Tuesday, February 28, 2006


My name is Josh Smith and I am a 23 year old from the small town of Mt. Vernon, ME. I graduated in 2004 from Stonehill College, a small liberal arts school just south of Boston, with a degree in political science. After graduation I participated in a year of service with the Holy Cross Associates, volunteering at a homeless shelter in Portland, OR. Wanting to work more with the issue of poverty, I knew it was time to try my hand at community organizing. And after months of reading and a couple of weeks planning while hiking on the Appalachian Trail, I was ready.

On October 12th, 2005 I was hired as an associate at WAL-MART Supercenter #2046 in Augusta, ME. As a temporary (and later part-time) hire, I averaged 32 hours per week at $7.40 per hour, with no benefits. My hours were erratic and I worked throughout the store as a cashier and door guard, in customer service and layaway, and at times even helping the stockmen and sales floor associates. All the while I witnessed the company cheat their employees out of benefits and raises, ignore workplace safety hazards, rig charitable-giving totals, engage in gender discrimination... It didn't take much of this for me to realize how difficult a job this truly is, especially given the intense pressure, the culture of fear, and the utter lack of respect handed down by the company. But I think what makes this job nearly unbearable is that, at the end of the day, despite working for the largest corporation in the world, these workers must return home to a life of poverty.

And as unpleasant as the job itself may have been, I had fun doing it. Inevitably it helped to know that I was at least trying to do something good, but ultimately it was the people that I befriended that made the experience worthwhile... as well as so difficult. WAL-MART reaps billions of dollars in profits by exploiting its workers and it is simply not right. The good news is that we have the power to stop the injustice. By standing up to WAL-MART and threatening the only thing they care about, their profits, we can reform this company for the better. It is a big job, so let us each begin today.

Let me just say that if you have read this whole blog from start to finish, well done! I really appreciate your reading and hope that you too will decide to hold WAL-MART responsible by not shopping there. And if you have just discovered this treasure trove, start at the beginning and work your way forward... I think you will find it worth your while. Thanks again.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Final Days

The downside of giving WAL-MART two weeks notice was that I had to work there for two more weeks. I think I made the right decision by not leaving my co-workers in the lurch, but these final days were not easy. It was really sad to say goodbye to the people I had grown so close to, knowing that I would probably never see them again. In addition to this I had to deal with a mix of puppy-dog looks and scorn from supervisors appealing to me to reconsider. Given my store’s 46% turnover for the previous year, it was hardly a surprise that they didn’t want to lose a good worker. (I had heard from several ex-associates how the store would try to woo them back, but it was rarely successful since they weren’t about to give financial incentives.) However, I was a little surprised that they still wanted me to stay after I said all these terrible things about WAL-MART.

Ironically, at the same time that they were trying to win me back, I began to be punished for my decision. After primarily being on the desk every day for eight weeks, suddenly I was banished back to the register, to self-checkouts, and worse. I arrived on the third day of this to find myself scheduled to guard the door for my entire 4pm-midnight shift: a death sentence. It was all too much to be a coincident – I was clearly being punished. The CSM who set the schedule was both new and ambitious, sending a message to everyone that he knew how the game was played. Fortunately, I was saved from this fate by my friends among the CSM's, who sent me back to the desk for my final days. Once again I had been treated differently; I had watched many others quit as I had, only to be punished or not have their two-weeks notice respected at all. (It is WAL-MART policy to immediately dismiss any associate who is going to work for a competitor, which, since the store sells everything, is every other retailer!)

Breaking the news to my friends in the store was exhausting, but good since it gave me another opportunity to explain that I was quitting because I didn’t agree with how the company treated its people. More often than not though my co-worker would respond with some variation of “who doesn’t?” then moving onto the more pressing issue of how I would eat. Of course, associates realize that WAL-MART is screwing them, they just don’t have the option that I did of up and quitting. Indeed, when I told them that I didn’t know where I would go next, inevitably, in an effort to help they would suggest that Circuit City is still hiring. Why a person would allow themselves to be exploited by their employer becomes much more clear when you consider that workers must operate with this limited perspective.

