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Book Review

How women pay for Wal-Mart's success

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Naomi Aoki
Globe Staff / October 31, 2004

Like McDonald's in the food industry, Wal-Mart sets the rules of retail.

The big-box chain is the world's largest retailer, the number one grocery store, the number one toy seller, the number one sporting-goods chain. As Wal-Mart expands its reach, it changes the landscape of one industry after another, undercutting rivals and forcing them to lower prices, declare bankruptcy, or shift their business focus to survive.

In her book, ''Selling Women Short: The Landmark Battle for Workers' Rights at Wal-Mart," Liza Featherstone asks what price America pays for Wal-Mart's success. Her answer is nothing less than a condemnation of the company as a titan of corporate greed and bastion for good ol' boys.

''The working poor are even more likely than other Americans to shop at Wal-Mart, not necessarily because they find it a shopper's paradise, though of course some do, but because they need discounts, or live in remote areas with few other options. Through shoppers as well as associates, Wal-Mart is making billions from female poverty," writes Featherstone, a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in publications including The New York Times and Rolling Stone magazine.

Featherstone paints a grim picture through stories of women suing Wal-Mart Stores Inc. for depriving them of pay, promotions, and job assignments because of their sex.

Still being litigated, the class-action Dukes v. Wal-Mart represents more than 1.6 million women. Featherstone builds a compelling case through interviews, legal depositions, and court records. But in the end, it's unsatisfying.

Featherstone repeatedly asserts the suit's potential to change workers' rights not only at Wal-Mart, but throughout retail. Yet she offers little insight into what change would look like. Unlike Wal-Mart, Target Corp. pays women comparable to their male counterparts and promotes women in greater numbers. But ''in many markets," Featherstone writes, ''its wages are as low as Wal-Mart."

So even if the women suing Wal-Mart were to win, it remains unclear that the broader social problems Featherstone spends much of the book exposing would be addressed. But if wages throughout the sector are low, what would Wal-Mart's incentive be to increase its wages across the board and improve healthcare benefits?

As Featherstone herself so poignantly points out, average Wal-Mart shoppers can't afford the luxury of boycotting the store's ''Always Low Prices" regardless of what they think of its employment practices. She writes that class-action suits often fail to change the status quo, and describes the ardor with which Wal-Mart fights unions.

Nonetheless, she proposes that a better future depends on the power of unions to protect workers and on public policy that ''challenges corporate greed, and takes the side of ordinary people."

Perhaps the reason her proposition seems unsatisfying is that in the age of Wal-Mart, it just doesn't seem realistic.

Naomi Aoki can be reached at naoki@globe.com.

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