Geri L. Dreiling

Deconstructing Alberto

At 17, Jane Doe had her future mapped out: college, career, hopefully marriage and finally, motherhood. She didn't contemplate reaching those milestones in reverse. But in early 2000, the high school senior discovered she was pregnant. Now she struggled with ordering a different set of choices: motherhood, adoption or abortion. No matter which she picked, she later told a Texas judge, she couldn't escape guilt.

Afraid that her parents would abandon her if they found out, she turned to friends and a relative for advice. One relative who had an abortion said she was happy with her decision. So too did a teenage friend.

And she sought out girls who'd had their baby. One single mom told Jane she'd regretted the decision, that she was unprepared for the tough reality of raising a child. Another teen, who married the baby's father at 15, was in a struggling marriage and regretted her choice.

Jane went to Planned Parenthood and talked to a counselor. She searched the Internet for information and, at school she sought the advice of a teacher who counsels pregnant students.

Eleven weeks and a day into the pregnancy, Jane had a sonogram and asked to see the fetus on the video screen because she "considered it her responsibility to do so."

She opted for an abortion but didn't want to wait until she turned 18. Even though she could still have had one by the time she was considered an adult, Jane decided that it would be too late in her pregnancy. The safest procedures, she was told, were done by the 14th week. And instead of notifying her parents of the decision, as Texas law required, she asked a Texas trial judge to sign an order which would give her permission.

With a lawyer at her side, Jane Doe stood before a judge and asked him to grant her request. He asked her to list the benefits of having a baby. The upside, she said, was that she'd have a child. And she added that since she'd never been a mother, she didn't know about the other benefits. She told the court that when she worked with kids as a volunteer, it was a joyful experience.

He asked her about adoption. She'd considered it but said that she couldn't carry a baby to term then give it up. She'd worry that the baby wasn't brought up in the right environment or that the adoptive parents wouldn't provide love and proper care.

At the end of the hearing, the judge denied her request. He determined that she wasn't mature enough or sufficiently informed to make the decision and she didn't understand the "intrinsic benefits of keeping the child or adoption."

Jane appealed but a Texas Court of Appeals sided with the trial judge. And so the case went before the Texas Supreme Court.

But this time, Jane won. With a split 5-4 vote, the state high court granted her application for permission to obtain an abortion on March 10, 2000. In an opinion written and released three months later, the majority felt that, by a preponderance of the evidence, she was both mature and well-informed. The standard of proof had been a key sticking point for the judges and the majority rejected an argument that the court could impose a higher level of proof than the law explicitly stated.

One of the judges allowing the abortion to proceed was Alberto Gonzales, who was new to the bench. Not only did Gonzales agree with the majority, he wrote a concurring opinion which focused not on the philosophical debate surrounding abortion – but on the role of a judge. "[T]he duty of a judge is to follow the law as written by the Legislature," he wrote. "Our role as judges requires that we put aside our own personal views of what we might like to see enacted...."

He chided the dissenting judges, calling their efforts to create hurdles that weren't written into the law "an unconscionable act of judicial activism."

"As a judge, I hold the right of parents to protect and guide the education, safety, health and development of their children as one of the most important rights in our society. But I cannot rewrite the statute...."

What he seemed to be saying was that while he thought parents should be the ones in control, the law is the law.

"This decision demonstrates the Court's determination to see to it that we discharge our responsibilities as judges, and that personal ideology is subordinated to the public will...."

It wouldn't be the last time that Gonzales would distinguish between his official role and his private views.

As the lawyer to Gov. George W. Bush in the mid-90s and as White House counsel to Bush in recent years, Gonzales has been a loyal trooper, giving his boss what he wanted – whether it was clemency memos justifying the death penalty in cases in Texas, or White House memos justifying the torture of prisoners at Guantanamo. He's explained his role to mean giving Bush what he needs, even if "there may be things the president wants that I personally disagree with."

Gonzales is not only waiting to be confirmed as Bush's nominee to be U.S. Attorney General, the nation's top law enforcement officer, but given the likelihood of vacancies in the U.S. Supreme Court coming up, Gonzales is also being talked about as a leading candidate for the nation's highest court.

