Walmart greeter in biggest gender-bias case ever in U.S. has died

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Betty Dukes testifiying at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing June 29, 2011. The Walmart greeter, who took the retail giant all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in the largest gender bias class-action lawsuit in U.S. history, has died at 67. | AP

ANTIOCH, Calif. — The Walmart greeter who took the retail giant all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in the largest gender-bias class-action lawsuit in U.S. history before ultimately losing has died.

Betty Dukes died July 10 at her home in Antioch, California, according to a niece, Rita Roland.

She was 67.

“She was a very tough lady, very driven and passionate about what she believed in,” Roland said. “She was persuasive. She just didn’t want to tell her point. She wanted you to have an understanding, so you could come to the same conclusions that she had.”

The San Francisco Bay Area woman, who worked for Walmart until last year, was the lead plaintiff in a 2001 lawsuit accused the company of violating the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which made it illegal for employers to discriminate on the basis of race, creed or gender.

Dukes, who worked at a Walmart in Pittsburg, Calif., said the chain systemically paid women less than it did her male counterparts and promoted men to higher positions at faster rates than women. The case reached the U.S. Supreme Court in 2011, where it was dismissed, failing on a 5-4 vote.

But Roland said the dismissal wasn’t in vain for her aunt.

“The one thing I do know is the work that she did is fluid,” said Roland, who lives in Milpitas, California, and often traveled with Dukes when she was working on the case. “It has not stopped. She was one of many voices fighting for the same cause.”

Dukes was an ordained minister, and her faith was the foundation for everything she did, including taking on the retail giant, Roland said.

“She believed in helping people,” her niece said.

In her off time, Dukes helped organize community banquets with speakers celebrating Martin Luther King Day, Black History Month and the election of President Barack Obama. She also helped distribute food to the needy.

At least twice a year, she would speak to groups about her past struggles and how people should work to fight for women’s rights and against discrimination, Roland said.

And she always did it looking her Sunday best — “matching purse, shoes and accessories. She took pride in the way she dressed,” said Roland.

Born in Louisiana in 1950, Dukes moved west at a young age with her mother, who was in search of work. She later married but had no children.

In 1994, she enthusiastically accepted an offer to work the Walmart cash registers part time for $5 an hour. She dreamed of turning around a hard life by advancing, through work and determination, into Walmart corporate management.

“I was focused on Walmart’s aggressive customer service,” Dukes said in 2011 during an interview on her lunch break, after first saying grace over a meal of fast-food hamburgers and chicken nuggets. “I wanted to advance. I wanted to make that money.”

When Dukes needed change to make a small purchase during her break, she asked a colleague to open a cash register with a one-cent transaction, which she claimed was a common practice.

She was demoted for misconduct. She complained to a manager that the punishment was too severe and part of a long campaign of discrimination that began almost as soon as she started working for Walmart in Pittsburg, a blue-collar city of about 100,000, about 45 miles east of San Francisco.

When those complaints were ignored, Dukes sought legal advice and ended up serving as the lead plaintiff in what would become the vast class-action suit.

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