Betty Dukes, a Walmart worker who led a class-action lawsuit accusing the company of discriminating against female employees — a landmark case that went all the way to United States Supreme Court — died on July 10 at her home in Antioch, Calif. She was 67.
Her death was confirmed on Tuesday by her brother William Ponnell. The cause had not been determined, but she had recently had heart problems, he said. Ms. Dukes had continued to work for Walmart until her retirement last year, a company spokesman said.
A Walmart greeter who welcomed customers to the store, Ms. Dukes was portrayed as the epitome of a low-paid female retail worker taking on a huge multinational corporation.
“She was a voice fighting for equal rights and against racial and gender discrimination in the workplace,” her niece Rita Roland said.
The lawsuit was filed in 2001 on behalf of as many as 1.5 million female workers. Among other discriminatory labor practices, it accused Walmart of a systemic gender discrimination— paying women less than their male counterparts and of unjustly passing over women for promotions — all in violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which made it illegal for employers to discriminate on the basis of race, creed or gender.
But the Supreme Court dismissed the case in 2011 in a 5-4 decision in which its more conservative justices prevailed.
In the majority opinion, written by Justice Antonin Scalia, the court ruled that the lawsuit was technically flawed because it had failed to prove that the women in the class had issues of law or fact in common.
The five conservative justices were not swayed by statistical and anecdotal evidence that portrayed Walmart as having systematically discriminated against its female employees.
Justice Scalia noted that Walmart’s official corporate policy opposed discrimination, and that the company had given managers at its more than 3,400 stores considerable discretion over pay and promotions.
“In a company of Wal-Mart’s size and geographical scope, it is quite unbelievable that all managers would exercise their discretion in a common way without some common direction,” Justice Scalia wrote.
But writing for the dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said the decision had gone too far in derailing the Walmart workers’ case. She said that the statistics presented by Ms. Dukes and the other plaintiffs showed that “gender bias suffused Walmart’s corporate culture.”
The decision was widely viewed as having made it harder to bring big employment class-action cases asserting discrimination based on sex, race or other factors. And it was seen as setting higher barriers for bringing nationwide class actions against a large company with many branches.
Though the case, Walmart Stores v. Dukes, was thrown out, Ms. Duke’s legal effort helped draw attention to the working conditions of low-paid workers in so-called big box stores that dominate the retail landscape.
Ms. Dukes was born on March 17, 1950, in Tallulah, La., one of 12 children. She did not graduate from high school but later earned an equivalency diploma and attended college.
In the 1990s, Ms. Dukes, an ordained Baptist minister, lobbied successfully to remove adult books and videos from the view and reach of children at her neighborhood grocery store, according to the website of Betty Dukes Ministry Foundation.
She started working for Walmart in 1994, earning $5.50 an hour. When she filed the lawsuit in 2001, she worked at a store in Pittsburg, Calif, about 30 miles east of Oakland, where many of the store’s employees included recent immigrants from Mexico and the Philippines.
“Betty was out to help the little person, the people were afraid to rock the boat,” said her sister-in-law Sundrena Ponnell, who worked with Ms. Dukes at Walmart when the lawsuit was filed.
Ms. Dukes is survived by five siblings. She had no children and lived in senior housing in Antioch. She was found dead when a relative went to check on her after she had not answered her phone.
Ms. Dukes was celebrated as a hero by workers’ rights groups across the country, but day-to-day reality was not always easy for her.
“It is a difficult thing to go into work knowing you were fighting against the very company where you have made your career,” Ms. Roland said.
Ms. Dukes established her foundation to support female workers and “the marginalized striving for upward mobility.” She was active in her church and organized celebrations at a local restaurant for President Barack Obama’s inaugurations.
Even after the legal case fizzled, Ms. Dukes continued to work at Walmart because she had grown close to many of the customers and workers, whom she counseled about workplace issues, Ms. Roland said.
“It was her family, away from her family,” she said.