A few co-workers, however, did take my cue to open up and share their real feelings about the store. One woman admitted to me that as someone who had been trying to advance for two years now, she felt as though she should have been granted a CSM position by now. I agreed. Another friend concurred full-heartedly that WAL-MART simply doesn’t respect its workers. He asked rhetorically, why would the company refuse to schedule one husband and wife for the same shift so that they could ride into work together? Or why schedule the woman with an hour commute each way to work until 1 am? But the one who understood my reason for leaving best was my closest friend of the past four months, a veteran of seven years who was now too old to move on to another new job. Watching his savings from a past life dwindle by the day, he admitted to me that he wasn’t sure how much longer he could do this for. Pushing this sobering thought from his mind he wished me farewell, and donning a smile he disappeared back into the store.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Taking a Stand

I always envisioned my final exit from the store with me yelling over my shoulder as security threw me out onto the curb. Surely there would be some sort of scene -- I would quit on the spot, throwing my vest to the floor. But things had changed. Four months into my career as an associate, I realized that WAL-MART has largely insulated themselves from criticism. I like to think of Lee Scott as a hostage taker, with 1.4 million bodies piled in front of him. Let me explain: some customers who were upset about not enough registers being open would harass me about it, or if they were really clever, one of the red-vested supervisor’s. However, this was not our fault; we have no control over this and if we brought the issue to someone who did we would only get in trouble. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t help but internalize these outbursts. I knew it wasn’t my fault, and sometimes the customer would even admit that, but just being the receiver of this anger is enough to ruin your day. As much pleasure as it may have given me, a big scene would only hurt those around me, the people I supposedly cared enough about to take up this project in the first place.

So I resolved to give my two weeks notice, something I never would have thought possible. I rationalized that by doing this I would have one last opportunity to take a principled stand and air my grievances with WAL-MART to my friends in the store. But this was not a task I looked forward to since I would break the hearts of many of my friends in the store. I started with my favorite CSM. After pulling her aside on my way back from lunch, she feigned shock when I said the reason I was quitting was that I did not like how the company treated its workers. Well aware that this would be a surprise to those who had helped me climb the ladder, I had decided to frame the issue as a moral one, which came to a head after I was pushed toward joining management. I focused on the low-wages WAL-MART paid, occasionally using a secondary example like how the store heartlessly fired my fellow temp workers on the day after Christmas. Visibly upset, she called her supervisor over since management would know better how we could “take care of this.” Next thing I knew I found myself in the manager’s office debating the evils of WAL-MART with the Front-end Manager and one of the Co-Manager’s (the big boss had left for the day so I got the second-in-command.)

The co-manager hit me with the typical argument: WAL-MART pays its workers the going rate, more than the minimum wage or their competitor’s, and besides, isn’t any job better than no job at all. Biting my tongue I asked why the largest employer in the world couldn’t pay its workers enough to live off of; after all, our store was making money hand over fist! Ignoring my appeal to the people who were struggling to make ends meet, the conversation turned political and really fell apart. We went round and round about how the federal minimum wage shouldn’t be raised (it’s up to the market); how we don’t have unions at WAL-MART (“Thank God” the Front-end Manager quipped); and bizarrely, how I should join the military (they were both members of the Air Force.) The Co-Manager’s last stab was to challenge me to change the company from the inside (oh, the irony…) But when I asked if he really believed that when I became a store manager I could raise the starting wage to $10 per hour, he ducked the question. Surprisingly he later admitted that he too had once had moral reservations about the company’s practices, until he “saw the reality of the situation.” It is important to note that these are both good people, who were simply firm believers in a company that they had succeeded in.

The two would confirm my belief before the end of the evening. As the conversation wound down some half-hour later, I gave them a simple last request. Please give my position at the service desk to the woman who been at the company for a full six years, and was twice the associate I would ever be. Guarding the door for the rest of the night, I noticed that the two managers remained in the office for another 45 minutes, probably a little shaken up from my accusations. Employees want to believe, need to believe, that their employer is not evil and that their jobs are not done in vain. By and large, those who work at WAL-MART are good people, but they are rarely given the opportunity to do the right thing. That night however, those two managers did have the opportunity to see justice done, however small an instance it may have been. And they did. By the time I called it a day, the woman had exciting news for me: she had been offered a position on the service desk! That evening was the best ride home from work I had ever had -- after four months of playing their game, I finally took a stand and did the right thing.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Cashier of the Month

Saturday, January 28th was a big day. It started like any other as I was waiting beside the time clock to punch in, until a friend called me over to the adjacent bulletin board. “Isn’t that you?” he asked pointing to my name on the Cashier of the Month poster for November. Even though November was for a couple of months ago this was news to me (I would later find out that this was a mistake and I had won the award for January.) Early on I had decided to give the job my all and transform into the model submissive worker, rather than try to sabotage their operations in petty ways. So I would go outside to push carts with a smile on my face, never say a word when my break was an hour late, and thank them when they asked me to watch the door. I figured this approach would allow me to garner the respect of my co-workers as well as learn about operations from supervisors grooming me to climb the ladder. This part at least played out perfectly; Cashier of the Month was a bit much. As a “Four Start Cashier” I was entitled to fabulous prizes like a maroon vest and… well, maroon is much cooler than blue.

