Selling Women Short

Journalist Liza Featherstone on the battle for workers' -- and women's -- rights at Wal-Mart.

| Wed Feb. 2, 2005 3:00 AM EST

Wal-Mart is the largest private employer in the U.S., with 1.2 million workers. It's also one of the most controversial, by now virtually synonymous with low wages, workplace discrimination, union-busting, and right-wing Christianity.

In her new book, Selling Women Short: The Landmark Battle for Workers’ Rights at Wal-Mart, Liza Featherstone details the rise of the company and its uniquely insular and centralized corporate culture, describing how its commitment to low prices screws its workers, especially its female workers, while delighting consumers.

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Founded in northwest Arkansas in 1962 by Sam Walton, Wal-Mart initially catered to rural America. Walton's vision was to bring everyday people low prices in a central location. He styled himself a champion of “family values,” encouraging women not to work so hard they would neglect their families. This tended in practice to mean that women rarely rose to managerial positions, and almost never to executive posts. Wal-Mart never formally examined its sex-based promotion policies and pay scales.

Until 2001, that is, when a veteran employee became the lead plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit against the company. Betty Dukes has worked at the Pittsburg, Calif. Wal-Mart since 1994, and it’s her name that’s attached to the suit claiming, on behalf of past and present female Wal-Mart employees, that the company systematically discriminated against them as women. The suit alleges, among other things, sexual harassment and gender-biased wage scales and promotion policies.

In June 2004, a San Francisco judge ruled that the 1.6 million women workers constitute a class for the sake of the case. Although Wal-Mart is appealing that decision -- with a decision due some time in spring-- Dukes vs. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. is currently the largest civil rights class-action suit in U.S. history.

Featherstone's book introduces the reader to Betty Dukes and a handful of other plaintiffs in the case, and more broadly to Wal-Mart's complex corporate culture and the surprising loyalty it evokes in many of its workers.

Featherstone, a journalist who has written extensively about student and youth organizing, recently spoke with MotherJones.com from her home in New York City.

MotherJones.com: What's the problem with Wal-Mart per se?

Liza Featherstone: The problem with Wal-Mart is that it’s a business model premised on offering the customer low prices at any cost—any cost to society, any cost to workers. They’ve got a lot of competition and have influenced people to follow their model through simply providing a model that is so successful at making profits.

It’s through neglecting all other values to bring the customer the lowest price that Wal-Mart ended up with such a horrible sex discrimination problem, but that model produces lots and lots of other problems as well, which I think are possibly going to be more difficult to fix.

MJ.com: Like what?

LF: Low wages. Extremely skimpy benefits. Wal-Mart workers make just over $8 an hour, and they must pay more than a third of their health insurance premium if they choose to take the company’s insurance. That means just about half of them don’t choose to take the health insurance because they can’t afford it.

That this is the nation’s largest private employer and that the jobs it produces are so terrible is a serious problem, and it’s not one that can be fixed simply through lawsuits or even through shaming the company through bad publicity.

MJ.com: How much do you think the sexism that goes on at Wal-Mart is a function of its having grown out of the South in the ‘60s, and how much is more an intentional, institutional practice?

LF: Well, I do think that the [Wal-Mart] corporate culture lagged way behind many other American corporations in terms of making progress on women’s issues, and that had a lot to do with being based in northwest Arkansas. Rhonda Harper, a woman who was a vice president in marketing at Sam’s Club, a division of Wal-Mart, has testified in the case that the old-boy culture at Wal-Mart headquarters had a lot to do with the fact that many of the people had never lived outside of northwest Arkansas and hadn’t worked for other companies.

[However,] I think it wouldn’t be quite fair to say that it was because it was in the South, because when we look at the statistics for Southern companies, they actually do have as many top female managers as companies in the rest of the country.

The lawsuit is one of the many things that is happening to change the company as it is moving into more urban areas and more coastal areas of the country. As Wal-Mart expands into these areas, it is challenged more often by organized labor, for the same kinds of reasons.

