One year ago, in Wal-Mart v. Dukes, the Supreme Court, in a deeply divided 5-4 decision, put severe limits on workers’ ability to come together to fight workplace discrimination. Yesterday, Betty Dukes, the named plaintiff in that lawsuit, came to Washington to ask Congress to remove the obstacles the Supreme Court placed in the way of ordinary Americans seeking their day in court.
Betty Dukes at the press conference introducing the EEORA
The Equal Employment Opportunity Restoration Act, introduced by Senator Al Franken and Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro, with 22 co-sponsors in the Senate and 38 in the House, would do just that, by creating a new avenue for workers to bring group actions to challenge company-wide discrimination.
Betty Dukes, a retail worker at Wal-Mart, is the face of the millions of low-wage workers, 60% of whom are women, who were dealt a serious blow by the Supreme Court’s decision. Betty Dukes worked hard, but for years she was paid less than her male coworkers and passed over for promotions. And she wasn’t alone. She and her coworkers went to court to allege that despite having better performance reviews and more time on the job than their male counterparts, they were repeatedly passed over for higher pay and promotions. Although they won the right to bring their case together twice in the lower courts, the Supreme Court refused to allow them to proceed as a group.
Sex discrimination in pay and promotions is a persistent problem for low-wage women workers. In sales and related occupations, like Betty Dukes’ job at Wal-Mart, there is an extreme wage gap between men and women of 32 cents, with a typical woman being paid only 68 cents for every dollar paid to a man. These hardworking women’s meager paychecks are stretched thin to cover food, rent, clothing and child care for their families.
Although low-wage women workers certainly cannot afford to lose money from their paychecks because of pay discrimination, they also often cannot afford the risks and costs of fighting back on their own.
As any of us who have ever stood up for what is right know, there is strength in numbers. Telling one low-wage worker that she has to fight back against company-wide workplace discrimination all on her own is an absurdly lopsided approach to justice. The end result will be to close the courthouse doors to millions of workers who have suffered discrimination but cannot possibly afford to pay lawyers to bring their claims individually, or to risk retaliation for bringing a claim alone. With the average unemployed worker out of work for nearly 5 months, the prospect of losing a job for speaking up is scarier than ever. In comparison, when workers band together, they gain the strength to confront discrimination by powerful interests and ensure that no employer is too big to be held accountable under the law.
Our antidiscrimination laws are there to make sure that all Americans, rich or poor, have the right to be treated equally and fairly at work. Since 1964, when these laws were enacted, group actions have been critical to bringing an end to company-wide discrimination.
Without a meaningful right to challenge company-wide discrimination when it occurs, the antidiscrimination laws Americans fought so hard for are nothing more than pretty words on paper.