Central to any assessment of Gonzales is the question of what he perceives to be his role. Does Gonzales believe that the Attorney General must give the President what he wants or does he believe that the AG must uphold "the public will" as it is written into the nation's laws? And if he is to be considered for the Supreme Court, does he still believe that a judge must set aside his "personal ideology," or have his years in the Bush White House changed his views on that as well?

"Mi Abogado"

Born on August 4, 1955, Gonzales was the second in a string of eight children born to Roman Catholic and Mexican migrant farm workers. His alcoholic father left farm work in favor of a construction job in Houston. There, Gonzales grew up in a two-bedroom house with no running water. Even under the less-than-ideal conditions, he thrived, becoming a high school honors student.

In 1973, the year the Texas Air National Guard released George Bush from service eight months early to go to Harvard Business School, and the year that the United States agreed to begin withdrawing forces from Vietnam, Alberto Gonzales joined the Air Force. In 1975, he was off to the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. Two years later, he transferred to Rice University and received a political science degree. In 1979, he went to Harvard Law School, graduating in 1982.

Soon he landed a job with the blue stocking Houston law firm of Vinson & Elkins. Founded in 1917, the firm thrived on the same thing that the rest of Texas was gorging itself on – oil. It was a firm that represented energy giants like Enron. And it was at Vinson & Elkins that Gonzales became acquainted with Republicans and a conservative worldview. Around that time, he divorced his first wife, later re-married and is now the father of three daughters. He rose from associate to partner.

Then in 1994, Texas Governor George W. Bush named Gonzales general counsel to the governor. The two men forged a relationship that is still going strong. And it has earned Gonzales the name mi abogado – my lawyer – from Bush.

From 1995 to 1997, Gonzales also wrote clemency memos, the documents that went to the Governor which would help him decide whether a Death Row inmate would get an executive reprieve. And it was during Bush's six-year tenure as governor that 150 men and two women were executed in Texas. And only once during those six years was a clemency request granted.

But Gonzales memos were shockingly inadequate, according to "The Texas Clemency Memos," a 2003 Atlantic Monthly article written by Alan Berlow. Gonzales "repeatedly failed to apprise the governor of crucial issues in the cases at hand: ineffective counsel, conflict of interest, mitigating evidence, even actual evidence of innocence," Berlow wrote.

He cited the case of Terry Washington, a 33-year-old man who had been savagely beaten with "whips, leather hoses, extensions cords, wire hangers and fan belts as a child." Though he was an adult, he communicated at a 7-year-old's level. At trial, his lawyer failed to bring in a mental health expert. And Gonzales' clemency memo focused on the horrific criminal details. It made no mention of mental retardation. Washington was eventually executed.

In 1997, Bush appointed Gonzales as Texas Secretary of State. In 1999, Bush appointed him to a fill a vacancy on the Texas Supreme Court. In 2000, Gonzales won re-election and his campaign coffers were fattened by a financial contribution from his old law firm's client, Enron. It was at the Texas Supreme Court that Gonzales rendered his decision in Jane Doe's case. It was that concurring opinion that Justice Nathan Hecht blasted in the case. In his dissent, Hecht wrote: "I cannot recall ever having seen a court or its members so abject in apologizing for their decision or so profuse in proclaiming their own integrity as this Court is today."

And singling out Gonzales' statements and his calls against judicial activism, Hecht wrote, "Surely they know that remonstrances like these do not allay doubts but only exacerbate them. 'The lady doth protest too much,'" Hecht wrote quoting Shakespeare's Hamlet.

The critics weren't confined to the courthouse. In 2001, when Gonzales was first rumored to be a U.S. Supreme Court contender, the conservative journal Human Events called such a move "an uncharacteristic blunder for Bush – and could permanently mar his presidency."

And so it is with a sigh of relief that some conservatives greeted Gonzales' nomination to succeed Ashcroft instead of getting the nod for a possible Supreme Court bid.