MJ.com: Do you think that that will, in the long run, positively influence Wal-Mart?

LF: I think it could. As Wal-Mart is under pressure from constituencies that demand better corporate behavior, I think that could have a positive effect on Wal-Mart. On the other hand, I think all of these constituencies are going to have to be very organized and very clever about how to bring pressure on Wal-Mart, because Wal-Mart itself is extremely centralized and getting more adept at managing its image.

MJ.com: How successful do you think an organizing effort at Wal-Mart can be, given that the National Labor Relations Board is appointed by George W. Bush, no friend of labor?

LF: The conservative judges appointed to the NLRB are a formidable obstacle, and so is the anti-labor legislation that the Bush administration will continue to push. I think a lot of people [in the labor movement] are beginning to understand that to organize Wal-Mart, they are going to have to find ways of doing it without asking the permission of the employer and without asking the permission of the government.

One idea that’s come up that seems to be gaining some traction among people in the AFL-CIO is the idea of a Wal-Mart workers’ association, as something that workers could join, regardless of which Wal-Mart they work in. That could give them a structure to organize in that they could join without Wal-Mart’s permission.

MJ.com: If the United Food and Commercial Workers were even to be more vocal about organizing Wal-Mart, is that a win for working America—just getting the word out more?

LF: Getting the word out is always helpful, and anything that improves the lives of people working for Wal-Mart is a win not just for Wal-Mart workers, but for all workers, because Wal-Mart is such an influential company.

Only 8 percent of private sector workers belong to a union at all, so if the largest private sector employer were organized, that would be an amazing boost to labor’s political strength. But also, I think any way that Wal-Mart’s power to abuse workers’ rights is curbed sets an example to other employers. So even if Wal-Mart workers are still not organized, if [the company isn’t] getting away with paying such low wages, if it’s not getting away with breaking overtime laws, anything like that is a triumph.

MJ.com: Would you talk about the link between organizing Wal-Mart and women’s rights?

LF: I think there’s a tremendously important connection there. A lot of studies have shown that when workers are unionized, the wage gap between male and female employees is much smaller, promotions are fairer. Unionized retail companies have a much larger percentage of female management than non-unionized retail companies do. The fact that Wal-Mart is not unionized has been crucial to the question of how have they gotten away with discriminating against women for so long. When promotions and pay decisions are essentially arbitrary and based on whether your boss likes you, discrimination persists, and in any non-union workplace promotions and pay are going to be essentially arbitrary.

MJ.com: As you were researching the book, were you shocked at the sexism you found?

LF: Sometimes I couldn’t believe it. I think we’ve become accustomed to thinking that blatant sexism is a thing of the past and women’s rights issues are much more subtle and nuanced now. Working on this Wal-Mart story, I must say, changed my mind about all that. There are a lot of 1950s-type issues that we’re still dealing with.

But it also made me realize that frequently, middle-class and professional women are more insulated from the most blatant sexism that goes on in the workplace. The less power you have as an employee, the more subject you are to absolutely ridiculous comments and to being treated with a lack of dignity.

MJ.com: Did you find the verbal sexism occurring pretty evenly across the board, across the country?

LF: Some of the more ludicrous sexism was coming more out of what we would call the Red State areas. But then again, I’m sure that the women all over the country who were paid less and promoted less felt just as insulted as the people who were being told that God made Adam first [as one worker in South Carolina allegedly was told by a supervisor].

MJ.com: Wal-Mart has styled itself as a Christian, family values-based company, but clearly it doesn't live up to its stated values. What are the implications of this in George W. Bush's America?

LF: I think the implications are tremendous. Wal-Mart has positioned itself in the public eye as being this patriotic, Christian, family-values company. It plays off of Red State-Blue State tension. There’s a sense that Wal-Mart, having gotten its start in the rural areas of this country, is of the people, that it’s in touch with the real America and it’s critics are elitist.

