Fighting the Wal-Mart Plague

Against the Current, No. 118, September/October 2005

Karen Miller

Selling Women Short:
The Landmark Battle for Workers’ Rights at Wal-Mart
by Liza Featherstone
New York: Basic Books. 282 pages.
$25 hardcover.

LIZA FEATHERSTONE OFFERS a devastating portrait of rampant sex discrimination at Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. Women working for the company at all levels — from cashier positions to the highest levels of corporate marketing — have been paid less than their male coworkers and offered far fewer raises and promotions.

Featherstone uses Dukes, et al. v. Wal- Mart Stores, Inc., the biggest class-action lawsuit in American history, as the starting point for her story about women workers at Wal-Mart. In fact, she devotes four of her seven chapters to a discussion of Dukes.

The case, which began in 2000, charges Wal-Mart with systematic sex discrimination in promotions and pay at Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club stores (Wal-Mart’s members-only warehouse chain, named after the company’s founder, Sam Walton). Featherstone uses interviews with plaintiffs, witnesses and lawyers, as well as “experts’ reports” and transcripts of depositions taken by both sides, to reconstruct the plaintiffs’ case against Wal-Mart.

The suit covers current and former women workers at Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club stores across the country. In June 2004, plaintiffs won certification for a nationwide class that covers approximately 1.6 million women. Unlike most class-action lawsuits, which are restricted to a region of the country, this case covers all women workers at every Wal-Mart or Sam’s Club in the nation.

Featherstone’s treatment of Dukes is filled with engaging anecdotes about scores of women workers, each of whom faced sex discrimination at one or more Wal-Mart or Sam’s Club stores.

Most of the women she profiles struggled with discrimination at multiple stores, failed repeatedly to win promotions into management, and were paid less than less-experienced men with fewer responsibilities and worse evaluations. Many also faced harassment on the job, including quite a few who heard from their superiors that women did not belong in management positions and that they should be home taking care of their kids.

Even Wal-Mart’s own managers and executives provide damning evidence. “One of Wal-Mart’s own internal reports,” Featherstone explains, “showed that stereotypes about women are pervasive in the company and have been a huge barrier for women seeking promotions.”

Featherstone reports that managers consistently maintained a sexist and male-oriented culture at Wal-Mart stores. One woman, for example, had a regional manager who insisted on holding meetings at a local Hooters restaurant, a national chain famous for its scantily-clad waitresses (some of whom have filed their own sex discrimination lawsuits against their employer).

Featherstone also discusses women’s experiences with sexism at the company’s headquarters, even though these women are not part of the class-action lawsuit.

Avalanche of Sexism

Featherstone deftly integrates statistical information into her discussion as well, providing some of the most devastating evidence in the aggregate and supporting it with an avalanche of anecdotes.

For example, she explains, women represent the vast majority of hourly workers at the company’s stores (roughly 70%), but account for a far smaller proportion of managers (less than one-third). Since managers are promoted out of the hourly workforce, this figure demonstrates the rampant sexism in promotions across the country.

Furthermore, Wal-Mart pays men more than women in every job category, from the bottom of the pay scale to the top. The proportional difference between men’s and women’s pay actually increases as their salaries rise.

At the top of the scale it was the most extreme: Male district managers made 35% more than women in the same job category; male regional vice presidents made 50% more than their female colleagues. Women held only 10% of those top jobs. Overall, the average woman working full-time for Wal-Mart made $5,000 less per year than the average man in 2001.

Plaintiffs’ lawyers, Featherstone explains, are arguing that Wal-Mart is responsible for this discrimination at the corporate level. Rather than isolated behavior on the part of a few sexist men, corporate policies, practices and culture have promoted sexism and sex discrimination at Wal-Mart’s stores.

Featherstone uses her second chapter to examine Wal-Mart’s corporate culture, trace the company’s recent growth, and explore how sexism has shaped Wal-Mart from the top. Her portrait of Wal-Mart culture first highlights the company’s management practices and then exposes the rampant sexism at its executive and managerial levels.