But not all conservatives were happy. In an article posted on CNN.com last month, just after Bush announced Gonzales as his nominee to succeed Ashcroft, American Life League's President Judie Brown sharply criticized it and asked him to "just say no to Gonzales and his unjust views."

She did so because of the Texas Jane Doe case as well as a 2001 interview with the Los Angeles Times in which he maintained that litmus tests and personal feelings were irrelevant in order for a judge to make a decision.

Brown said, "Gonzales' position is clear: The personhood of the pre-born human being is secondary to technical aspects of the law...."

"Why is President Bush betraying the babies?" she asked. "Justice begins with protecting the most vulnerable in our midst."

The White House Years

After George Bush was elected president, Gonzales shed his black robe and once again assumed the role of Bush's lawyer.

He defined that role in an interview with the Houston Chronicle: "You have to remember in my current job, I am an advocate for a client who has an agenda. And my job is to make sure the president has the tools he needs to pursue the agenda. So there may be some things the president wants that I personally disagree with." But, he added, "I think those instances are rare."

It was in the role of representing "a client with an agenda" that critics and the courts say that his zealous advocacy went much too far.

It was Gonzales who wrote the now-controversial White House memo, dated January 25, 2002, which concluded that the Geneva Convention's Treatment of Prisoners of War didn't apply to the conflict with Al Qaeda and the Taliban. Referring to Bush's war on terrorism, Gonzales wrote: "In my judgment, this new paradigm renders obsolete Geneva's strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners and renders quaint some of its provisions...."

Therefore, prisoner of war protocols and protections, including bans on humiliating or torturing captives, didn't apply to the detainees. By refusing to apply the Geneva Convention rules, Gonzales helped pave the way, critics say, for abusive treatment of enemy detainees.

The memo also noted a secondary benefit of carving out an exception to the Geneva Convention rules: U.S. officials would not run the risk of being prosecuted under the War Crimes Act, a federal law that makes any "grave breach" of the Geneva Convention, a crime punishable by the death penalty. "[I]t is difficult to predict the motives of prosecutors and independent counsels who may in the future decide to pursue unwarranted charges based on [the War Crimes Act]," Gonzales wrote. "Your determination would create a reasonable basis in the law that [the War Crimes Act] does not apply, which would provide a solid defense to any future prosecution."

The memo reveals something else: A clash within the administration. Secretary of State Colin Powell opposed throwing the Geneva Convention out the window, favored treating the "detainees" as prisoners of war. The Secretary of State's legal adviser, in contrast with Gonzales, agreed. But it was Gonzales' views that prevailed.

According to a report on the Gonzales nomination prepared by the Alliance for Justice, a progressive nonprofit that promotes an independent judiciary, the Geneva Convention memo, combined with legal memos from the Justice Department and the Department of Defense, "laid the groundwork for abusive interrogation of detainees not only in Afghanistan, but also in Iraq and Guantanamo Bay."

And it was Gonzales, in 2001, who prepared the military order signed by the president which stated that non-citizens would be tried by military commissions. The order did not include provisions for due process rights including a right to a lawyer, to a fair trial, or access to evidence.

The military commissions were challenged on constitutional grounds. And in June 2004, the Supreme Court concluded that enemy combatants held at Guantanamo Bay could file habeas corpus claims in federal court challenging their detention. And in Hamdi v. Rumsfeld, the Supreme Court ruled that a citizen held as an enemy combatant could challenge his detention. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote that the military commission approach "serves only to condense power into a single branch of government" and that "a state of war is not a blank check when it comes to the rights of the Nation's citizens."

And on Nov. 8, a federal judge in Washington, D.C. stopped pre-trial proceedings in a military commission's case against a driver and bodyguard of Osama Bin Laden. The judge ruled that the military commissions in Guantanamo Bay violated the U.S. Constitution and the Geneva Convention.

