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Welcome to Wal-Mart: Always Low Prices, Always Low Wages

Stephanie Luce teaches at the Labor Center of the University of Massachusetts–Amherst on issues related to low-wage labor markets, labor organizing, and globalization. Her main research has been on the political and economic impacts of the living wage movement. She is the author of Fighting for a Living Wage (Cornell University Press, 2004)..

Liza Featherstone, Selling Women Short: The Landmark Battle for Workers’ Rights at Wal-Mart (New York: Basic Books, 2004), 282 pages, cloth $25.00.

In 1999, Wal-Mart became the largest private employer in the world. If it were a country, its annual sales would make it approximately the twentieth largest economy. The company is notoriously anti-union, but it has become increasingly a focus of attention for the labor movement around the world. Recent proposals by U.S. unions regarding major changes in direction have included a proposal for a $25 million per year Wal-Mart campaign. These are only some of the reasons why Liza Featherstone’s Selling Women Short: The Landmark Battle for Workers’ Rights at Wal-Mart is a timely and necessary book.

The book tells the story of people like Betty Dukes, a fifty-four-year-old African-American woman who works as an associate minister at her Baptist church and as a greeter for Wal-Mart. Dukes is the lead plaintiff in the class action suit filed against Wal-Mart for sex discrimination. The suit is the largest class-action suit in U.S. history, representing 1.6 million current and former female employees. Although more than 72 percent of Wal-Mart employees are female, women hold fewer than one-third of management positions in the company, and studies show that in 2001 the average male employee was paid about $5,000 more per year than the average female full-time employee. Even in the occupations heavily dominated by women, such as cashier, men earned more than women, on average. There is no question that Wal-Mart increasingly sets the standard for a variety of national and international labor markets: in addition to the many who work in Wal-Mart stores, shipping, and distribution, untold numbers more work for the estimated 21,000 suppliers who sell products to Wal-Mart. As Featherstone notes, observers estimate that the company may run afoul of antitrust legislation within the next five years as it already controls a majority share of the U.S. retail market. In this “company town gone mad” scenario, it is important that we know as much as we can about Wal-Mart.

Selling Women Short is an important read for another reason. In the wake of the 2004 election, the book gives “blue-staters” some insight into some of the “red-state” women who voted for Bush. Although Dukes lives in the blue state of California (as do the other lead plaintiffs, as the suit was filed there), many of the women Featherstone profiles are Evangelical Christians and self-described conservatives. But their stories make it clear that the Christian right is not a monolith, and there are important openings for collaboration between blue-state and red-state women. For example, in To Move a Mountain: Fighting the Global Economy in Rural Appalachia, Eve Weinbaum writes about three plant closings in rural Tennessee in the early 1990s. Weinbaum says that when faced with job loss, workers tend to blame themselves or their coworkers first, or possibly their managers. But when presented with an alternative framework: that the plant closing is a result of global capitalism and an economic and political system that favors corporations over workers, many of these same workers change their perspectives.

Featherstone describes how for many of the women at Wal-Mart the process was similar. When denied an opportunity to train for a manager position, many of the women initially resolved to keep trying and work harder. Edith Arana tried to dismiss her own doubts about the company, saying to herself, “Maybe it’s just me, maybe I don’t feel good today” (59). When Cleo Page asked why she was denied the opportunity to advance, she was told she needed to “wear shirts with collars”—so she began to dress “a little bit more higher than what I was wearing” (115). But when they heard stories of other women they began to suspect a larger pattern. Christine Kwapnoski was denied promotions for years, but it was only after female coworkers heard about the lawsuit and encouraged her to come forward that she began to speak out. Featherstone writes that Kwapnoski is “an individualist who…does not instinctively think collectively” and “had never given much thought to feminism or workers’ rights” (96). But after joining with the complainants, Kwapnoski said that the lawsuit has “emboldened her to challenge her male coworkers’ attitudes” (122) and that she “hopes intensely that her experience will help other women” (96).

At the same time, while the lawsuit provides some women an opportunity to change their minds about women’s rights and collective action, we should not be surprised to see that consciousness can still be contradictory. Some of the women remain opposed to unions, and some remain committed to the “Wal-Mart vision.” Indeed, Wal-Mart itself embodies the contradictory messages women in the United States face: cherish individuality yet conform; save money yet shop to be patriotic; and good Christian mothers stay home to take care of children, yet they form a large portion of the workforce. Wal-Mart says if you work hard you can move up and succeed, yet its own success is built on keeping wages of non-supervisory employees as low as possible. And as Featherstone writes, “Wal-Mart is America—and vice versa,” yet at least 85 percent of products sold in the store are made elsewhere. She also points out that Wal-Mart says it’s a family values store, yet it provides neither child care for workers nor affordable family health benefits. It’s average hourly wage of just over eight dollars is not enough for a worker with a family to meet the federal poverty line.

