In the late 1990s, Merrill Lynch faced a class-action lawsuit alleging that women brokers faced gender discrimination in promotions, wages, account distributions and other areas of employment. Eight former or then current brokers brought the suit in 1997 and some 2,900 women were eligible to join the class. This was back in the day when female brokers were breaking into this all-male province and Mother Merrill was among the most resistant to change.
It wasn’t alone in facing a class-action. Salomon Smith Barney allowed the notorious “boom-boom room,” where, as the Times of London recounts, male employees described female colleagues as “whores” and worse.
Strippers and lap dancers were hired, pregnancy derided. … They took their lead from their boss, Nicholas Cuneo, who made no secret of his hostility to career women. Male colleagues enjoyed the partying; Salomon Smith Barney appreciated the profits he made.
Full disclosure: My future wife worked at both firms as a pioneering female broker and received a modest payout. But the justice the women won, and the fairness that resulted in the workplace, would not have been possible with today’s Supreme Court, as was made astonishingly clear in the Wal-Mart decision.
While abuse was possible in class-actions, it was nothing compared with the way they could balance the legal scales between the very powerful and average Americans. They did great good in a host of areas, from gender equity to product and workplace safety. Along with the Citizens United decision, which allows corporations as “persons” deserving free-speech rights, to give unlimited sums to elections, the Court takes us even further away from the America I grew up in. (And, yes, unions gained those powers, too, but are a fading force and are already heavily outspent by big business).
Equal justice under law? No, this is judicial activism aimed at an 1890s vision of America. I hope those “persons” decide to start hiring soon.
Today’s Econ Haiku:
Let’s just short-cut this
And pick a name that will last
Greedy Merger Field