Union women protest Wal-Mart gender discrimination

By DON McINTOSH, Associate Editor

A group of union women went shopping July 9 at a Southeast Portland Wal-Mart.

But they didn’t buy anything.

Instead, the women, more than 100-strong, took over the area by check stands 1 and 2 to protest Wal-Mart’s documented mistreatment of its female employees.

They were attending a five-day conference for union women at Lewis and Clark College, and were ready to rumble after hearing the previous day from several Wal-Mart critics, including journalist Liza Featherstone. Featherstone has been reporting on the class-action lawsuit women workers filed against Wal-Mart. That suit, the largest gender discrimination case in U.S. history, was filed on behalf of 1.5 million women.

For the 200 union women at the Western Regional Summer Institute for Women, Wal-Mart was a fitting target: Legendary for its anti-union efforts, and systematic in its discrimination against its female employees.

Wal-Mart, the largest employer in the United States, has not a single union employee.

And though women make up 72 percent of Wal-Mart’s workforce, only 33 percent of managers are women, and only 15 percent of store managers. Women are paid less in every position: Hourly workers make on average 40 cents an hour less than their male counterparts, and female managers make up to $5,000 a year less than male managers.

Featherstone drew hoots with anecdotes from the sex discrimination lawsuit:

• Indiana store manager Melissa Howard had to attend business meetings at a local Hooters restaurant, with fellow managers commenting on servers’ body parts and sharing their sexual fantasies.

• Wal-Mart associate Christine Kwapnoski, despite frequent citations as “associate of the month” went 15 years without a promotion, even as lesser-qualified male employees were promoted above her.

• “God made Adam first, so women will always be second to men,” explained a male manager at an Aiken, South Carolina, store. That was in answer to 15-year employee Kathleen McDonald, who had wondered aloud why her male co-workers made more money than she did.

In many instances, Featherstone said, Wal-Mart managers openly acknowledged the unequal treatment, even defending it as fair. Men need to earn more, they would argue, because they are the family breadwinners, responsible for the support of their wives and kids.

In the ears of many single moms working at Wal-Mart, such arguments didn’t go over well. Their stored-up grievances are ready to be told in the courtroom.

Featherstone provided the motivation. Portland Jobs with Justice organizer Margaret Butler provided the plan: a surprise visit to the Wal-Mart supercenter at Southeast 82nd and Holgate.

The plan was to wander the store like shoppers, and converge by the store’s entrance at 2:25 p.m. A public demonstration by members of Jobs with Justice was already under way outside on busy 82nd Avenue.

While the inside protest took them by surprise, Wal-Mart managers knew about the outside protest. Browsing Wal-Mart aisles stacked with foreign-made goods, this reporter overheard a plainclothes Wal-Mart manager, a white male, deliver a set of quick and stern orders to a trio of Latino Wal-Mart employees. “Some people are here who might try to talk with you about a union,” the manager said. “They may ask you to sign something, a union card. Don’t talk to them! Don’t sign anything! Tell them not to bother you at work.”

Keeping the union out of its stores is part of how Wal-Mart keeps costs down — along with scouring the globe in search of cut-rate factory wages.

It’s a race to the bottom, Featherstone argues.

“Impoverishing some people so the rest of us can shop cheaply,” Featherstone said, “is an unacceptable trade-off.”

[Liza Featherstone’s article “Down and Out in Discount America” appeared in the Feb 4, 2005 issue of the Northwest Labor Press.]

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