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Betty Dukes, Renowned Dukes v. Walmart Plaintiff, Takes Her Fight Back To Capitol Hill

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WASHINGTON -- Betty Dukes works as a greeter at the Pittsburg, Calif., Walmart, what the world's largest retailer refers to as store #1615. She clocks in for 40 hours a week, asking customers how they're doing, steering them to the electronics department, showing them where to make returns. She's been at the same store for 18 years. She makes $16.93 an hour.

Although a lot of shoppers wouldn't know it when they talk to her, the 62-year-old greeter is the Betty Dukes of Dukes v. Walmart, what was the largest class-action lawsuit in U.S. history, representing a proposed class of more than a million women, until the Supreme Court threw out the suit last year.

Still four years shy of retirement, Dukes has now spent more than half of her Walmart career tangling in court with her employer. Many of her colleagues, she said, have grown more supportive since she first filed the suit in 2001, alleging that Walmart management discriminated against women over pay and promotions and violated the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

"A lot of my coworkers at that time, they weren't all behind me," Dukes told The Huffington Post while in Washington to see lawmakers this week. "They have evolved over the years. I have tremendous support now."

Many of them, Dukes said, privately voiced their disappointment when the Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decision last summer that the lawsuit could not proceed, the conservative majority arguing that members of the huge class didn't share enough in common as plaintiffs. Class-action lawsuits have become one of the primary avenues of recourse for employees claiming injustice in the workplace, particularly in an era of diminished labor unions. While large businesses exhaled a sigh of relief upon the Supreme Court ruling, advocates for workers warned that the decision would scrap large class-actions and tilt the scales even more in favor of employers.

"What we've always objected to is trying to treat individual claims as a class action," Walmart spokesman Dave Tovar said. "We continue to believe that anyone with a legitimate individual claim should have their day in court."

A year later, Dukes seems no more at peace with the decision, even though she said she anticipated the justices breaking 5-4 against her.

"That ruling has devastated the Civil Rights Act of 1964 -- not just for the women in Walmart, but for men, for women, for minorities across the country. It will scuttle many, many more [cases]," Dukes said. The court, she went on, seized "an opportunity to give corporate America a huge advantage over everyday American citizens."

Dukes isn't done with her lawsuit. In response to the Supreme Court ruling, she and her attorneys filed a new suit in San Francisco last fall, in a more modest class-action suit that could include up to 45,000 California women who have worked at Walmart. Earlier this month, a federal judge said he was "seriously concerned" about whether the plaintiffs will have enough new evidence to overcome the Supreme Court ruling.

With the help of some Democratic lawmakers, Dukes is also working another angle to rectify what she described as the ruling's damage. On Wednesday, to mark the one-year anniversary of the ruling, Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) are expected to introduce legislation in the Senate and House that would ensure workers' ability to bring large-scale class-action lawsuits against their employers. Called the Equal Employment Opportunity Restoration Act, the bill would face long odds of actually becoming law, particularly with the GOP-controlled House, but Dukes said the legislation would give workers a better shot at redress in cases of discrimination.

"Someone has to speak out on behalf of the working poor," Dukes said. "I've been a low-income worker for my working career."

After 18 years with the company, Dukes, who's single, earns a salary of about $35,000, she said. She lives in Contra Costa County, in northern California, where the cost of living isn't exactly cheap. After paying rent, her share of the health insurance premium, and covering food and living expenses, she said she has little to nothing left. Even though for much of her time at Walmart she was enrolled in its profit-sharing program -- which the company ended last year -- and puts money into a 401(k), she said she won't have a lot saved for retirement due to the relatively small salary she's had over the years. When she started in 1994, she was earning $5 per hour, she said.

"When you subtract my living [expenses], I'm not living -- I'm existing," Dukes said. "I have an 88-year-old mother. Economically, there's nothing I can do for my mom to make her life more golden in her golden years, because I have no resources to do that."

Tovar, however, said that Walmart offers competitive wages for the industry. "We're proud of our jobs," he said. "We're proud of the pay and the benefits that we offer to our associates. We need to pay competitive wages in the marketplace or we couldn't attract and retain associates to work in our stores."

Dukes said there have been improvements at Walmart since she originally filed her lawsuit. Job openings are visible to women in a way that they once were not, she said. There are women in high-ranking positions who weren't in them a decade ago, such as Rosalind Brewer, CEO of Walmart's Sam's Club division, who was appointed to her position early this year. "A lot of doors opened up for women after the lawsuit," Dukes said, although she maintains in her new lawsuit that women are still facing discrimination.

Dukes said that she'll continue to take on her employer in ways big and small, and that she'll advance her cause outside of the lawsuit.

When she was recently given a year-end review, for instance, she ended up objecting to her manager's evaluation, she said. Although she'd been given a solid review and a 40-cent raise, she said she thought she deserved better.

Upon further review, she said she was given an extra 10 cents per hour.

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