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2005-07-01

Selling Women Short: The Landmark Battle for Workers’ Rights at Wal-Mart

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We speak with Liza Featherstone, author of "Selling Women Short: The Landmark Battle for Workers’ Rights at Wal-Mart" about a case representing 1.6 million women–past and present Wal-Mart employees–who are charging the company with sex discrimination in pay, promotions and training at every corporation level. [includes rush transcript]

  • Liza Featherstone, author of "Selling Women Short: The Landmark Battle for Workers’ Rights at Wal-Mart." She continues to write on Wal-Mart for The Nation and many other publications.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to Liza Featherstone, author of the book, Selling Women Short: The Landmark Battle for Workers’ Rights at Wal-Mart, looking at Wal-Mart here at home. Then we’ll go on to talk about CAFTA and its passage by the Senate. Liza Featherstone, your comments on Wal-Mart here at home?

LIZA FEATHERSTONE: Sure. Well, sadly, the conditions that James Lynn reported in the factory in Honduras have quite a few echoes here at home. James Lynn reported seeing wage and hour violations. Wal-Mart has been sued in at least 39 states for wage and hour violations here. That includes employees say they were told to clock out and keep working and not be paid for the hours they worked. Often they were locked into the stores and forbidden to leave. I believe padlocked fire exits were something also mentioned in Lynn’s report. And a lack of drinkable water on the premises was also something that James Lynn observed. I heard just the other day from a Wal-Mart worker saying that the — there was no drinkable water in her store, and workers were being forced to buy bottled water from Wal-Mart out of their $8 an hour wages.

AMY GOODMAN: That was here in the United States?

LIZA FEATHERSTONE: Here in the United States. So, there’s really quite a lot of parallels, unfortunately.

JUAN GONZALEZ: You know, we often talk about Wal-Mart being the biggest company in the world, but I don’t think we really grasp what that means in terms of the size of this company. I saw a recent article that said that as of 2004, Wal-Mart was running 240 stores in Canada, 92 in Germany, 664 Wal-Mart stores in Mexico, 54 in Puerto Rico, 145 in Brazil. What is the impact of Wal-Mart on the general retailing business, both in the United States and around the world? What’s its impact in terms of labor conditions and the treatment of workers?

LIZA FEATHERSTONE: The impact has been absolutely tremendous. The — on the one hand it’s created a very competitive environment where all retailers have to try to do what Wal-Mart does, which is bring the customer the lowest possible price and that means the lowest possible labor costs. So, not only are workers paid legally about $8 an hour, $9 an hour in the U.S., but also they break every possible labor law in order to cut corners further. They have actually also been charged with child labor violations, and have recently had to settle a case with the federal government on that issue. So, that is — it’s really been, you know, to use a cliché, a race to the bottom.

AMY GOODMAN: Dukes v. Wal-Mart, can you explain that lawsuit?

LIZA FEATHERSTONE: Sure. Dukes v. Wal-Mart is the largest civil rights class action suit in history. And that’s a case representing 1.6 million women, past and present employees of Wal-Mart, charging Wal-Mart with sex discrimination in pay, promotions and training at every level of the company and in every region of the company and throughout its history.

AMY GOODMAN: Who is Betty Dukes?

LIZA FEATHERSTONE: Betty Dukes is an African American woman. She’s 54 years old now, still working for Wal-Mart. She’s a greeter at Wal-Mart, the person who says, "Welcome to Wal-Mart," when you come in in Pittsburg, California. And her experience was she began working at Wal-Mart in 1994 as a cashier at $5 an hour. Very committed to the company, she believed she was working for a Christian company. She was excited about that. She had great regard for the founder, Sam Walton. And what she found, though, was that she worked hard, she was promoted to customer service manager, still an hourly position. Once she got there, she found she was repeatedly denied the training that she needed both to do her job and to advance further, and she saw that training given to men who were younger, white and newer to the company. When she complained about that, she was demoted back to her cashier job, which offered her a lower wage and also fewer hours. So, it was very hard for her to get by and continues to be.

AMY GOODMAN: Where does the suit stand now?

LIZA FEATHERSTONE: The suit is — Wal-Mart does — the suit last summer was granted certification by a federal judge. And that means that the judge ruled that it could go forward as a class action suit. Wal-Mart has appealed that decision, but the parties may reach a settlement before Wal-Mart’s appeal is decided.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And you say that when she went to work there, she considered Wal-Mart a Christian company.

LIZA FEATHERSTONE: Yes.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Does Wal-Mart espouse certain religious principles to its employees or claim that it operates under certain religious principles?

LIZA FEATHERSTONE: There’s a lot of mythology within Wal-Mart that is not explicitly fomented at the top levels, but is widely believed by the employees. And a notion that it’s a Christian company is one of those things that Wal-Mart strategically appeases its Christian customers and Christian constituencies, often refusing to carry certain titles in its store, you know, famously, it didn’t carry the Jon Stewart book, America: The Book, because of the naked Supreme Court Justices. Things like that.

AMY GOODMAN: Also, Plan B, the morning-after pill?

LIZA FEATHERSTONE: Yes, exactly. Wal-Mart does not carry the morning-after pill. It’s the only major pharmacy to flatly refuse to carry that drug. And that’s again part of what convinces people that, you know, that it is a Christian company. However, as people like Betty Dukes have found, if you actually believe in what are traditionally thought of as Christian principles of treating people decently, you will be disappointed in Wal-Mart.

AMY GOODMAN: Selling Women Short, is the name of Liza Featherstone’s book, The Landmark Battle for Workers’ Rights at Wal-Mart.

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