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Donna Smith

Donna Smith, American SiCKO, is executive director of the Health Care for All Colorado Foundation

March 29th, 2011 10:49 AM

We are All Wal-Mart Women Today, Like It or Not

I can hear it now.  The gasps of those too good to ever set foot in a Wal-Mart store much less work there combined with the righteous indignation of those who never, ever shop Wal-Mart due to political or ethical reasons might well overpower the voices of the clerks and stockers and bathroom cleaners and overnight customer service desk workers who may someday have some mechanism to challenge the mighty powers that be in the corporate behemoth of Wal-Mart, Inc.
The U.S. Supreme Court has to decide not if millions of Wal-Mart women were discriminated against for promotions and the like but if the potential class of litigants is so large that it cannot be effectively defended or heard by courts in which the women of Wal-Mart may seek a small measure of justice.  It’s a big deal.  And the message to all of us is, as far as I am concerned, that if the class of potential litigants is so large as to make Wal-Mart or any other huge corporation march this far legally in the attempt to break the class up, we should want the class to survive.
One for all.  All for one.   We are all in the Wal-Mart women’s class, like it or not.  Solidarity will have to be defined in ways we have trouble supporting in the “me-first, me-better-than-you, me-makes-more-than-you, me-won’t –risk-my-skin-for-you, me-certainly-smarter-than-you” America that has survived triumphant no matter how much pain Wall Street inflicts on the loosely huddled masses below.
Whenever I see or hear workers pitted against one another that are within a few thousand a year in income of one another, I can be fairly sure many of their issues are also within a few talking points of one another.  Yet, over and over again in recent years, we allow our power to be divided and sub-divided by those whose best interests are not our own.
Years ago, as a small town newspaper editor, I received a call from a group of Wal-Mart workers who wanted to remain anonymous but who wanted someone to know and someone to care about the issues they faced.  I went to the home of one of the workers where about 15 Wal-Mart “associates” were gathered to tell me what they hoped would spark my interest as a journalist.  The stories were not all of egregious wrongs but were more tales of workers’ woes, but some were worse than that and one stuck with me.  A disabled young man who had been hired to gather shopping carts and sometimes act as a greeter told me how proud he was to have a job but then said he got really cold sometimes in the sub-zero temperatures when his supervisors would not let him take breaks and warm the skin on his face (but also would not allow a masked winter hat for warmth).  He also said sometimes they complained he was too slow if he braced himself against the wind and blowing snow.  I could feel from him how much he just wanted to be honored for his work.  He did not hate Wal-Mart at all, but he couldn’t understand why Wal-Mart didn’t seem to care about him enough to make small and meaningful changes.
I never got to write that story about those Wal-Mart employees as my publisher and I knew that without at least one person willing to speak “on the record” about the issues, we’d have difficulty making an impact with any story.

But all these years later, I find myself knowing that the Wal-Mart case being heard in the Supreme Court seems part legal theater but also very much a commentary on what working class people are up against across the country.  It’s a case about solidarity in many ways.  And Wal-Mart knows darned well that it is easier to discourage, fight, break, dismiss or even settle cheaply with one individual woman or employee than the potential of fighting a huge, 1.5 million member class.
An injury to one is, well, an injury to one that any large employer can deep-pocket right out of the legal system.  Protections from our government agencies against even legally prohibited worker abuses are minimal -- wage and hour protections?  EEOC?  OSHA?  Ask most workers if their jobs would survive the problems created by trying to report an abuse individually.   But if a group of employees gets together and stands up, well, then that’s when the problems can begin for those employers that bank on not having any consequences from their sometimes blatantly improper practices.
Solidarity matters in legal terms, in ethical terms and in very nuts and bolts, everyday ways for workers.  Wal-Mart knows that solidarity in this instance is legal and financial exposure that gives that deep pocket status they’ve counted on and enjoyed a run for it.  Sure, lawyers will be the winners financially from this case as none of the women who have claimed wrong by Wal-Mart will get much cash, even if they prevail.  But if Wal-Mart is successful in breaking up the class, that will be another blow for worker solidarity that makes it harder and harder for any workers to stand up to corporate power.
So, who will be in the streets with Wal-Mart workers today?  We’ll see.  Some unions and some women’s advocacy groups will gather and rally at the Supreme Court building.  Following the huge crowds in Madison, WI, and the solidarity actions around the country for those unionized public employees and the other statehouse protests in Indiana, Ohio, Albany, Sacramento, Lansing, and beyond, and now with the Wal-Mart case to be decided in which up to 1.5 million workers may be effected, we might think solidarity with one’s fellow working class neighbors would be a rising tide.  We’ll see.
I don’t know if we working class folks are ready yet to show the kind of in-your-face solidarity that Wall Street and the corporations have practiced for years.  I hope the Supreme Court will protect the workers, even when the workers sometimes won’t do it for one another – just yet.


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