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January 03, 2005

Popping Culture Book Club Selection of the Month and a frontal assault on Wal-Mart

I read this book, Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich, some time ago as research for a paper I was working on in ethics class.

Ehrenreich spent a number of months in minimum wage (or close) jobs to see how well folks can survive on that level of pay. The answer: not well if at all.

Her easy-to-read book details the jobs she took, including one at Wal-Mart which gets a mention in this essay railing against the corporate giant.

While you're in line to read Nickel and Dimed at your local library or Barnes and Noble, you MUST READ the essay in full, which points out (and these are quotes):

For a two-hundred-employee Wal-Mart store, the government is spending $108,000 a year for children's health care; $125,000 a year in tax credits and deductions for low-income families; and $42,000 a year in housing assistance. The report estimates that a two-hundred-employee Wal-Mart store costs federal taxpayers $420,000 a year, or about $2,103 per Wal-Mart employee. That translates into a total annual welfare bill of $2.5 billion for Wal-Mart's 1.2 million US employees.

__________________________________________________

But the actual budget imposed on the store managers always falls short of the preferred budget, so that most Wal-Mart stores are permanently understaffed. The gap between the preferred and actual budgets gives store managers an idea of how much extra work they must try to extract from their workforce.

Jed Stone, a store manager at Wal-Mart between 1983 and 1991, explained to Rosen the practical consequences of this understaffing:

With the meager staff he was allowed, it had always been a struggle to keep the shelves stacked and the floors shiny, or to get hourly workers to help customers.

To get the work done Stone had to break the company rules by having employees work more than fifty hours a week—an "offense" for which a manager can be fired at Wal-Mart. Rosen also interviewed Katie Mitchell, a shop floor employee who worked night shifts at the unloading dock. Her task was to move goods from the dock to the store aisles where they could be stacked. She also had to count the goods with her handheld computer: "There was always too much work to be done and no one to help her," and at the end of the shift the supervisor was always at hand to issue a reprimand if the work had not been done.

Sandra Stevenson was an overnight supervisor at a Wal-Mart store in Gurnee, Illinois, whose job was to get the store ready for the next day's business. Stevenson was supposed to be assigned between fourteen and sixteen employees to do the job properly; but she was usually understaffed and her requests for additional workers were always turned down. Nevertheless, Stevenson was severely reprimanded for "the condition of the store in the mornings." After a string of such incidents, Stevenson found that her "spirit was broken" and she left the company. Many others have had similar experiences.

__________________________________________________


Perhaps the best evidence we have of this selective harassment is to be found in the depositions of 115 women who have testified against Wal-Mart in the Dukes case, a class-action lawsuit brought in 2001 by six female employees and named for one of the six, Betty Dukes, a Wal-Mart employee in Pittsburg, California. Most of the witnesses in the case have since either left Wal-Mart or been fired, but Betty Dukes herself continues to work as a greeter at the Pittsburg Wal-Mart. The suit, which alleges systematic discrimination by Wal-Mart both in the pay and promotion of women, is brought on behalf of 1.6 million female employees of Wal-Mart past and present, the largest civil rights case of its kind in US history. On June 22, 2004, US District Judge Martin Jenkins of San Francisco held that the Dukes lawsuit could proceed to trial, although a date has not been set.

_________________________________________


The independence of spirit shown by the women in the Dukes case has therefore challenged the strict obedience that Wal-Mart requires of its rank-and-file employees. Indeed, the corporation insists on an elaborate aptitude test for new employees that is intended to weed out troublemakers. When Barbara Ehrenreich took the test at the Minneapolis Wal-Mart, she was told that she had given a wrong answer when she agreed "strongly" with the proposition that "rules have to be followed to the letter at all times." The only acceptable answer for Wal-Mart was "very strongly." Similarly, the only correct answer to the proposition "there is room in every corporation for a non-conformist" was: "totally disagree."

_____________________________________________


Since 1995 the US government has issued sixty complaints against Wal-Mart at the National Labor Relations Board, citing the illegal firing of pro-union employees, as well as the unlawful surveillance and intimidation of employees. But under the present law persistent violators of government rules such as Wal-Mart are responsible only for restoring the lost pay of fired workers —in most cases, not more than a few thousand dollars—and these penalties do not increase with successive violations. So long as US law makes it possible for Wal-Mart to crush efforts to organize unions it will continue to treat its more than a million workers shabbily, while the company no doubt continues to be celebrated in the business press as a a model of efficient modern management.

____________________________________________


The exploitation of the working poor is now central to the business strategy favored by America's most powerful and, by some criteria, most successful corporation. With the re-election of a president as enamored of corporate power as George W. Bush, there is every prospect that this strategy and its harsh practices will continue to spread throughout the economy.

I voted for Bush, but it was in spite of his stand on big business and aggressive democracy, not because of it.

The essay (read it in full, please) doesn't paint a pretty picture. Still, there's nary a mention of the overseas sweat-shop labor, which is my main concern.

And there's an interesting bit on our own national guilt in this thing: for instance, knowing all of this, I still shop at Wal-Mart. I think about these things every time I go in, but still the Sirens call me back. The offenses above make possible a place where one can eat, shop for groceries, get the tires on the car changed, pick up prescriptions and even get new eyeglasses, all in one place with helpful and friendly (if underpaid and overworked) greeters.

The most telling bit is at the end: in our capitalistic society, Wal-Mart represents the most efficient of businesses. That's what makes it inhuman, while making it a model to be copied in the world of business. When the goal is money, people become tools of acquisition.

And I guarantee you that I'll let myself back in before January is out.

Posted by Dan at January 3, 2005 09:14 AM

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Comments

One thing I simply will not do is shop at WalMart. Period. I cannot abide the way the company conducts itself, the harm it has inflicted on our society and the world in general and so on. I simply will not give them my money, period. No WalMart, no Sam's Club.

I can go to Target, anyway. They're more generous in their charitable givings and have much better labor practices. Not perfect, mind you, but light years beyond WalMart. Easier still, I can shop at Fred Meyer. That's incredibly easy, since that's where I work. They have pretty much everything at the store, though no tire-changing. But they have the full grocery section, apparel, a separate electronics section with a pretty damn good selection of music and movies, as well as all the regular electronics stuff. A home section, electrical, plumbing, bed and bath and so on. So that all makes it much easier to avoid WalMart, even though WalMart is still, of course, much cheaper.

I've never liked WalMart, though, from the time I was first introduced to it in Arizona. The place always creeped me out, quite frankly. I didn't like anything about it and I still don't. You get shit quality, shit service, a dirty store, etc. I've never had a good experience in a Wal Mart. I don't care if it's cheap, it's horrible in every other sense and I simply won't shop there.

Posted by: Joel Caris at January 4, 2005 06:01 PM

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