Gonzales has also come under fire for devising ways to help the Bush administration erect a wall that keeps in secrets. He fought demands for Vice President Dick Cheney's Energy Task Force memos and calls for National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice to testify before the bi-partisan National Commission on Terrorist Attacks. According to an evaluation of Gonzales prepared by The Reporter's Committee for Freedom of the Press, he also "has played a key role in keeping presidential records out of the public eye and asked for several extensions to deadlines for turning over papers of past presidents."

But he didn't always fall lock-step with the administration. According to the Washington Post, Gonzales clashed with John Ashcroft and Solicitor General Theodore Olson over the administration's stance on affirmative action in a University of Michigan admissions case. "Gonzales argued fiercely that the administration should not take a hard-line position in favor of the white students who were claiming that the school had made them victims of 'reverse discrimination.'"

Law(yer) of the Land?
But it is Gonzales' work on the two "Ts" – terrorism and torture – as well as the clemency memos from his Texas years, that have garnered sharp criticism from human rights and progressive groups. As an attorney general nominee, Human Rights Watch called Gonzales a "poor choice." In addition, a coalition of civil rights groups including the ACLU, the NAACP, Amnesty International, People for the American Way and NOW Legal Defense & Education Fund, expressed "serious concern" with Gonzales nomination. However, the coalition, Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, stopped short of outright opposing his nomination.

Presumably, while Gonzales' record is worrisome, he is no John Ashcroft.

Elliott Mincberg, vice president and legal director for People for the American Way, finds many of Gonzales's positions "troubling." One issue, Mincberg says, is whether Gonzales understands "that his role as Attorney General is not to be counselor to the President or Attorney General for President Bush, he's Attorney General of the United States."

"I think it's extremely important that at hearings and in other conversations with Senators, he shows a significant appreciation of that difference in role, of the different obligations and responsibilities he has, and his willingness and ability to carry them out fairly even when, occasionally, it might bump up against political interests of the President," Mincberg says.

And the rumor still persists that the Attorney General post is just a stepping stone to the U.S. Supreme Court; that this confirmation process will pave a path to the Supreme Court.

"Senator Feingold made it very clear when he voted to confirm John Ashcroft as attorney general, that he applies a very, very different standard to the third branch of the government," Mincberg says. "And I expect that Senators would very much adhere to that position and make it clear that the ability to get confirmed as attorney general is very different than getting confirmed as a member of the Supreme Court."

Also holding him to a different standard – possibly even blocking the path – will be religious conservatives who write about him, if not with downright hostility, then at least abject suspicion. And it all goes back to Jane Doe.

According to the article in Human Events, Gonzales "is a judicial activist of the worst sort. His life story may recall Clarence Thomas, but his judicial mindset recalls David Souter."

The Women of Wal-Mart

Wal-Mart

When Melissa Howard joined the Wal-Mart store in New Castle, Ind., in 1992, she received a blue vest, a red, white and-blue nametag, six bucks an hour, and the title of "electronics department manager." Howard hoped to climb the corporate ladder, accept greater responsibility and take home a fatter paycheck.

So she worked diligently and her performance evaluations reflected that: the reviews rated much of her work as "exceeds expectations," the top ranking allowed. Howard says that in the space set aside for her comments, "I wrote that my long-term goals were to work my way up the ladder to store manager, district manager and ultimately regional manager."

After several years at Wal-Mart, Howard became a store manager, joining a small group of women who held that title. Not only was she a store manager by 1999, she was asked to open a brand new Supercenter in Bluffton, Ind. "The Supercenter was the up-and-coming thing," Howard says. To be asked to open one meant "prestige." She likened it to the difference between driving a Ford and a Cadillac. "It was just a major accomplishment."

She was now on the top rung of responsibility inside a store, yet she wasn't earning the top salary. That honor went to two men who reported to Howard as co-managers at the Supercenter. One man with no Wal-Mart work experience, she claims, was making $15,000 more a year and getting three weeks of vacation, a perk Howard only got after seven years at Wal-Mart. The other man, Howard says, was "hired off the street for $10,000 more than I was making."

Although the store opening was successful, Howard's own career was headed for trouble. In March 2000, some stores in her district were experiencing high shrink and inventory was disappearing because of theft or sloppy paperwork. She was told her Supercenter wasn't a problem, but a store she'd managed months earlier was struggling with inventory loss.