In addition to this I had received another award earlier in the week: two “Good Job” pins. The front-end manager caught me during a lull and staged an awkward little presentation in appreciation for all my hard work. This may not sound like much but these pins are hard to come by and a big deal at our store. (The pins themselves are very clever, sending a message to the uninformed customer not about an associate’s performance, but how WAL-MART has good jobs.) After three of these pins you can trade them in for a bigger pin and one share of stock. For someone so new to the store to have earned two pins already was unheard of. “Whose butt are you kissing?” demanded one of my co-workers from the photo lab. I explained to people that the two awards were not for any extraordinary work, but rather due to the guilt that my supervisors felt for jerking me around between the service desk and layaway. That is until a friend pointed out “they have done the same to me and I never got anything for it.” Touché. Yes, these accolades were a product of guilt, but they also came my way because I had played the game. Or put another way, I had done a little butt kissing.

But it didn’t end here. That same day, after making my way to the sales floor I found the Front-end Manager and my favorite CSM awaiting my arrival. They brought me back to Personnel and after a couple of playful attempts to scare me into thinking I was in trouble the CSM told me I was moving back to the service desk. She was more excited about this than I since she still felt terrible about my being forced back to layaway because of her mistake not coding me. I of course never bought into this explanation, recognizing it for what it was, a larger effort to deny employees the raise they had earned. (Afterwards we had a member of management code me to customer service, a laughably quick process that only took a few strokes on the computer.) Besides, three weeks after my transfer I had still only been back to layaway twice, remaining at the service desk for the rest of the time.

As we continued to talk I found out that a spot had opened up for me when the young woman who had taken my spot had been moved to another department, not something she was especially excited for. In addition to this I had once again leapfrogged several longer standing and more qualified female associates, namely the woman who had been with the company for six years and worked primarily on the service desk, never receiving the 20-cent raise she deserved. Some twenty minutes later we closed the session with my supervisors speaking flatteringly about my performance and encouraging me to apply for a Customer Service Manager position next time it came up. My future was bright. As I walked back to the sales floor I knew my project at WAL-MART had run its course. I had gotten what I came for and to stay any longer would be counter-productive. It was time for me to quit.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Liars and Cheaters

WAL-MART lies to its customers. Okay, so I covered this topic three weeks ago in “The Customer is Number… 2?” but I have a few more anecdotes that are too good to pass up. While at the service desk at on a Wednesday night I received a call from a panicked woman who detected bleach in a gallon of spring water that she had just purchased. Allergic to bleach, the woman had burned her lips and throat when drinking the infected water. She wanted us to test the remaining product and pull it off the shelves if necessary, which I passed along to the CSM on duty, noting that the woman sounded serious. We weren’t going to do that she said, but would tell an assistant manager nonetheless. Sure enough, the woman arrived just before the desk closed at 10 pm with the tainted water as evidence for me to smell (I declined the offer.) As expected the CSM hadn’t done anything with the tip, so we hurriedly ran back to the manager’s office to brief the assistant manager and co-manager who were still in the store. They rejected the seemingly reasonable request of testing the remaining jugs of water out-of-hand. “Tell her management is looking into it” the co-manager said without a trace of humor. And with that they called it a day, leaving me to break the news to the customer and track down a product-liability form since “it’s all we can do.” Back at the desk I parroted the party line while the woman filled out the form, promising to have the water tested on her own. A good idea, I said, knowing WAL-MART surely wasn’t going to do anything about it.

And the store doesn’t stop at lying to its customers; it cheats them too. One of the CSM’s took me aside when I asked whether we should give a customer double their money back on unsatisfactory beef, a WAL-MART policy for rotten meat or produce. Don’t offer them 200% unless they ask for it she advised me; many of them don’t know about it. I played dumb, asking another supervisor if it was right to swindle customers out of money just because they were ignorant about our policy. Although it took twice as many words, she too agreed that I shouldn’t make good on the company’s promise. I witness this inconsistency between written policy and actual in-store return policy every day. We refuse to accept returns on products from other WAL-MART stores that we do not carry, despite explicit instruction to the contrary in our policy binder. Ditto for our insistence of processing returns according to the mode of payment (e.g. purchases off a gift card must go back to a gift card.) However, the most interesting example of this came when I was left to shred confidential documents back in layaway. Here I found department breakdowns of each items cost, retail price, and total mark-up. Despite all WAL-MART’s talk of bringing customers the lowest possible price, in truth department markups averaged in the high 30%’s, with one topping out at an incredible 56% average markup! Individual products might see a 70-80% increase, or a whopping 93% for a package of beef (I wonder if that was the rotten one…) I would later find out from one of the department manager’s that his 25% markups would yield an $80,000 profit per month!