Ultimately, she concludes, “sexism is a visible part of the company culture, even at the highest levels.” (71)

Corporate Cult

Struck by corporate practices that some workers and observers find “cultlike,” Featherstone describes aspects of the company’s 2003 annual meeting as a cross between “a revival meeting and a riotous football game.” (51)

An arena full of 20,000 people, she explains, most of whom were Wal-Mart workers, participated in a “call and response ritual” designed to help inculcate a sense of ownership over the company. Numerous times throughout the day, between substance-free pep talks from company executives and at least one “Star-Spangled Banner” sing-along, the entire arena erupted in unison, responding to the question, “whose Wal-Mart is it?,” with a resounding chorus of “it’s my Wal-Mart!”

Just a tiny fraction of Wal-Mart’s enormous workforce participates in the company’s annual meetings, but Featherstone demonstrates that the “shared language, values and rituals” on display at these meetings can be seen in every one of Wal-Mart’s stores.

The company is aggressively centralized; it maintains a “famously uniform culture” that is regularly celebrated in the business press. The persistent relocation of managers from store to store, the practice of promoting from within the company, ongoing training and daily meetings for workers all help “socialize” Wal-Mart’s workforce.

This socialization is largely based on myths that the company produces about itself and its relationship to its workers and customers. Readers familiar with management innovations popularized in the 1970s and 1980s such as the team concept, the encouragement of worker input, feedback and “participation,” and attempts to produce the feeling that a company is a worker’s “family,” will enjoy learning about Wal-Mart’s version of these tactics.

Wal-Mart’s heroization of Sam Walton as a regular guy, its obsessive celebration of and commitment to the “common man,” and its self-congratulatory identification with rural America, are central components of these management (and marketing) strategies. In fact, Featherstone argues, Sam Walton and his successors have been “geniuses at myth production.” (53)

Wal-Mart, she suggests, pioneered some of these strategies and has been handsomely rewarded for its innovations. Featherstone does an excellent job explaining these tactics and, while taking them seriously, clearly enjoys poking fun at some of the company’s most patently ridiculous mythologies and corporate practices.

She also highlights disturbing contradictions between Wal-Mart’s image and reality. For example, Sam Walton is frequently portrayed as a religious family man who was entirely self-made. Walton was none of these things: He was not religious, spent little time with his family, and opened his first store with money borrowed from his wife’s well- appointed parents.

Corporate boosters and managers, however, use these characteristics to show that Wal-Mart is fair and that the company cares about regular people. As Featherstone reminds her readers, these mythologies have material consequences: A worker who believes that her company is just may feel less inclined to fight for her rights, believe that she is being exploited, or complain about discrimination.

The Will to Believe

Featherstone is both puzzled and impressed by the practically blind devotion that she observes Wal-Mart workers holding for the company. She argues that workers’ commitment to Wal-Mart and to its founder, Sam Walton, are evidence that management has been terrifically successful at socializing workers into company culture. “People,” she explains, “believe in [Wal-Mart] and want very badly to be part of it.” (66)

This will to believe is extremely tenacious. Almost every one of the women Featherstone interviewed, or whose testimony she culled from depositions, claims to have believed in the company and its promises for many, many years. While most of them were finally disillusioned by the persistent discrimination that they faced, others continue to believe in the company, even as they participate in the class-action suit.

These women watched less qualified men get promoted above them, found out that they made less money than their male coworkers, and even faced termination for no apparent reason, but still hold on to the idea that Wal-Mart is an honest, well-intentioned company that treats its workers with respect. Many women participating in the case,

Featherstone explains, “are eager to go back to Wal-Mart if the Dukes plaintiffs win the lawsuit.” (49)

Featherstone argues that the Dukes lawsuit is a product of workers’ trust in the company and their subsequent disappointment. The plaintiffs, she suggests, were motivated to act because they “believed fervently in Wal-Mart’s promises… The lawsuit originated in their disappointment.”

Indeed the majority of Featherstone’s informants use this story about first loving Wal-Mart, and then losing faith in the company, to explain why they got involved in Dukes. Featherstone also relies on this narrative to explain why workers chose to participate in the lawsuit.