Several managers, district managers and loss prevention managers were summoned to the corporate offices in Bentonville, Ark., for a meeting. On the trip, some of the men decided to stop at a roadside strip club. Despite her instincts, Howard says she felt it best to go into the club rather than sit alone in a dark parking lot off a highway.

"I tried to ignore the show, but at one point," Howard says in an affidavit, "I was approached by one of the strippers and District Manager Kevin Washburn proposed that he pay one of the strippers $50 to have a 'threesome out back' with me."

Shocked, she refused. But she didn't complain to higher-ups at Wal-Mart. Managers, she alleges, routinely went to strip clubs during annual meetings. Moreover, she says, the last time she objected, in 1994, to what she felt was belittling treatment from John Waters, a regional vice president, she was told she needed to learn to "take the shit and let it roll."

In any case, the return trip wasn't much different. There was another stop at a strip club in Missouri and, she says, some of the men planned to visit a massage parlor.

Two months later, Howard realized that lap dances, massage parlors and invitations to a threesome would be the least of her problems. That's when John Waters was named as her new district manager. (He'd been demoted from regional vice president.) "At our first meeting, he made a point of telling me, in a less than friendly tone, that he 'remembered' me," claims Howard.

On June 16, 2000 she says he called her and told her she needed to step down. Howard drove 30 miles to meet with him. In an affidavit, Howard recalls: "He told me that a woman should not be running a Wal-Mart store and that I 'needed to be home raising my daughter.' He instructed me to step down 'voluntarily' and to tell my employees at the morning meeting that having this new Supercenter was too stressful for a single parent and that I needed to take a break."

Though her store was "running in the black" – unusual for a new Supercenter – she says Waters wanted her out. If she didn't quit, she alleges that he told her he'd make her life "hell."

"I had no choice but to step down," Howard says.

He also wanted her out of his district. She was assigned to a co-manager position in a store 120 miles away. Meanwhile, she claims the regional personnel manager told her to stay away from her old Supercenter; her presence in the store was undermining the new store manager's "ability to succeed."

Soon after, Howard says Waters accused her of having sex with an employee, something forbidden by Wal-Mart's anti-fraternization rules. She vehemently denied the claim. The company investigated and cleared her of any wrongdoing.

By late summer of 2000, Howard felt battered: She had stepped down as a store manager, left the Supercenter she'd worked hard to open, been assigned a two-hour commute, and endured a humiliating investigation into her sexual conduct.

Howard was no longer able to take the shit and roll with it. "I knew at that point that I had to leave Wal-Mart," she says. And so she did.

"Retail is for Housewives"

Less than a year after Howard resigned, a gender discrimination class action lawsuit was filed against Wal-Mart in San Francisco federal court. It claims that Wal-Mart discriminated against female employees and that women were paid less than men in similar positions, even with higher performance ratings and more seniority. And it claims that women weren't promoted to in-store management positions as often as men and when they were, they waited longer to advance.

In short, it says that Wal-Mart has two career ladders – a well-paying, far-reaching one for men and a limited, lower-wage one for women. Affidavits filed in court by women allege that:


  • Women with years of experience and good work records were repeatedly passed over for promotions in favor of men with little or no experience.


  • Women seeking advancement were treated differently than men; they were asked to work night shifts for two years as assistant manager before being considered for store manager or were asked to show they could repeatedly lift 50-pound bags of dry dog food.


  • Women working in personnel were fired when they complained that men were consistently paid more than women for the same job.


  • Some women were told men were being paid more because men had "families to support" or that "men are here to make a career and women aren't. Retail is for housewives who just need to earn extra money."



The plaintiffs also compiled compelling statistics: Among cashiers and greeters, 65 percent were women; among salaried assistant managers, a more modest 35 percent were women; among co-managers, less than 25 percent. And among store managers, only 14 percent were women. And they filed expert testimony that there is a clear record of under-promoting women in "nearly every geographic region," and that the women of Wal-Mart are paid less than men nationwide. For hourly employees, the wage gap is $1,100 and among salaried jobs, women make $14,500 less than men. Statistics are the backbone of a request for class action status; in this case, the class could mean 1.6 million women, making it the largest such suit ever certified.