WAL-MART is a firm believer in equal opportunity however, meaning it swindles everyone around them, not just their customers. There are the suppliers, the natural enemies of our claims department. The main purpose of their job is to try to recoup as much money as possible from suppliers for damaged returns, so I shouldn’t have been surprised when a sign appeared instructing us to never record that a product had been damaged in shipping since we wouldn’t receive credit for it. Of course it is employees who bear the worst of the company’s deceitful ways. After getting busted for violations in several states, management is vigilant about not having employees work off the clock, on the surface anyway. In truth, employees are pressed to work off the clock in countless way, with long lunch hours, unscheduled mandatory meetings, and the incredible pressure put on associates to get enormous jobs done. One associate got in trouble for having her boyfriend work off the clock to help her zone, but no additional resources were sent her way to complete the Herculean task of managing her department. At this point though, employees aren’t fooled easily, and when Open Enrollment time came around my co-workers were justifiably suspicious about a new “Value Plan” for health insurance. Personally, I can not think of a single associate who signed up for this new packaging of the old plan with its high deductibles, poor coverage, and heavy risk. “I think it sucks personally” commented one co-worker. “But it’s better than nothing.”

Sunday, February 19, 2006

An Impressive Coup D'état

Sam Walton believed that, “If some community, for whatever reason, doesn’t want us in there, we aren’t interested in going in and creating a fuss.” With countless communities standing up to the store and WAL-MART attempting to bullying its way in regardless, obviously times have changed. In his place Lee Scott asks rhetorically, “When you have a group of people, a small group of people, who don’t want you in a community, does that mean you aren’t going to go there?” Indeed, the changing of the guard after Walton’s death also ushered in a new era of political sophistication for WAL-MART. The head office in Bentonville now fully understands the importance of their image in a community, and desperately wants to avoid being branded an outsider (which is, of course, exactly what they are.) WAL-MART now engages in a year round political campaign to define themselves to the public, hiring hundreds of lobbyists and media consultants to work on the national and local level. This campaign takes place not only in communities with potential stores, but well-established markets such as the one I work in.

The chief tool for getting this message across was through charity work. One slow morning on the desk the head of community involvement gave me a crash course in how our store raised $143,000 for charity in the past year. All requests for donations are received in writing and then “everything goes on a gift card.” She said $25-50 certificates work better for the company since it is simpler and you know that the whole amount will be spent in the store (not to mention that the store ends up giving less actual money since a sizable percentage is the markup/profit…) In addition to this matching funds are given for on-site fundraisers, like hot dog sales, and grants are given for such things as the Teacher of the Year Award. Doing some generous math in my head I didn’t even get up to half the total on the board; where does the rest of the money come from? Well, there are the employee fundraisers she offered, but (and this was what I was looking for) a far bigger chunk comes from claims. In order to inflate the total WAL-MART tacks on more than $60,000 in annual grocery claims since some, but not all, of this is donated to local food banks. Ah ha, this was the slight of hand I was looking for!

Like anything else, this public image campaign took place on the backs of its workers. The head of community involvement had mentioned the employee fundraisers, but I knew how small scale these projects were. I have never been solicited for donations more in my life than the past three months while working at WAL-MART. There were raffle tickets, potluck dinners, and flat out monetary donations, going to Barbara Bush’s Children’s Miracle Network, Law Enforcement’s Torch Run for the Special Olympics, and the Sunshine Fund. The last of these is the most interesting since the Sunshine Fund goes to associates-in-need in our store. Generally the associate-in-need would be nameless, but one of the recipients I did know had gotten really sick and was left with unaffordable bills for what the health plan would not cover. Obviously these fundraisers that targeted already destitute employees weren’t huge money makers, but I was surprised to find that employees pieced together $200 out-of-pocket and the Sunshine Fund chipped in another $100 for my friend. It was touching to see how readily my co-workers would give for one of their own, perhaps thinking of how close they were to being in the same position. I couldn’t help but become intensely angry at the irony of the whole situation. Associates who were paid so little were asked to give on WAL-MART’s behalf, to enhance the store’s image and pick up the slack for its employees living in poverty.

