The historian Nelson Lichtenstein begins his book State of the Union by looking at an employment application from Burger King. He takes special note of language on it that suggests that the restaurant will not discriminate against people on the basis of race, genderâ€¦you know the drill. In fact, Lichtenstein writes:
The overwhelming majority of workers, employers, and politicians believe that the government has a right to insist that active discrimination not take place against anyone covered by Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights or those many statutes that followed in its train. This seems so commonplace and commonsensensible, that we forget the radical character of this law. If you own a restaurant or a factory or a motel or run a college, you canâ€™t make use of the property as you wish. The state mandates you to hire, fire, promote, and otherwise deal with your employees or clients according to a set of rules laid down in Washington and refined by the EEOC [Equal Employment Opportunity Commission] and the courts.
Think about it. Organize a union at your place of employment and theyâ€™ll fire you instantly and get away with it, but they canâ€™t make your life miserable just because youâ€™re African American. Except at Wal-Mart. They get to have their cake and eat it too. Lawyer George Lenard summarizes the case of Canady v. Wal-Mart Stores Inc.:
African-American plaintiff claiming racially discriminatory termination and racially hostile work environment alleged his immediate supervisor made the following discriminatory remarks:
â€¢ Referred to himself as a â€œslave driverâ€ when describing his reputation as a manager.
â€¢ Asked plaintiff, â€œWhatâ€™s up, my nigga?â€
â€¢ Referred to plaintiff as â€œlawn jockey.â€
â€¢ Said all African Americans look alike.
â€¢ Said plaintiffâ€™s skin color seemed to wipe off onto towels.
And Wal-Mart won the case on a summary judgment.
When I first wrote about this case, I asked, â€œDoes Wal-Mart think itâ€™s OK to call African Americans lawn jockeys?â€ Let me simplify it further. Forget about the law. You want to know why this case is important? Wal-Mart sided with the supervisor instead of Myron Canady. That means theyâ€™re part of the problem rather than the solution.
Does this mean Wal-Mart is a racist company? Does the fact that Wal-Mart is the defendant in the biggest class action gender discrimination suit in American history (indeed the biggest class action suit of ANY kind in American history) mean that the company is sexist? I donâ€™t think so. These cases arenâ€™t about racism or sexism per se; theyâ€™re about power. Wal-Mart sided with the supervisor because if they support workers over managers on anything their whole tyrannical employment system might topple over. If employees realize that they have a right to be treated with basic human dignity, they could actually demand the right to organize and Wal-Mart canâ€™t possibly have that. Theyâ€™ll tell you a union would add to the price of their cheap plastic crap and fatty meat, but we all know thatâ€™s just a cover story. The real reason Wal-Mart doesnâ€™t want a union is that the Walton family would then be a little less obscenely rich. If some idiot manager wants to use his power over his employees to say, â€œWhatâ€™s up, my nigga?â€ or hold business meetings at a Hooters restaurant, then thatâ€™s a small price to pay from the companyâ€™s perspective.
This is precisely why Wal-Martâ€™s recent embrace of diversity is so inadequate. The presence of women and minority executives in the companyâ€™s boardrooms are worth very little if Wal-Martâ€™s money-grubbing culture stays the same. As James Baldwin explained more eloquently than Iâ€™ve ever seen it before:
[T]he inequalities suffered by the many are no way justified by the rise of the few. A few have always risen â€“ in every country, every era, and in the teeth of regimes which can by no stretch of the imagination be thought of as free. Not all of these people, it is worth remembering, left the world better than they found it.
Indeed, letâ€™s not forget that it was a female executive, Susan Chambers, who wrote the now-infamous memo that advised Wal-Mart to discourage unhealthy people from working there. That makes her part of the problem, irrespective of her gender.
Diversity doesnâ€™t cost Wal-Mart a cent. Empowering employees would be a whole different ballgame and Wal-Mart wonâ€™t do that on its own. Thatâ€™s why Wal-Mart workers need a union. Otherwise, all our civil rights will be in jeopardy when Wal-Martâ€™s priorities and practices spread through the rest of the economy and the words enshrined on Lichtensteinâ€™s Burger King application become just as meaningless as the right to organize.