From Publishers Weekly
Fortune magazine's "Most Admired Company" for two years running, Wal-Mart offers its customers low prices and its shareholders big profits, but as freelance journalist Featherstone (Students Against Sweatshops) argues, this comes at great cost. Wal-Mart's success is based not only on its inexpensive merchandise or its popularity (Featherstone cites working-class shoppers and Paris Hilton among Wal-Mart's fans) but on bad labor practices. Using a close investigation of the class action suit Dukes v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. and extensive interviews with female workers, Featherstone indicts Wal-Mart for low wages, discriminatory policies and sexist practices. "[Our] district manager sometimes held lunch meetings at Hooters restaurants," one female employee explains; another recalls being asked to work "off the clock." Failure to post open positions, exclusively male social gatherings, pay discrimination, "persistent segregation of departments"—all are part, she argues, of Wal-Mart's deep-rooted culture of sexism. Many women employed full-time at Wal-Mart make so little that they are dependent on public assistance: "It is curious that Wal-Mart—the icon of American free enterprise and self-sufficiency...—turns out to be one of the biggest 'welfare queens' of our time," Featherstone writes. She doesn't give much time to related topics—racism, exploited overseas labor—but this is a clearly written and compelling book. It may not keep readers from their local Supercenters, but it should make them take a closer look at who's working the register.
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Between 2000 and 2003, women workers at Wal-Mart stores across the country filed a class-action suit against the company for sex discrimination in promotions, pay, and job assignments. Dukes v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. is potentially the largest class-action suit in history, representing 1.6 million past and present women employees. The bare statistics reveal that Wal-Mart is sorely behind the rest of the country in promoting women, but the suit must also show that discrimination occurred in individual cases. Featherstone's interviews with the plaintiffs reveal an entrenched good ol' boy network at the company, where highly qualified women are routinely passed over for promotions that are given to men with less experience. Even more blatant are the pay inequities that harken back to 1950s attitudes about the male being the head of the household. These are heartbreaking stories of loyal employees who remained fervent believers in Wal-Mart despite being ridiculed for wanting to succeed. Caught up in the cultlike corporate culture, they bought into the Wal-Mart propaganda about rural family values while the company feeds off the poorest, fails to provide a living wage, and fights unionization tooth and nail. Wal-Mart, whose unfair labor practices are lowering the bar for all workers, is already responding to high-profile press coverage. Featherstone's chronicling of the personal side of the story should draw even more attention to these crucial issues. David Siegfried
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