But the campaign seemed to be working. Our Supercenter was the most profitable in the state and was constantly receiving favorable press. The pinnacle came when our store manager was named Business Person of the Year by the county’s Chamber of Commerce. Recognized for the stores donations to charity and his personal community involvement, he was rewarded with a banquet in his honor. It was an impressive coup d'état, even by WAL-MART standards.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Struggling in the Service Economy

As I entered the forth month of my tenure in the store, the toll of the job was beginning to show. I was tired and that long trudge across the parking lot to the main doors was becoming more difficult by the day. It was now a struggle to find the energy to strike up conversations in the break room and keep up with my journal entries like I had when I first started working at the store. On the job, I felt like I had become a different person, and not exactly a change for the better. No longer did I appreciate my interactions with people, instead I had become aloof and almost standoffish with customers. Believe it or not, I couldn’t help but bring the job home with me. Friends who called late at night would be horrified when I groggily reverted back to my nightmare of doing returns at WAL-MART. All of this and I didn’t even have the economic worries that my co-workers had to grapple with.

In the best of times, it was difficult to make ends meet with WAL-MART’s wages… and these were hardly the best of times. Despite our President’s rosy forecasts, where I was the economy wasn’t doing us any favors. For countless employees, WAL-MART marked their first venture into retail after jobs dried up in manufacturing, construction, and even the high tech field. A close friend of mine had this happen after his business doing contract plumbing and electrical work petered out during a lull in the economy; now he found himself getting poorer by the month after whittling through all of his savings. Some workers would try to garner the needed extra income by picking up a second job, whether it be in fast-food restaurants or freelance positions. On top of this, high prices at the pump and for heating oil hit the working poor particularly hard. There were many associates like myself who commuted an hour roundtrip every day, not to mention the CSM who bemoaned the fact that she would have to sell her few shares of stock in order to pay for oil, again. For several friends I watched personal problems – from mysterious illnesses to car troubles – completely disrupt this tight-rope act, throwing them into desperate straits. It was into this environment that H&R Block set-up shop immediately after Christmas, ushering in WAL-MART's self-proclaimed "Tax Season." Associates and customers alike would readily sign on for their "Instant Money Refund Anticipation Loans," knowing it was a scam, but being too desperate to care.

This bleak picture became even more clear on payday, when I would get to cash the paychecks of many of my co-workers (a huge perk of working at the service desk.) Obviously the total on the check doesn’t tell the whole picture of how many hours were worked, and these are probably some of the worst off since they may not have a bank and generally need to cash the check immediately. Nevertheless, taken as a whole, these pitiful sums can be instructive. Consider the examples gathered over two paydays: $248, 321, 343, 344, 363, 388, 418, 442, 445, 502, 508, 558, 616, 873, 925. Average these together and you get $486.27 in net earnings for two weeks of work. Annually this works out to $12,643, well below the 2005 federal poverty line of $16,090 for a family of three. Strickingly similarly sums would come in from our fellow big-box neighbors in the mall, like Home Depot, Michael’s, and Kohl’s. No, my personal struggles with this project could not compare to the real ones faced by retail workers every day.

Friday, February 17, 2006


Despite the stress of dealing with disgruntled customers, I preferred working at the customer service desk to the monotony of cashiering. So I was happy when I was offered a primary placement there, just a few weeks after training in customer service. There was grumbling among some of the women who also worked on the desk since this promotion officially bumped me ahead of several of them who had far more experience than my 2 1/2 months. This included a far more qualified woman who had worked two stints at the store for a total of six years, and had been requesting this very position for some time now. But my stint here came to an abrupt end since I was never “coded” on the desk in the computer, even though I had been granted the promotion. So when an opening came up one of the assistant manager’s went and filled the position with a new transfer from the night shift. Rather than correct her higher-up, the front-end manager ambushed me on my way back from break with the question “How would you like to go back to Layaway?” I gave a cool “I guess so,” because I had been back in layaway before.

For a few days during the pre-Christmas rush I was thrown into Layaway without any training and told to “do what I could.” Considering, I did fairly well, serving as a runner to pick up the packages and also figuring out how to run the register. They always had to push the limits though, and one particularly rough evening I found myself as the only one scheduled to deal with a long line of people and close down the desk, something I had no clue how to do. (Touchingly, two girls who I didn’t get along with especially well broke their plans and stayed late on a Saturday night to help me out...) On the whole, Layaway was a pretty stressful place, due to long lines and understaffing, which were even more acute here than in most deparments. The problem stemmed from the thousands of packages being stored in many random locations, both in and outside the store, because of a crunch for space. Unlocking and searching shipping containers with a flashlight in freezing temperatures may rank as the single most unpleasant task of my tenure at WAL-MART. My catching a cold almost immediately sealed the deal: I hated Layaway.

