June 21, 2011
MONDAY’S Supreme Court decision to block a class-action sex-discrimination lawsuit against Wal-Mart was a huge setback for as many as 1.6 million current and former female employees of the world’s largest retailer. But the decision has consequences that range far beyond sex discrimination or the viability of class-action suits.
The underlying issue, which the Supreme Court has now ratified, is Wal-Mart’s authoritarian style, by which executives pressure store-level management to squeeze more and more from millions of clerks, stockers and lower-tier managers.
Indeed, the sex discrimination at Wal-Mart that drove the recent suit is the product not merely of managerial bias and prejudice, but also of a corporate culture and business model that sustains it, rooted in the company’s very beginnings.
In the 1950s and ’60s, northwest Arkansas, where Wal-Mart got its start, was poor, white and rural, in the midst of a wave of agricultural mechanization that generated a huge surplus of unskilled workers. To these men and women, the burgeoning chain of discount stores founded by Sam Walton was a godsend. The men might find dignity managing a store instead of a hardscrabble farm, while their wives and daughters could earn pin money clerking for Mr. Sam, as he was known. “The enthusiasm of Wal-Mart associates toward their jobs is one of the company’s greatest assets,” declared the firm’s 1973 annual report.
A patriarchal ethos was written into the Wal-Mart DNA. “Welcome Assistant Managers and Wives” read a banner at a 1975 meeting for executive trainees. And that corporate culture — “the single most important element in the continued, remarkable success of Wal-Mart,” asserted Don Soderquist, the company’s chief operating officer in the 1990s — was sustained not only by the hypercentralized managerial control that flowed from the Bentonville, Ark., home office but by the evangelical Protestantism that Mr. Soderquist and other executives encouraged.
Wal-Mart attorneys have argued, and the Supreme Court agreed this week, that even if sex discrimination was once part of the company’s culture, it is now ancient history: if any store managers are guilty of bias when it comes to promoting women, they are at odds with corporate policy. Wal-Mart is no longer an Ozark company; it is a cosmopolitan, multinational operation.
But that avoids the more essential point, namely that Wal-Mart views low labor costs and a high degree of workplace flexibility as a signal competitive advantage. It is a militantly anti-union company that has been forced to pay hundreds of millions of dollars to current and former employees for violations of state wage and hour laws.
In other words, the patriarchy of old has been reconfigured into a more systematically authoritarian structure, one that deploys a communitarian ethos to sustain a high degree of corporate loyalty even as wages and working conditions are put under continual downward pressure — especially in recent years, as Wal-Mart’s same-store sales have declined. Workers of both sexes pay the price, but women, who constitute more than 70 percent of hourly employees, pay more.
There are tens of thousands of experienced Wal-Mart women who would like to be promoted to the first managerial rung, salaried assistant store manager. But Wal-Mart makes it impossible for many of them to take that post, because its ruthless management style structures the job itself as one that most women, and especially those with young children or a relative to care for, would find difficult to accept.
Why? Because, for all the change that has swept over the company, at the store level there is still a fair amount of the old communal sociability. Recognizing that workers steeped in that culture make poor candidates for assistant managers, who are the front lines in enforcing labor discipline, Wal-Mart insists that almost all workers promoted to the managerial ranks move to a new store, often hundreds of miles away.
For young men in a hurry, that’s an inconvenience; for middle-aged women caring for families, this corporate reassignment policy amounts to sex discrimination. True, Wal-Mart is hardly alone in demanding that rising managers sacrifice family life, but few companies make relocation such a fixed policy, and few have employment rolls even a third the size.
The obstacles to women’s advancement do not stop there. The workweek for salaried managers is around 50 hours or more, which can surge to 80 or 90 hours a week during holiday seasons. Not unexpectedly, some managers think women with family responsibilities would balk at such demands, and it is hardly to the discredit of thousands of Wal-Mart women that they may be right.
There used to be a remedy for this sort of managerial authoritarianism: it was called a union, which bargained over not only wages and pensions but also the kind of qualitative issues, including promotion and transfer policies, that have proved so vexing for non-unionized employees at Wal-Mart and other big retailers.
For a time it seemed as if the class-action lawsuit might be a partial substitute. By drastically limiting how a class-action suit can be brought, the Supreme Court leaves millions of service-sector workers with few avenues to escape the grinding work life and limited opportunities that so many now face.
Nelson Lichtenstein, a professor of history at the University of California, Santa Barbara, is the author of “The Retail Revolution: How Wal-Mart Created a Brave New World of Business.”
A version of this op-ed appeared in print on June 22, 2011, on page A21 of the New York edition with the headline: Wal-Mart’s Authoritarian Culture.