By Liza Featherstone
Thursday, June 12, 2003
A stepped-up campaign by NOW and a related shareholder resolution are raising the equal-pay pressure on Wal-Mart, which faces a class-action lawsuit for gender-pay discrimination by some of its female employees.
FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (WOMENSENEWS)--Between a shareholder resolution and a new protest campaign by the National Organization for Women, the equal-pay pressure is intensifying on Wal-Mart. The retail giant is facing a gender-discrimination lawsuit with the potential to become the largest civil-rights class-action settlement in history.
At the Fayetteville, Ark., company's annual shareholders' meeting last Friday, a women's rights activist introduced a resolution requiring the company to disclose data about its promotion practices related to women and minorities. Meanwhile, the National Organization for Women is about to kick off a new campaign against the mega retailer later this month, in hopes of heightening awareness among shoppers of what NOW considers the store's unfair treatment of female employees.
NOW's campaign is based in part on an expert's testimony in Dukes v. Wal-Mart, a sex-discrimination suit against the retailer, which asserts that women--despite lower turnover rates and better performance ratings than men--are over-represented in the lowest-paying hourly jobs and are paid less than men doing the same jobs. These disparities exist in every region in which Wal-Mart operates, according to testimony in the case.
Barbara Aires of the Sisters of Charity, a member of the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility in New York City, introduced a resolution urging the company to annually disclose numbers or percentages of women and racial minorities holding each job at Wal-Mart and to provide a description of its current efforts to improve diversity.
"Equal opportunity provides a competitive advantage," she said in an address to other shareholders at the meeting, where she argued that women and minorities working at Wal-Mart had a right to know whether they were making progress at the company. Aires said at the meeting that she has been urging the company to improve its policies toward women and minorities for a decade, adding that the Duke class action was "something we have tried to help the company avoid."
In an indication that shareholders are at least somewhat concerned about the company's wage-and-gender issues, Aires' proposal did better than any other social resolution proposed at the meeting. It received approximately 12 percent of shareholder votes, while a resolution on labor standards received about 4 percent and one on genetically modified food drew some 3 percent. The company will publish a final count of shareholder votes in its next quarterly report, due out in August.
(At Wal-Mart, as at most companies, the company votes in the place of shareholders who don't come to the meeting or who mail in proxy ballots.) Most shareholder votes are controlled by institutional investors, who tend to vote the company's position. In that context, Aires' proposal did very well, says veteran shareholder activist Conrad McKerron of the San Francisco-based As You Sow Foundation. "It's amazing at a company like Wal-Mart," he says.
Wal-Mart opposed this resolution, defending its current efforts to promote women and minorities. The company argued, in proxy materials distributed to shareholders, that the employment data "could be manipulated or misinterpreted by those with interests adverse to Wal-Mart." Wal-Mart executives meanwhile seemed eager to present the company as a good employer for women. They cited the company's recent efforts to promote women into management positions, such as a "Leadership Express" program designed to speed employees into management, in which 50 percent of the participants are women, in contrast to previous management-trainee programs at the company, in which 41 percent were women. Overall, one third of Wal-Mart's salaried managers are women, though two thirds of its workforce is female. Since the lawsuit was filed in June 2001, Wal-Mart has also revived its "Women in Leadership" seminars, which offer training and networking for women in management, last conducted in the mid-1990s.
The company also showed a video in which a female employee was shown with her children, smiling. "It's difficult to have a family and a career," the employee tells the camera, "but my company makes it easier. My company takes family very seriously." (The employee, however, doesn't cite any specific examples of Wal-Mart's family-friendly policies.)
In what organizers dub an "Adopt a Store" campaign, NOW members nationwide are planning, later this month, to begin going into local Wal-Mart stores, wearing buttons displaying the message: "Wal-Mart Always Discriminates," a play on the retailer's slogan "Wal-Mart: Always Low Prices," which employees wear on badges. The NOW button "has a little smiley face, it's really cute--a smiley face that's frowning!" laughs Olga Vives, NOW's vice president for action.
At least once a week, NOW plans on having its activists go into their chosen store and distribute palm-sized cards that ask, "Wal-Mart: Always Low Prices, But Who Pays?" On the back, the card gives information about the lawsuit and urges customers to "talk to your Wal-Mart's store manager and ask for an end to unfair discrimination against women."
If the activists are asked to leave, says Vives, they will, "but they'll take the opportunity, when they're kicked out, to talk with managers about our concerns." Vives adds that the activists will then stand in the parking lot, distributing palm cards to customers entering and leaving the store. If they get kicked out one week, Vives says, she hopes they'll go back the following week. "It's going to be a repeated attempt to go in and inform consumers," she says.
Many local NOW chapters are enthusiastically embracing the "Adopt-a-Store" campaign, says Vives. "Our people just love it. We are expecting a lot of activity." At least 20 NOW chapters, representing some 500 or 600 activists, are planning actions. Many of the chapters are in California, where the lawsuit--which is in a San Francisco federal court--has received greater press attention than elsewhere in the country. Chapters in Boise, Idaho, Springfield, Mo., and Nassau County, N.Y., are also adopting stores.
The Philadelphia chapter will kick off its campaign on June 18, with a broad coalition of labor and community groups. NOW is also approaching about 100 other women's organizations about joining the campaign. Meanwhile, the Coalition of Labor Union Women, based in Washington, D.C., which has about 20,000 members in chapters throughout the country, has joined. Dozens of chapters of the Women's Network of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, based in Washington, D.C., will also be adopting stores.
Susan Phillips, vice president and treasurer of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, head of that union's "working women's" department and treasurer of the Coalition of Labor Union Women, calls the NOW campaign a "direct way to bring an economic message both to consumers and workers in the stores." By letting consumers know that women working at Wal-Mart make an average of 37 cents an hour less than male employees, Phillips says the campaign will help shoppers "make informed choices about whether they want to support that kind of discrimination."
Last year, to protest what it sees as Wal-Mart's discriminatory practices against its female employees, the Washington-based NOW led pickets against the company. While that effort did not have any discernible effect on Wal-Mart sales, which totaled $245 billion in fiscal year 2003 and $218 billion the previous year, it helped NOW build coalitions with unions and other groups protesting Wal-Mart for other or related workplace issues.
"This is a more direct action," says NOW's Vives, in contrast to the "Adopt-a-Store" campaign to the pickets. "It's more aggressive and it puts more pressure on the company. It also provides Wal-Mart workers with more visible support. We are asking our local activists to go into a store of their adoption in their local area and bring to the attention of consumers the reasons why Wal-Mart sells for less. Low prices come at the expense of women workers."
Liza Featherstone is writing "This Woman's Work: Poverty, Discrimination, and the Nation's Largest Private Employer," a book about sex discrimination at Wal-Mart, to be published by Basic Books in late 2004.
Wal-Mart Class Website:
National Organization for Women--
"NOW Brings 'Merchant of Shame' Campaign Into Wal-Mart Stores Nationwide":
Coalition of Labor Union Women--
"Wal-Mart workers need a union!":