But I digress, because this wasn’t even the main reason that I didn’t want to move to Layaway. As I have said before, I liked the service desk for all of the action; I got a lot of great material working there. This was why I had passed on the position in the photo lab, something I certainly wouldn’t have done if I had known I would soon be banished to Layaway. Back in my conversation with the front-end manager, my less than enthusiastic response must have been obvious, because she had my favorite CSM take me aside to take the fall. Clearly upset at being forced into such a position, she apologized for not “coding” me to the front desk, which triggered this unfortunate chain of events. While accepting full responsibility, in a more candid moment she admitted it wasn’t technically her fault, but rather something that slipped by everyone and came about due to a lack of communication. I tried unsuccessfully to ease her concern, telling her it wasn't a big deal and convincing myself that being “cross-trained” in another department would probably give me a better grasp of operations.

This experience is relevant for two reasons. The first is that it shows how poorly WAL-MART treats its employees and what little regard is given to their feelings. Equally importantly, my bouncing around points to yet another scam. I contend that my not being “coded” for the service desk was not a mistake, but a purposeful omission. The Service Desk is listed as a Pay Grade 4, as opposed to the Pay Grade 3 of cashiers, a difference of 20 cents per hour. A small amount perhaps, but it adds up when you consider that there are four of us associates who work largely at the desk but are not paid extra for it. I am further convinced that this is the case since they pulled the same shit for another raise that was coming to me. When I was hired as a temporary cashier I was told that I would receive an evaluation no later than 90 days in, the time when raises are rewarded. My 90th day came and went without mention; ultimately due to these convenient mistakes I would end up leaving the company before ever receiving a single raise.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Our (Conservative) Cultural Gatekeeper

Recently several women from Massachusetts sued WAL-MART for not carrying the morning-after-pill. This promises to be an interesting case since it brings to the forefront the often neglected issue of WAL-MART’s role in censoring consumer's choices. By choosing to carry such a broad range of products, the depth of product options is surprisingly thin. For example, the store may have a hundred ice scrapers for your car in-stock, but there will actually only be two or three different types of these scrapers, all made by the same company. Then there is a far more insidious type of censorship. WAL-MART edits out the “explicit lyrics” for all of the music that the store carries. WAL-MART refuses to sell racy magazines such as Maxim. Or, even more alarming, WAL-MART censors books like The Daily Show’s America: The Book (because of the infamous picture of naked Supreme Court Justices...)

The problem of censorship stems from the fact that WAL-MART is a retailing monopoly. To even the biggest corporations WAL-MART’s contract is a must-have, forcing them to kowtow to the company’s slightest whim. In many ways WAL-MART’s suppliers are abused just as badly by the golliath as anyone else, forced to accept whatever price and modifications Bentonville imposes upon them. So you can imagine the chilling effect on entire industries when WAL-MART makes it clear that something is a little too risqué for their customers. Music producers will do whatever is necessary to have their album carried by the world’s biggest distributor of music, even if that means pressuring their artist to clean up their lyrics enough so as not to offend the Walton’s. Although we rarely see it, WAL-MART has truly become our cultural gatekeeper.

This fact becomes positively disturbing when you consider WAL-MART’s conservative Christian credentials. The company is the darling of the Religious Right, for the impression it has created as a good Christian family company. I see the signs of this carefully constructed facade every day at my store. When I walk into the store in the morning the first thing I see on Wal-Mart TV is FOX News parroting the Republican talking points of the day. Next off I sign on to my register, which is blanketed with magnetic yellow ribbons demanding that I “Support Our Troops.” Then, still before I have seen my first customer, I hear over the intercom the latest NASCAR standings being broadcast. And don’t think that I am basing WAL-MART’s cozy relationships with the neo-cons of the Bush Administration on mere anecdotal evidence. The best example is the memo that was leaked last fall whereby Bush’s Labor Department made a secret deal to alert the company two weeks in advance of any investigations about child labor law violations. For this nice little gift WAL-MART had to give up nothing, except of course the few hundred thousand dollars it had contributed to Republican coffers across the country.

But to be honest, I don’t think WAL-MART is controlled by crazy constituents of the Religious Right. To have membership in this club would require genuine beliefs and morals, something that the company does not have. Once again, WAL-MART is a soulless, profit-making machine. They do not care about politics or social issues so they take the path of least resistance… unless it is going to affect their bottom line. In this case the powers-that-be down in Bentonville have decided that it will, so they play to their base just as a politician would. They know full well who shops at WAL-MART, so they are sure to announce the NASCAR standings and carry several versions of software that reads The Bible aloud. Ultimately though, WAL-MART drops the act when they realize that the other side offers the promise of greater profits, as they did this Christmas by sticking with the more inclusive greeting of “Happy Holidays” over “Merry Christmas.” The moral of the story should be clear: we will only change WAL-MART’s cultural gatekeeping, or any aspect of the company, when we prove a significant threat to their profits.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Everyone Loves a Snow Day