I was left wondering, however, why so many women tell such a similar story. Is it because they believed so religiously in the Wal-Mart myth, as they say they did? Or is it possible that this story is as crafted as Sam Walton’s? Could plaintiffs in this case be using a story about faith and disappointment in order to cast themselves as trusting innocents maligned by the company they loved?

I am not trying to suggest that these women are lying about their commitment to Wal-Mart or misrepresenting their experiences. Instead, I am proposing that they are aware of how their claims are consumed.

Collectively and individually, they are casting themselves as devoted employees — women who did well at their jobs and were not, by any means, chronic complainers. In fact, this is an image and a take on the company that seems designed to suggest that Wal-Mart could be a good company, if only it ended its discriminatory practices — a take that gibes perfectly with the idea of a class- action lawsuit.

As Featherstone acknowledges, class- action suits are supposed to reform companies’ management practices, but they are not intended to shift the balance of power between corporations and workers.

Out the Door

I also wondered whether Featherstone took workers’ testimony about their devotion to Wal-Mart a bit too literally. She does provide evidence of skeptics mocking and undermining management strategies to foster inclusivity. For example, Wal-Mart insists that workers can take a complaint “to any level of the organization and it will be heard without repercussion,” something called the “Open Door” policy.

Featherstone explains that “this notion is ridiculed by many workers, who describe it as the ‘Out the Door’ policy because of the company’s practice of firing complainers.” (69) However, she does not cast these practices as significant threats to the company’s ability to indoctrinate its workers. Instead, she suggests that most workers are drawn in to Wal-Mart’s culture and “flattered” by its humanizing management practices.

“Wal-Mart,” she explains, “uses the term ‘associate,’ never ‘employee;’ Sam’s Club uses ‘partner.’ Such language seems flattering to many working people.” (54)

Featherstone allows her readers to conclude that workers could be buying into the company’s image at the same time that they understand management strategies as manipulative and management’s goals as exploitative. Thus workers who said they sustained an unquestioning devotion to the company did not allow that commitment to dissuade them from asking for raises, applying for promotions, or complaining to their superiors about the discrimination they faced.

Workers may pick and choose elements of the Wal-Mart story that are meaningful to them and that satisfy some of their own needs. Their embrace of the idea that Wal- Mart is a good company may be part of a self-conscious strategy to find dignity in their work.

Furthermore, Wal-Mart’s hysterical need to reinforce and reproduce its cultural mythologies could be understood as evidence of (and even an acknowledgement of) the inherent weakness of its message. Featherstone’s analogy between the company’s annual meeting and a religious revival is extremely apt: Revival meetings are designed to revive faith, which is understood by evangelicals as inherently weak, vulnerable and difficult to sustain in the face of secular culture.

Control, Manipulate, Exploit

Featherstone sees Wal-Mart’s corporate culture as manipulative, and understands it as a series of strategies designed to control and motivate workers as well as contain dissent. In her discussion of the class-action lawsuit, however, she focuses on the company’s effort to procure dedication from its workers. She argues for example that the company depends on its “employees’… sometimes mystifying dedication [for its] phenomenal success.” (50)

But does Wal-Mart rely on workers’ dedication, or does it depend on its ability to exploit workers and extract profit from their labor? Featherstone answers this question both ways throughout her book.

Featherstone explains that Wal-Mart is extremely centralized in almost every way, except in its hiring and promotion practices; store managers have the power and authority to make decisions about personnel in any way they deem fit. In fact, the company seems to encourage them to use favoritism and maintain obtuse, veiled and seemingly arbitrary promotion practices.

This lack of openness and lack of procedural transparency are consistent from store to store. For example, workers at scores of different stores complain that they have no formal opportunities to request promotion or even find out about job openings.

Stores have no application procedure for promotions and do not post open positions. Some workers express their interest in promotion on their annual evaluations under “additional comments,” but no place on the form would elicit this information.

These informal practices encourage preferential treatment and help sustain sex discrimination. Since qualifications are not considered in promotions, it is easy for managers to promote less qualified men over women who have been with the company for years.

