Supremes agree to hear class-action case against WalMart


Daily Finance (and many other publications) reported Dec. 6 that the Supreme Court agreed to hear an appeal by retailing behemoth Wal-Mart over whether 1.5 million of its female employees, who accuse the company of paying lower wages and denying promotions compared to their male counterparts, can sue as a single class.


As DF writer Abigail Field notes, "even if the women lose, they could in theory start over, seeking to sue as a different kind of class. Or each employee could [still] sue individually. However, given that nine years and many millions of dollars have been spent bringing the case this far, it's hard to see [them] starting from scratch."


Field further observes that the court's ruling will affect other pending cases, and determine which ones are brought in the future, and that a bunch of large companies — including Intel and tobacco giant Philip Morris (operating under its pseudo-brand Altria) — filed friend-of-the-court briefs supporting (surprise!) Wal-Mart's prerogative to collectively discriminate against its employees, while seeking to prevent them from collectively seeking redress.


So far, she says, the plaintiffs have won at trial, on appeal, and in a re-hearing of that appeal, but the Supremes have a habit of ruling against the winners of appeals. If they don't, Wal-Mart could still try to win the trial for which the "class" of female Wal-Mart employees was certified, as it will have "relatively little bargaining power" to negotiate a settlement. And of course it can always appeal the verdict of that trial itself.


If the Supremes side with Wal-Mart (as expected), it will not only be a set-back to those women's cause and to employment discrimination in general, but also ultimately to that of other corporate-injured groups more broadly. Class-action lawsuits are one of the few tools available to actual human beings to offset some of the preponderant power of corporations, by allowing them to pool their resources (and risk), and raise the profile of corporate crimes and abuses.


Meanwhile, University of Georgia Prof. Bethany Moreton notes how Wal-Mart has cynically co-opted the economic hardships of tens of millions of lower-income women across the country (precisely the same demographic of employees suing it for discriminatory exploitation) into an "electoral brand" representing the values of frugality and common sense — and, not surprisingly, the company's political interests.


The so-called "Wal-Mart mom" (as distinct from the wealthier, more educated suburban "soccer mom") not only served the company as focus groups, bloggers, and the subjects of an ad campaign, but also as a key segment of the electorate that the two major parties simultaneously claimed to both represent and strove mightily to capture.


Raising hypocrisy to a high art form, Wal-Mart trumpeted these women's need for low prices in a time of financial distress — thereby conveniently justifying its economy-gutting model of slash-and-burn, race-to-the-bottom retailing — while paying its own Wal-Mart moms/employees roughly 20 percent less than the men they work next to. Apparently the easiest way to ensure that women will agitate for low prices is to under-pay them for their work ...