It began with six women, 10 years ago - and now the world's biggest retailer Walmart could face a potential class action involving more than a million female employees, as Felicity Spector writes.
It started with just six women - and a discrimination complaint they made more than ten years ago. Now it's a potential class action case involving more than a million female employees, pitched against Walmart, the world's biggest retail firm. And if the Supreme Court allows the class action suit to go ahead - it could become the largest in history - involving millions of women across the United States - and billions of pounds.
The Supreme Court justices will begin hearing the arguments today over the womens' claim that they've been paid less and given fewer promotions than men, at almost three and a half thousand US stores, going back as far as 1998. On the other side - Walmart's lawyers will say the women don't have enough in common to band their cases together in a single suit. The court's expected to rule in late June - a decision which could have profound implications for legal disputes involving major firms and their employees.
Christine Kwapnoski says when she told her boss that she wanted a promotion, he told her 'blow the cobwebs off your makeup'.
The womens' case is named after 61-year-old Betty Dukes, who worked as a store greeter in Pittsburg, California - and complained about being underpaid. She joined together with five other women, including Christine Kwapnoski, also from California, who says when she told her boss that she wanted a promotion, he told her "blow the cobwebs off your makeup" and suggested that she should "doll up" to get further ahead at work.
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She still works for the firm - but claims that promotions were rarely advertised, and were usually given by men, to men. And she says Walmart is still riddled with discriminatory practices. Other allegations which have emerged during the 10 year lawsuit include managers routinely going to strip clubs while they were attending management meetings - and holding business meetings in the restaurant chain Hooters, known for its skimpily-clad waitresses.
When the suit was first brought, the plaintiff's laywers produced figures showing women made up around two thirds of the lower level employees - but barely a third of management. And they claimed women were paid, on average, more than a dollar an hour less than men in the same job, even though they performed better, and had more seniority and a lower turnover rate.
Kwapnoski says she would never have got anywhere if she'd tried to bring a case on her own: "My voice against Walmart? Are you kidding me? They would sweep me under the carpet real fast. When we band together, then Walmart has to listen to us."
The retail giant has rejected the discrimination claims - saying it has a long history of providing women with opportunities to move ahead. And it claims more than 90 per cent of its stores show no statistical difference in the hourly pay rates of men and women who have similar jobs.
My voice against Walmart? Are you kidding me? They would sweep me under the carpet real fast. Betty Dukes, plaintiff
Executive Vice President of Human Resources, Gisel Ruiz, said: "Thousands of women have begun their careers at Walmart, and have risen to leadership roles." She herself worked her way up from assistant manager trainee, and says her experience doesn't reflect the allegations the claimants are making.
Too big to sue?
But today's hearing doesn't concern the substance of the case. Walmart is arguing that it's just too big to be sued in a single, nationwide trial - and that female staff from all different levels and some 3,400 stores can't be counted as a single group. Walmart's lawyer Ted Boutros says the women have "pushed class action rules to the breaking point...The plaintiffs swung for the fences...to come up with a theory that would allow them to ensnare major companies in these huge class actions 'to get a quick settlement'".
But lawyers for the female plaintiffs disagree - arguing that no company should be exempt from civil rights laws, and no firm too big to be held accountable. They're seeking a verdict that would transform the balance of power between employers and their workforce.
But other major employers are concerned that they could be vulnerable to similar suits - if the Supreme Court allows this one to go ahead. The US Chamber of Commerce, in a legal brief, said a mass lawsuit would "likely provoke an avalanche of new class action litigation". And more than 20 leading US firms, including General Electric and Microsoft, have lent their support to Walmart - for fear their businesses could be ruined.
Now it's up to the claimants to prove there was gender discrimination at Walmart on a truly mass scale. They say that the company, which made sales worth more than $400 billion last year, has more than enough cash to pay out. As Betty Dukes, one of the original six, put it - "A class action gives us a fair shot. That is all we ask for."