Featherstone easily establishes that managers and executives practice sexism and sex discrimination with impunity at all levels of the company and at practically every store. Given that the company is extremely centralized, and likes to control every detail of its operations, this delegation of control over hiring and promotions to store managers is thus clearly deliberate — one of the strategies that the corporation uses to control and exploit workers.

The preferential, obtuse and seemingly arbitrary promotion practices help deny all workers power and help management keep wages low. Rampant sexism helps control women and depress their expectations. It isolates women by confining them to jobs with less responsibility and lower pay. ldquo;Segregation,” Featherstone explains, “has a demoralizing, discouraging effect on women, sending the message that they are second-rate.” (118)

In fact, Wal-Mart is so invested in maintaining its discriminatory practices that the company consistently resists appeals from upper management to hire more women.

Profits of Discrimination

Featherstone’s evidence suggests that Wal-Mart encourages sex discrimination and benefits from it. She emphasizes that the company saves money by paying women less than men, and she explores some of the less immediately tangible benefits that it gleans from discriminatory practices.

For example, producing a labor force that is segregated by sex helps Wal-Mart divide workers into male and female camps; it encourages men and women to see their interests as distinct from each other and discourages them from organizing. Ultimately, sex discrimination helps Wal-Mart keep everyone’s wages low and helps the company control workers’ aspirations.

By making sure that women’s wages stay extremely low, the company can justify extremely low wages as a product of women’s lower worth rather than simply a product of its aggressive pursuit of profit.

The Future

In her final three chapters, Featherstone steps back from her analysis of the case itself to focus on what may be in store for Wal-Mart and its workers.

She is particularly interested in how and whether power relations will shift within the company: Will workers ever be able to mobilize against the corporate behemoth? Or will Wal-Mart retain its unprecedented corporate power and retain its ability to operate with apparent impunity as an employer?

In this final section, Featherstone discusses and evaluates the multiple strategies that lawyers, workers and consumers have been using to change Wal-Mart and help reform a national corporate culture that encourages sex discrimination.

In her fifth chapter, Featherstone assesses the “possibilities and limitations” of class action lawsuits in general and of this case specifically. In the sixth, she discusses the current state of union organizing at Wal- Mart and Sam’s Club stores and she evaluates the effectiveness of these efforts. Finally, in her seventh chapter “Attention, Shoppers!” she examines the roles of consumers in both helping and hindering workers’ efforts to gain more control over their labor within the company.

Featherstone ultimately argues that unionization, alongside a coordinated community support campaign, would have a far more positive affect on workers at Wal-Mart than even a successful class-action suit.

Class-action lawsuits have not been very effective at changing corporate culture because they do not shift any power into workers’ hands.

Unfortunately, however, the current union campaign run by the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) does not seem to be getting off the ground with much speed. Featherstone criticizes the union for its lackluster efforts and its lack of vision. While handing out flyers about the sex discrimination lawsuit, the union is failing to harness anger over sex discrimination as a tool for unionization.

It seems that Featherstone’s subjects were fed up with their experiences of discrimination, but it’s not clear why, after years, each one decided to step forward. Is there something about the contemporary historical moment that allowed them to act? Were they organized to participate in the suit, or did they simply respond to the flyer advertising the “800” number for complaints about discrimination?

The women Featherstone describes are not part of a movement, nor are they responding to an historical moment. They were maligned as individuals — as individual women — and are fighting back by participating in the case.

Some of the women, we find out in the last chapter, have gotten active in the relatively weak UFCW campaign, to unionize Wal-Mart stores. However, even they seem to maintain little collective consciousness and little hope that unions will make inroads at the company.

Overall, I recommend this excellent book to anyone interested in learning more about Wal-Mart, about class action lawsuits, or about the machinations of sexism and sex discrimination in the retail industry. Featherstone’s engaging prose, excellent anecdotes, and sober discussion about the problems and possibilities ahead will leave readers morally outraged and ready to fight.

Her book is something of a call to arms. Like any good study, it raises far more questions than it answers, and like any good exposé, it pushes readers to think about how they might be able to get involved in the battle ahead.

ATC 118, September-October 2005