Wal-Mart's response has been somewhat predictable: The numbers are flawed because comparisons should be made store-by-store or within each department of each store, and not company-wide. And incredibly, Wal-Mart, a company that critics charge routinely uses its sheer size to get what it wants, argues that the big class of plaintiffs makes the case unmanageable. In other words, Wal-Mart was suggesting a size cap on class-action lawsuits.

U.S. District Court Judge Martin J. Jenkins didn't buy it. In his opinion handed down in June, he wrote, "Insulating our nation's largest employers from allegations that they have engaged in a pattern and practice of gender or racial discrimination - simply because they are large - would seriously undermine these imperatives."

Jenkins handed the women a significant victory, granting class action status for all women working at any Wal-Mart retail store in the U.S. since December 26, 1998 who have been, or might be, subject to the alleged discriminatory pay and promotion practices.

Wal-Mart immediately released a statement: "Let's keep in mind that today's ruling has absolutely nothing to do with the merits of the case. Judge Jenkins is simply saying he thinks it meets the legal requirements necessary to move forward as a class action. We strongly disagree with his decision and will seek an appeal."

When we contacted Wal-Mart for this story and submitted written questions as asked, we received no response.


The dog food bag test

When Claudia Renati took a job in 1993 as a membership team leader for Pace Membership Warehouse, Inc., in Roseville, Calif., her family needed the paycheck. She'd been working in real estate when the market dropped off. Her husband was out of work for a year because of a job-related injury. The work meant regular income and, she hoped, advancement opportunities.

Soon after she started, Wal-Mart bought Pace and converted the store to a Sam's Club, and "they made you believe that it was even so much easier and a much better organization that you could, that anybody could, move up and be in management and move on to running your own club if you wanted to," Renati says.

The reality proved different for her. For several years she appealed in vain to Wal-Mart's management for a promotion. She says she had above average or exceptional evaluations, no disciplinary action, and time records that were "squeaky clean." But it was never good enough to get promoted. "There was constantly a barrier," she claims.

In 1994, after the regional sales manager left the company, Renati was put in charge of "running the region and doing all the ads and marketing programs. I completed all the tasks of a Regional Sales Manager for two years without the proper title or pay."

Yet, when she approached the director of operations about a promotion, Renati says she was told that she couldn't have it because she hadn't completed the management training program. When she asked about entering the program, she alleges, "He told me that I would have to be willing to sell my house and move to Alaska."

Wal-Mart has a policy of requiring people to move around the country if they want to move up in the company. But with a husband who had 30 years invested in his job, Renati says moving wasn't a real option so she remained the marketing team leader. By 2000, she had trained approximately 20 marketing managers, "all of whom were male and many of whom never went through the training program."

But then Wal-Mart violated its own policy, she says, when several men in her store climbed up the management ranks without moving - to Alaska or anywhere else. A meat cutter became a general manager, a floor team leader was promoted to general manager, a team leader became a merchandise manager. And she watched a number of management training candidates filter through Sam's Club. The candidate profile, Renati claims, is "usually a white male between 27 and 35."

In 2000, while out for six weeks for knee surgery, Renati says she was told that her department was being combined with another and that a man would head the new department. Her job was being eliminated. Her new post was as a meat wrapper. But while out on sick leave later that year, she was replaced by a man and moved to the membership desk.

There, she got a not-so-pleasant surprise. "I discovered that my supervisor at the membership desk was someone whom I had previously supervised for six years," she says. Fed up, she quit.

Then, in 2001, she was asked to return and sell credit at the membership desk. When she asked about promotional opportunities, she was told she'd be given a chance. She signed up to work.

In 2002 she asked to become the photo manager, but a male cashier with six months of experience got the job. When she approached the operations director and explained that she'd spent nine years at Sam's Club and had little advancement, she says he asked if she could stack 50-pound bags of dog food. She could not.

