuit, Wal-Mart has voluntarily established a $25 million private equity fund to support women and minority-owned small businesses, begun implementation of diversity goals tied to incentive bonuses for managerial positions, and established an Employment Practices Advisory Panel composed of experts to advise senior management on developing and meeting diversity and equal employment opportunity initiatives.
In 2005, Wal-Mart appealed the class action decision to a Circuit Court, which upheld the class-action certification. Wal-Mart has since asked a larger panel of judges on the Court of Appeals to rehear the case and issue a new decision on the class certification. For this to happen, all 27 judges must vote for a rehearing. If the court denies the rehearing, or grants it and the rehearing upholds the class-action certification, Wal-Mart is expected to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Wal-Mart has disputed the certification of the case as a class-action suit on the grounds that it does not meet the requirement of exhibiting common issues and practices, and that the certification hinders the company's ability to respond to defendants' claims individually.