Meet Betty Dukes, The Black Woman Who Helped Launch the Class Action Discrimination Suit Against Wal-Mart
As a “greeter,” the cheerful Betty Dukes is one of the first employees customers usually see as they walk through the front doors of the Wal-Mart store here.
As the first “named plaintiff” in Dukes v. Wal-Mart, the ordained Baptist minister also is the face of the largest gender bias class action lawsuit in U.S. history – one that could cost the world’s largest private employer billions.
Her dual roles have turned her into a civil rights crusader for the company’s many critics, who have dubbed the legal battle “Betty v. Goliath.” It is a far cry from where Dukes expected to be when she enthusiastically accepted an offer in 1994 to work the cash registers part-time for $5 an hour. She dreamed of turning around a hard life by advancing, through work and determination, into Wal-Mart corporate management.
“I was focused on Wal-Mart’s aggressive customer service,” Dukes said in an interview during her lunch break, after first saying grace over a meal of fast-food hamburgers and chicken nuggets. “I wanted to advance. I wanted to make that money.”
I wish sister could eat better. All that salt in that processed food will kill her. I should know, with my blood pressure.
But like scores of other women employees at Wal-Mart, she wasn’t allowed to make that bread and move up into management. Sick and tired of being sick and tired, she confronted management about her dissatisfaction. The confrontation escalated into an “ugly spat” which resulted in Dukes being demoted, with a humiliating cut in her meager salary. What was the catalyst?
The incident that sparked the epic legal battle began while Dukes served as a customer service manager.
Dukes, 60, needed change to make a small purchase during her break. She asked a colleague to open a cash register with a one-cent transaction, which she claims was a common practice.
Nevertheless, she was demoted for misconduct. She complained to a manager that the punishment was too severe and part of a long campaign of discrimination that began almost as soon as she started working for Wal-Mart in this blue-collar city of about 100,000, some 45 miles east of San Francisco.
She believed the reprimand was partially motivated by race. She’s black and the managers were white.
When those complaints were ignored, Dukes sought legal advice.
What, they thought she was going to steal from the till with a one-cent sale? Or was it simply a way to reprimand and demote as she moved up the ladder.
I’ve always felt that Wal-Mart was the last bastion of white, if not male privilege. Based in the South, in Arkansas, what turned me off initially to working even part-time for the company for a little extra was their insistence that employees participate in their company morning before opening exercises and even share in their Christian values in the store. This, I believe, contributes to the homogenization of the work force.
And it’s not unionized. But of course, Target is like that, too.
Then I heard about the drawbacks to American industry that Wal-Mart represented, which included threatening small businesses and Main Streets throughout the country. As a result, I don’t shop at Wal-Mart unless I really, really have to. The prices are very tempting, but I don’t want to contribute further to the rot in this country in that there is very little that Americans manufacture for trade any more.
Dukes soon found that she was not alone in her heartache. Through Brad Seligman of the nonprofit Impact Fund, who later became her attorney, she realized that there were hundreds of women like her. Women–of all colors–single, divorced or married, with or without children, who had worked for or were still working for Wal-Mart who were also attracted by the company’s service ethics and the possibility of becoming managers like her. They stayed, only to have their hopes repeatedly dashed as they were passed over for men who were less qualified, had only been working there for fewer months, and were predominantly white.
The suit claims systematic discrimination, charging that female employees were paid less than male employees and received smaller raises and fewer promotions. According to Reuters, the women were steered away from management positions into lower-level jobs without much advancement potential, like cashier jobs. One woman was told she wasn’t qualified for a management position because she was unable to stack 50-pound bags of dog food.
In fact, Walmart management skews male. Women are only 33% of the company’s managers but comprise 65% of hourly employees, reports The New York Times.
So Betty was asked to be the lead litigant in the lawsuit, along wth four or five other women from across the country.
Though she has been named a Ms. Magazine Woman of the Year, has been declared “another Rosa Parks,” and counts as allies the NAACP, The Women’s Law Center, and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) in her lawsuit, the attention hasn’t turned Dukes’ head. An ordained minister, she takes comfort in her Bible, preaches on Sunday at her church, and is often approached for spiritual advice. She lives with her aging mother as she is not able to afford the rent to live alone in the Bay Area’s expensive housing market, and she doesn’t always have enough to even pay for her lunch. Once married long ago, she is divorced and has no children.
Dukes says that there have been some occasional retaliatory incidents from managers and co-workers since she filed suit, particularly when the local and national media–Channels 2 (KTVU), 4 (KRON), 5 (KPIX), 7 (KGO) and 11 (KNTV) in the Bay Area– reports that Wal-Mart has lost its appeal, and her lawsuit moves forward, as it has done recently. Then the work environment becomes quite “chilly,” in her words. Wal-Mart vows to bring the lawsuit all the way to the more conservative Supreme Court if they lose again.
Brad Seligman, though, thinks that there has been a brighter side to Dukes’ legal fight with Wal-Mart.
“It seems like that at every pivotal moment in the litigation,” Seligman said, “Betty gets a raise.”
Hmmmm. If she and the other women in the class action litigation win even before the Supremes, it will open up the possibility of new lawsuits (which scares the hell out of the Chambers of Commerce across the country to the point they’ve joined Wal-Mart as a “friend” of the defendant), and eventually to better wages for those working for these kinds of companies, and a cleared stairway into managerial jobs and the middle class. That’s all anyone has ever wanted, to live the American Dream. And these days, there has got to be other means by which Americans are able to accomplish this. The automobile industry, the textile factories, the steel foundries–nearly all of these ways to work a reasonable living wage and enter the middle class have been one by one taken away from American working people. Like Betty Dukes said, it’ll take just one stone, the right stone, to take down Goliath.