"He told me there was nothing he could do for me because before I could become a manager, I would have to be Floor Team Leader and that requires stacking 50-pound bags of dog food," Renati claims.

And yet she knew of several male managers who didn't have to be a floor team leader first or were not required to pass the 50-pound dog food bags test.

In 2002, Renati quit a second and final time. She says of Wal-Mart and Sam's Club: "It is run by good old boys. They make and break their money off the backs of the women employees."

Pro-subsidy, anti-union

Ironically, founder Sam Walton's rules for building a business retail include valuing "associates" and sharing rewards. Last year, Wal-Mart generated $265 billion in revenue and had about $9.1 billion in net income. Today there are 5,000 stores in 10 countries, including Argentina, South Korea and China. When Walton died in 1992, he was second only to Bill Gates for title of the world's richest man.

The impressive growth has come at a high price. In May, Good Jobs First, a nonprofit research center that promotes corporate and government accountability, released a report showing Wal-Mart received more than one billion dollars in subsidies from local and state governments, including sales tax rebates, free or reduced-priced land, tax-increment-financing, state corporate income tax credits and property tax abatements. The study was partially funded by the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union.

Labor unions have their own fight to pick with Wal-Mart. Although the UFCW recently won accreditation and the right to represent employees in a Quebec Wal-Mart, it has yet to successfully organize in the United States. In 2000, meat cutters in a Jacksonville, Texas store voted to organize and shortly after that the company announced it was closing the department. Wal-Mart's official position on unions is: "We do not believe there is a need for third-party representation."

Represented or not, workers have leveled other charges against Wal-Mart. The company has been hit by a wave of class action suits alleging that it requires its employees to work "off the clock," a violation of the Fair Labor Standards and Practices Act. Wal-Mart is also being sued in several courts over its practice of taking out life insurance policies on Wal-Mart employees. Under the company's Corporate-Owned Life Insurance program, the company – not the employee's surviving family – is financially compensated if the worker dies. Wal-Mart settled lawsuits in Texas and New Hampshire but others are pending.

And last month, the Labor Center at the University of California at Berkeley released a report claiming that Wal-Mart's low wages and inadequate benefits in California cost the state $86 million a year in state aid.

But eclipsing them all is Dukes et al. vs. Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the class action gender discrimination suit that includes women like Melissa Howard and Claudia Renati. This is a case that could do serious damage to the company. In its annual report released before the class certification ruling earlier this summer, Wal-Mart warned that if the class is certified, a settlement is reached, or it loses the case, "the resulting liability could be material to the Company, as could employment-related injunctive measures, which would result in increased costs of operation on an ongoing basis."

The fight goes on

Melissa Howard and Claudia Renati have found there is life beyond Wal-Mart. Howard is a customer relations specialist in Indianapolis making less than what she did when she stepped down as a Supercenter store manager. A single mom, Howard says "it has not been the easiest, but I did what I had to do."

Renati is now the executive director of Lincoln Arts, a nonprofit public arts organization in Lincoln, CA. Says Renati: "This is the 21st Century, this is not the 1950s coming out of World War II." Women "need to be recognized as being intelligent, smart individuals who can run an organization – because I do here."

Since the case was filed in 2001, Wal-Mart has made a few changes – some substantive, some in public relations. It scrapped the "tap on the shoulder" method for deciding who gets to join the management-in-training program and has set up a formal application process. The company opened a diversity office which is supposed to help it "recruit and promote from all segments of society," according to its annual report. And it launched a PR campaign touting Wal-Mart as a great place for advancement and a good paycheck.

That's not what Debra Smith hears these days. A staff attorney with the San Francisco-based Equal Rights Advocates, one of the firms representing women in the lawsuit, Smith says that current Wal-Mart employees who are involved in the suit are "very scared."

Says Smith: "I have several who call me once a month or once a quarter who tell me about the latest incident that they're afraid is going to get them terminated and they feel they're being set up for termination."

And some of those stories may end up in the court file as the case moves towards a trial.
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