If that sounds familiar, it is very much like the way the Republican Party has presented itself in relation to the Democrats. I think that a lot of people believe that rhetoric, believe that Wal-Mart really is about family and about values and that’s part of the reason they want to work and shop there. Lots of people told me they went to work at Wal-Mart because they thought it was a Christian company.

MJ.com: How does Wal-Mart sustain that image?

LF: Through its own rhetoric, but also through actions. They easily give in to pressure from conservative Christian groups about what kinds of cultural products they should sell. These kinds of concessions to the Christian Right help convince rural Christian people that Wal-Mart is really on their side. Something I think is really powerful about the sex discrimination lawsuit is the extent to which people are disillusioned when they realize that what they meant by Christianity is not what Wal-Mart meant.

Many of the plaintiffs in this lawsuit are Christian women. They thought that being Christian meant treating people decently. So when Wal-Mart discriminated against them, didn’t give them promotions that they were promised, didn’t pay them enough to hire a babysitter for their kids, they were really disappointed. I think these are very sad stories, because Wal-Mart is abusing people’s trust and sense of morality. But I [also] think they offer a little bit of hope: When we see these surveys showing that people think moral values are really important, a lot of what people mean by moral values isn’t just preventing your gay neighbors from getting married. People mean a lot of different things by [values], and some of them are the same things that we mean as progressives.

That doesn’t mean you want to cut people any slack on letting the gay neighbors get married. But I do think there’s a lot of hope, because I think people get very angry when they discover that some of this rhetoric about values [at Wal-Mart] is nonsense. I think that has profound implications for the Republican Party and its future. People could end up being quite angry with them as well.

MJ.com: To what extent do you think blue-state progressives just don’t understand Wal-Mart?

LF: I think that a lot of progressive people don’t understand the intense loyalty that people feel towards the company. There are two different ways in which I think people don’t quite grasp that. One is it’s hard for a lot of progressives to understand why the workers, even the workers who are suing the company now, still believe in the company. People are always asking me why does Betty Dukes still work at Wal-Mart? In her case, it’s partly because she genuinely doesn’t have a lot of very good options. There are not a lot of other places to work in her town. But it’s also that she wants to make Wal-Mart live up to its promises because she really believed in those promises. That is something I think is very difficult for a lot of people to understand. It’s not that people are stupid or easily taken in by these kinds of promises. It’s that these promises are so appealing. Even when you experience that they’re not true, you would still like to believe that it’s possible.

Another thing that I think a lot of progressives have some trouble understanding is why people continue to shop at Wal-Mart. In response to this book, people will say, “How can all this information be coming out about Wal-Mart, and yet people will still shop there?” That, I think, is not just a cultural question, but also a material question—unlike the Republican Party, Wal-Mart does deliver something material to ordinary people, which is low prices. Their prices are so low that in many places people have very little choice but to shop there.

MJ.com: Have you ever shopped at Wal-Mart?

LF:I have, years ago, but not recently. It’s one of those things that you’re almost not really engaged in America if you’ve never shopped there.

MJ.com: As you tell it, many of the women don’t think unions are the best fit for Wal-Mart. And even though progressives might think a union would help immensely, people working there sometimes have other ideas.

LF: Yeah. As progressives, we have this tendency to think that people are distracted by cultural values and cultural issues, but we don’t necessarily pay attention to how much people actually believe ideologies of economic conservatism. They are not just distracted into swallowing that; they actually buy it. A lot of Wal-Mart workers that I interviewed believed the company line about unions, and not just because the company told them. It’s also really out there in the culture—that unions are a special interest, that they’re corrupt, and that individuals are best off speaking for themselves. Wal-Mart taps right into that. When there is a union drive in the store, they give out buttons to the anti-union employees that say, “I can speak for myself.” One of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit who went 15 years without a promotion still doesn’t believe in unions. She says, “I have a big enough mouth.” It’s a matter of pride for a lot of people, you know—I wouldn’t need something like that.

The unions have to figure out how to make the point that between you as an individual and Wal-Mart is not a fair fight. However articulate and great you may be on your own, you are no match for them, and your interests are really not the same as theirs.

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