The close of the busy Christmas season brought an abrupt about-face for WAL-MART. Rather than seeking to squeeze more hours out of its employees the store began to find ways cut their hours whenever possible. Almost across the board, associates saw their schedule trimmed down by 2-4 hours every week; mine were cut on the high-end of this range. The store may only be saving itself $15-$30, but this can make a difference to people who are already struggling to make ends meet. Also, who gets their hours cut can be fairly arbitrary: one of the older male cashiers noted how his hours hadn’t changed while the four longest tenured female cashiers had lost hours. As I mentioned in an earlier post, he attributed this not to gender discrimination, but to his being in the good graces of his supervisors and not complaining quite as much as the women did.

Another way of limiting hours is to send people home early. If sales were down for the week, or even the day, managers would get the word from above (both inside the store and from the home office) to trim payroll expenses in an effort to off-set the loss. “We are supposed to send people home as long as it won’t hurt us,” one of the Customer Service Manager’s confided in me candidly. To be fair, many of the associates will want to get the hell out of there, a request which the managers are only too happy to oblige. One of the cashiers put this inner struggle best: “Want to [leave], but can’t afford to.” I would always fight being sent home early no matter how badly I wanted to leave, since I had been lobbying for full-time hours from the beginning. This didn’t make much of a difference and I was routinely sent home anywhere from 30-90 minutes early. One time they even tried to send me home half-way through my four-hour shift, but my favorite CSM relented when I protested it wouldn’t even have been worth the price of gas to come in. “We can’t cut hours that have already been cut” she agreed sympathetically.

Snowstorms presented management with a golden opportunity to trim hours. Claiming their hands were tied, they would note that sales were down 51% for the day from the previous year (a foolish statistic since there are snowstorms that keep customers away every year.) Nevertheless, with their cover in place, an assistant manager would page on the hour that all sales floor associates would be capped at six-hour shifts, no exceptions. On top of this, there could be dozens of call-outs in anticipation of the bad weather. It should come as no surprise then that management would okay the call-out without putting up a fight. Obviously there was a downside to this strategy since often times the skeleton crew that remained would be swamped with all the slack they had to pick up. One morning a CSM was griping about being short-handed and the long lines that were gathering at her only three open registers. So I was surprised to go back to the break room and find a friend just sitting there since she had mistakenly thought her shift started two hours earlier than it did. I dutifully told that same CSM that I had found the solution to her problems, only to discover that she was the one that told her to wait back there. At that point I stopped feeling sorry for the CSM.

But these methods for cutting hours are small fish compared to their ultimate strategy: keep as many workers part-time (or as they call it, peak-time) as possible. As I mentioned, I had trying since my first interview to gain full-time status unsuccessfully. When they were desperate for people they would magnanimously throw me an extra hour or two, as long as it didn’t result in overtime… that had to be specifically authorized by management. I couldn’t help but be amused when a fellow temporary hire cashier resolved to me stupidly, “I have to get my full-time hours back.” “Good luck” quipped a manager from personnel, realizing as I did the remoteness of this possibility. Indeed, one of the veterans told me that the company never moves people to full-time if they are hired as part-time; you are better off quitting and trying to get hired again. I took a tally one day of the schedule posted on the wall, which revealed that 119 of the 385 scheduled hourly workers were part-time, or 30%. By purposefully hiring and keeping more workers part-time, like myself, WAL-MART also saves itself the expense of paying benefits. It is our problem to try to live off this pittance of a sum.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Large, Cheap, Old Box

I work in a box – a large, cheap, old box. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that there are a few leaks in the building (like the spot in front of the general merchandise doors where a plastic container is always stationed to catch the brownish liquid dripping from above.) But when it rained through the first week of the New Year, the waterworks really started up, and not just the normal trouble spots. Back in claims I realized that with all the leaks if the rain kept up much of the receiving area would be flooded by morning. Far more disturbing though was the positive deluge in the, wait for it, Electrical Room! A blue tarp hung haphazardly above part of the machinery, doing little to slow the rush of water. Looking from the “HAZARD” signs to the puddle of water I was standing in, I got the hell out of there. Sure enough, the next morning I walked into a partially darkened store; the flood had shorted out three large panels of lighting running across the back half of the store. I would also discover that a water-bogged ceiling tile above Electronics had crashed on top of a display case of DVD’s, thankfully missing any customers (or associates.) Five days later the lights were still out, and more Tupperware containers had been broken out for the Electrical Room.

