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Staff writer Jena McGregor teases out the leadership issues in the day’s news.

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Tom Fox

Guest contributor Tom Fox, of the Partnership for Public Service, writes weekly about issues in the federal workplace.

Lillian Cunningham

Lillian Cunningham

Lillian Cunningham is the editor of On Leadership and writes features for the section.

The people’s court or a corporate court

The Wal-Mart suit is not just about discrimination against women. It’s about people working for low wages and super-sized profits for the fat cats at the top. Wal-Mart is ranked second in the Fortune 500 and is the nation's largest employer. Members of the Walton family hold four of the top ten positions on the Forbes list of the richest Americans with assets of more than $80 billion.

How much profit is too much profit? How much profit is on the backs of women and the working poor?

Wal-Mart has grown because of its low prices. But are these prices based on women not getting fair and equal pay? Lawyers for the plaintiffs cite statistics showing that women make up 80 percent of Wal-Mart's hourly workers, but only a third of its managers. Women make an average of $1,000 a year less than men. The plaintiffs were told men were paid more because they had families to support. Yet, they are single mothers as well. Low-paid single mothers can earn less than $20,000 a year with no health insurance

Wal-Mart is not really denying these charges, claiming these are not corporate practices because individual stores are their own entities and do their own hiring and promotion. But the practices stretch across the Wal-Mart empire. Consider plaintiff Hines, who noted that Wal-Mart consistently uses temporary staff and then lets them go right before they qualify for permanent employment. She believes, “this is not just an internal problem, it’s a global problem.”

 If the Supreme Court upholds the lower-court's ruling, it would mean that any woman who has worked at Wal-Mart since December 1998--likely around 1.5 million, or 1 percent of all American females--could join the suit. That should put a damper on sexual discrimination for sure. Wal-Mart claims the suit is too big and unmanageable. Interesting since the company is the largest retailer in the world and seems to be able to manage 4,300 stores in 15 countries with revenues of $405 billion. Seems like Wal-Mart can handle Big!

 What the Supreme Court needs to decide: Is it a people’s court or a corporate court? Will they uphold a decision that says sexual discrimination against women is not acceptable in the 21st century? This court has already struck down rulings barring corporations from funding political candidates that many states felt would level the political playing ground, allowing people not beholden to the corporations to run for office. Will the Supreme Court continue supporting corporations and not stop the discrimination against the mothers, daughters, wives and grandmothers who work at Wal-Mart? Will they rule for working women everywhere?

 Women’s issues after all are family and community issues, and they are human rights issues. As an early (pardon the word) feminist, I was part of a social movement that aimed to change society by creating a country that reflected women’s values. Pay equity, good education, health care, safe communities were all part of the banner women carried.  

 March was Women’s History Month, and the 100th celebration of International Women’s Day was on March 8th.  Let’s hope the Supreme Court decides on the side of American women and fulfills the dreams of those who stood up for gender equity. By doing so they will lift our country to higher ground.

Juana Bordas  | Mar 30, 2011 6:48 PM

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