(WOMENSENEWS)--Major women's rights groups and unions that represent many female employees joined together Tuesday, the first day of Women's History Month, to urge the U.S. Supreme Court to approve a court hearing for a group of Wal-Mart employees' claims of company-wide sex bias.
The High Court's decision could permit allegations of gender discrimination on behalf of more than one million current and former Wal-Mart female employees to go to a public trial.
A High Court ruling could also provide guidelines for other groups of employees on what is necessary for them to claim gender bias, rather than limiting the litigation and its outcomes to individuals with specific claims.
One so-called friend of the court brief filed Tuesday was written by the National Women's Law Center and the American Civil Liberties Union. The second was filed by the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, AFL-CIO and Change to Win.
In a joint statement, the unions said, "We ask the court to uphold the fundamental pillar of the Civil Rights Act and to ensure that the class action process remains open to workers in all industries."
They were joined by 32 other organizations, including 9to5, National Association of Working Women in Milwaukee; A Better Balance: The Work and Family Legal Center in New York; the California Women's Law Center in Los Angeles; and the Coalition of Labor Union Women in Washington, D.C.
'Serious National Problem'
The women's organizations brief argues that the court should approve the hearing because doing otherwise would drastically limit the ability of employees who believe they experienced sex discrimination to rely on the courts to challenge job discrimination.
It describes sex discrimination in the workplace as a "serious national problem" that can best be addressed through class actions rather than individual claims. It adds that expert evaluations indicate that across the board female Wal-Mart employees were paid as much as 15 percent less than men doing the same job.
In addition, the brief asserts that Wal-Mart relied on individual managers to make decisions about salary increases and promotions, allowing decisions influenced by "biases and stereotypes to stand without meaningful assessment or correction."
The brief quotes one Wal-Mart senior vice president saying that one female employee "should raise a family and stay in the kitchen" rather than push for career advancement.
When she complained to her supervisor, the brief says, she was told to "shrug it off."
The Supreme Court, now with a total of three female members, is likely to ask both sides to present their cases in person and then make a decision sometime before its summer recess.
This is the largest civil rights class action--as such large lawsuits are called--in U.S. history.
Battle Started in 2001
The legal battle began in 2001 with six women claiming Wal-Mart violated federal employment law, with their claims supported by 120 documented incidents from other female employees.
In their suit, the six assert that they were paid less than men in comparable positions, despite higher performance ratings and greater seniority, and that they received fewer--and waited longer for--promotions than men.
Wal-Mart, headquartered in Bentonville, Ark., denies any systematic discrimination. The company's representatives argue that any claims should be tried individually and not as a class action.
Wal-Mart contends that the range of employees within the class is too diverse. It says that six women who have worked in 10 of the retailer's 3,400 stores nationwide cannot represent every female employee from every store--from part-time entry level hourly workers to salaried managers--over the course of a decade.
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Rita Henley Jensen is founder and editor in chief of Women's eNews.