What struck me most about the book is the allegiance that many of the women had—and still have—to Wal-Mart. Even Stephanie Odle, the initial complainant in the case who was fired after filing an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint and who suffered mentally and physically from job-related stress, said she would like to go back to Wal-Mart after the lawsuit is over. Wal-Mart jobs are often referred to as “bad jobs,” given their low salary and lack of decent benefits. But many of the women truly liked their jobs. They enjoyed helping customers, were happy not to have to work in a dangerous or monotonous factory job, and liked feeling part of something—part of the Wal-Mart company. In the early days, Odle wore a pin of Sam Walton to show her dedication to the company. Others worked long hours, traveled extensively, missed time with family, and put up with a great deal, because they believed both that they had a chance to be promoted and that this was part of their commitment to the Wal-Mart idea. Perhaps it should come as no surprise that people are happy to have something to believe in—to belong to a community that has a vision. This also helps explain part of the deep devastation many of the women felt after their experiences at Wal-Mart. Some reported feeling traumatized, others reported physical symptoms, and others were ashamed both of their treatment and of themselves for putting up with it.

In various ways, the book highlights the limits of liberal feminism. The lawsuit, if successful, could help correct failures of the market. Public pressure on the company stemming from the case has already pushed Wal-Mart to promote more women into management. But as Featherstone notes, the lawsuit has nothing to say about larger problems of exploitation, the wages of workers making items for sale at Wal-Mart, or the fact that even without sex discrimination the company would still offer many of its workers only low wages and no benefits. In this regard, we need a deeper explanation of the Wal-Mart phenomenon. Featherstone provides a number of possible reasons for the pervasive sex discrimination found in Wal-Mart stores (but apparently not at competitors like Target): old-fashioned male chauvinism supported, if not encouraged, from the top levels; informal networks that privilege male activities; southern or Christian views that women should not be in leadership positions; and arbitrary and paternalistic company policies.

Beyond the sex discrimination lawsuit, Featherstone examines other efforts to make Wal-Mart into a better employer. In a chapter titled, “WWJD? Organize Wal-Mart!” she discusses how some of the women who have become politicized through the lawsuit realized that they need to fight for more than the end of sex discrimination. She writes that “Unions are still among the few institutions capable” of giving more power to the workers themselves. Some of the women have gone on to take jobs with the United Food and Commercial Workers in its efforts to organize Wal-Mart, but unfortunately their efforts have not been successful to date. In fact, only a few Wal-Mart workers, such as those in German stores, are covered by union contracts. The company recently agreed not to interfere with All-China Federation of Trade Unions efforts to unionize Wal-Marts in China, but it remains to be seen how that effort will play out. Meanwhile, the women trying to organize Wal-Mart in the United States face serious opposition from the powerful employer, as well as persistent anti-union sentiment from many coworkers. Even some that are supportive of unions in other contexts often believe unions are not appropriate for Wal-Mart. And still others may support the idea, but they are too fearful to be active or open about it.

In the end, Featherstone does not attempt to provide one simplistic answer that explains the complex Wal-Mart phenomenon or a possible response to it. She points out the features of Wal-Mart that make it so popular with so many shoppers: the low prices; the one-stop-shopping experience that can reduce shopping time; and the products that cater to real needs, such as large-size clothing. But she also notes the many ways in which Wal-Mart fails communities and the tremendous potential for alliances to be built around these failings. The lawsuit has attracted the attention of women’s groups, unions, and even religious groups such as the Sisters of Charity of St. Elizabeth and a few evangelical churches. Other anti-Wal-Mart efforts have involved environmentalists, students, and community organizations like ACORN. The company even represents an opportunity to drive a wedge in the business community: many small businesses are opposed to Wal-Marts coming into their communities, and a growing number of larger corporations also resent Wal-Mart’s growing power to set prices and production standards in their industries. Given its size and pervasiveness, Wal-Mart may do more to unite people across rural/urban boundaries, across states and countries, and across “single issues.”

Selling Women Short is an engaging read. At times it becomes a bit difficult to keep track of all the women profiled in the book—but that is part of the point. The number of women who work for Wal-Mart, and the number of stories of discrimination, is endless. And despite the image of Wal-Mart as a “family,” in reality, at least to the company, most of the women who work for them are faceless. Wal-Mart not only took away wages, hours, and promotions from these women, but it also took their dignity. Whatever the outcome of the lawsuit, this book gives these women some measure of the respect they never got from their employer.

2005, Volume 56, Issue 11 (April)
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