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Publix Case: Women Revolt on Aisle 7

AT Publix, the nation's seventh largest supermarket chain, the motto is "where shopping is a pleasure." But several women have gone to court to prove that working there is not.

"This lawsuit is about a failure to let women into management positions," says Kathy Watkins, a former plant manager who claims Publix passed her over for promotions and forced her to train men who then advanced faster than she did.

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Ms. Watkins's lawsuit is the second filed in a year. Publix already faces the country's largest gender-bias suit on behalf of more than 100,000 current and former female workers who claim they have lost pay and promotions. The US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has joined the women.

The significance of the suits extends well beyond Publix. "It affects a huge class of people," says Donald Jones, a University of Miami law professor. "If [the women] win, the ripples will go through the corporate world."

In particular, it could help the United Food & Commercial Workers break into nonunionized territory like Publix. Already the union has won victories against unionized supermarkets such as Lucky Stores Inc., which paid $107 million in 1992 after a court ruled it had discriminated against 14,000 women.

Watkins, a 25-year Publix employee, says she was demoted from her position as manager of the chain's largest plant after she asked why her pay level differed from male counterparts. "They said, 'You make good money for a woman,' " says Watkins, then a single mother.

PUBLIX maintains that women often didn't want to move up the ladder and has portrayed the issue within a freedom of choice context.

Publix spokeswoman Jennifer Bush contends that her own story supports that view: "I am a woman in management. The opportunity is here. Publix does not and will not tolerate discrimination."

Watkins's attorney, Ervin Gonzalez, claims that Publix had already changed some policies. "Statistically, if you look at Publix's record, it's not good. They're scrambling now to change that. A lot of women have already benefitted and owe promotions to [the suit]."

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That the EEOC has joined the ranks is significant, Jones adds. "I suspect the flavor of the case is going to be determined by actual war stories. The EEOC obviously smells blood. They think it's a winner."

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