CHICAGO (CBS) — A University of Illinois at Chicago professor could play a key role in a landmark discrimination lawsuit against Wal-Mart, which is now before the U.S. Supreme Court.

As WBBM Newsradio 780’s Regine Schlesinger reports, the case involves and about 1.5 million who are taking on the world’s largest retailer.

LISTEN: Newsradio 780’s Regine Schlesinger reports

The women want to join a class-action lawsuit against Wal-Mart, claiming that they have been passed over for promotions and paid less than men for the same work.

Wal-Mart executive vice president Gisel Ruiz says she is not aware of any bias against women.

“Thousands of other women have similar stories to mine, where they started out as hourly associates, and are now either the managers or run the stores,” Ruiz said.

But Lenore Lapidus, director of the American Civil Liberty Union Women’s Rights Project, says the lawsuit should be a class-action case.

“Women who worked at Wal-Mart stores all across the country allege that they suffered from very similar types of discrimination,” she said.

Among those weighing in is UIC sociology professor William Bielby, who wrote a report for the trial court. The Chicago Sun-Times reports Bielby argues that white men have an unconscious bias against women and minorities.

His argument helped sway a federal appeals court last year, which ruled 6-5 in favor of the plaintiffs against Wal-Mart.

But now as the Supreme Court begins hearing arguments, the lead attorney for Wal-Mart says the mega-retailer is basically “too big” to be sued, CBS News reports.

The Supreme Court will decide if the case will go forward. If it does, between 500,000 and over 1.5 million current and former female employees could be included. If they win, Wal-Mart would be forced to pay billions, CBS News Chief Legal Correspondent Jan Crawford says.

The suit was initially filed in 2001 by a small group of women who claim they were denied promotions and didn’t make as much money as their male co-workers.

Hearing Comes As Wal-Mart Expands In Chicago
The Supreme Court hearing on the lawsuit comes as Wal-Mart expansion remains a hot topic, and a point of controversy, in the city of Chicago.

Having received the green light to expand within the city limits after a compromise was reached with labor unions, Wal-Mart has announced plans for six new stores. They include two Superstores, at 83rd Street and Stewart Avenue and at 111th Street and the Bishop Ford Freeway; two mid-sized Neighborhood Markets at 76th Street and Ashland Avenue and in the Presidential Towers, 555 W. Madison St.; and convenience store-style Wal-Mart Express stores at 71st Street and Western Avenue, and in the same shopping center as one of the Supercenters at 83rd Street and Holland Road.

But a possible plans for a Neighborhood Market store in the East Lakeview neighborhood have drawn outrage among neighbors in that north lakefront community. Wal-Mart representatives recently met with Ald. Tom Tunney (44th) and members of the Lakeview East Chamber of Commerce about a possible new store in the Broadway at Surf retail complex, just north of the busy intersection of Clark Street, Broadway and Diversey Parkway.

The chamber has come out against the store, and several local small business owners have posted signs in their windows reading, “Wal-Mart: Not in My Neighborhood.” More recently, neighbors have circulated a petition against a Wal-Mart moving into the community, and activity has picked up on the Facebook group, “Stop the Lakeview/Lincoln Park Wal-Mart,” which began in December.

In addition to concerns about the possibility that a Wal-Mart store could drive many of the neighborhood’s smaller shops out of business, the allegations of sex-discrimination in the women’s lawsuit have been among many neighbors’ objections to the retailer.

Wal-Mart has declined to comment directly on the East Lakeview store. Last week, spokesman Steve Restivo said the retailer has “not announced any plans” for a store in the neighborhood, “but (we) continue to evaluate opportunities across the city – via stores small and large – to create jobs and expand access to affordable, healthy food.”

Wal-Mart representatives are expected to appear at a meeting of the South East Lake View Neighbors Association at 7 p.m. April 11 at the Wellington Avenue Church, 615 W. Wellington Ave.

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