Given workplace dangers like this one, I was surprised to discover when I started my job that the store was in its second month of being-accident free. Once the old record was broken our new goal became going for 90 days without an accident, with “reasonable” suggestions for a reward solicited from employees. Ignoring all of the proposed monetary awards, our store manager instead promised us “chicken and potatoes.” Sadly, we did not make it when a guy in receiving slipped and screwed up his foot pretty badly. Predictably enough, the other associates were very upset, wondering why he couldn’t have just “sucked it up." Blowing the whole thing into a big deal was very clever on their part, serving the dual purpose of making us more aware of safety issues and less likely to spoil the party by reporting injuries. I saw this firsthand when I tried to get a close friend of mine to report and injury suffered to her wrist while moving boxes around in Layaway. She refused to, afraid they would blame it on her and say she was "stupid," a fear I couldn't honestly dispute.

And customers aren’t always spared either. A big commotion ensued after one woman was struck in the arm by a falling humidifier. Whoever had stacked the boxes hadn’t done a very good job, but this was hardly unusual. With little extra space to store all of the merchandise coming in every evening, the pallets are wheeled onto the sales floor and the overnight associates are expected to find a place for it. The result is predictable: rickety displays jammed with merchandise and boxes towering inside of the three feet buffer zone of the ceiling that was meant to prevent fire hazards. A friend who heard the woman scream when hit said she was given ice, told to see a doctor and that the insurance company would be in touch. While I don’t know what happened in her case, I do know of another woman who was befallen by a similar situation. After filing her accident report WAL-MART promised the insurance company would call, but a ten days later they still had not returned her call.

Accidents are to be expected everywhere, what upsets me is WAL-MART’s preoccupation with covering their own ass and lack of concern for the people who are actually getting hurt. The best anecdote I can offer played out on one of the busy weekends before Christmas. Snow from the previous night had frozen on the many carts that had been left out in the parking lot. The problem, of course, came the next morning when customers brought the icy carts into the store and they began to thaw. Quickly massive puddles formed in the aisles and I was dispatched to find a mop, only to find that we did not have one for the front-end! I stood by a couple of spills as we had been trained, only to have the Lead CSM tell me there was nothing she could do about it. On hearing this, we left the spills and went back to work. A few minutes later a PA announcement was made to warn the customers to “be careful” – no doubt this was deemed the easiest way to absolve WAL-MART of responsibility for the situation.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

A Christmas Story

I found myself at the customer service desk on the day after Christmas, the busiest day of the year for returns. The lines were long, but moved along steadily since we had plenty of help and a couple of other registers had been converted to accept returns. Once again, given adequate resources, we proved we could get the job done… not that they made it easy on us. The single biggest issue was WAL-MART’s refusal to accept seasonal items as returns, thinking perhaps people would cheat the store by using the item for Christmas then return it after they were done. However, this problem continued to arise for weeks afterwards since the store still wouldn’t accept the return even if the customer had purchased the item on clearance after Christmas. Seeing this for the money-grubbing attempt it was, customers went ballistic. One manager pulled me aside to tell me not to worry about cheap $2-3 items since they weren’t worth the hassle. But when I told him point blank that the real problem was not accepting seasonal returns, he ignored me and repeated his earlier advice… that issue was clearly off the table.

Of course the real reason that WAL-MART gets so many returns isn’t because their customers are trying to cheat them but because their products, frankly, suck. I have taken back literally thousands of products in every department that simply do not work at all. One of my favorite things to do at the service desk is to ask the customer what they paid for their microwave that doesn’t work. When they say “$34” I just nod my head and try to remain expressionless. Sometimes they will get my point and say they should have known better, but far more often they'll say they would like to take another chance with an equal exchange. A close second in favorite activities to kill time at the desk is to read about different WAL-MART products that have been recalled. They are simply hilarious, albeit in an alarming sort of way. Most are for battery packs that overheat and start a fire; worse are the children’s toys that promise choking hazards, lead paint, collapsing cribs, and even “amputation of finger’s.” Inevitably, at the bottom of the recall flier it will say “MADE IN CHINA.” Much is made of the company’s cozy relationship with the People’s Republic, but it doesn’t really hit home until you walk through our toy department and see that almost every single one carries this label. Oh, if only there was some way of knowing…

While it is certainly an up-hill battle taking returns during the holidays, WAL-MART doesn’t make the other jobs on the front-end any easier. A good illustration is our shortage of bags, a reoccurring problem. It starts out as the usual annoyance of having to steal bags from the other registers, but soon all of the vacant registers are picked clean. Even cheaper bags, seemingly from the early-1990’s, appear and it becomes clear that this time we will actually run out of bags. And so you begin doing exactly what they want, stretching the use of every last bag (one time I had to switch over to the large bags, cleverly rigging them to fit on the turning-rack.) Operations slow down and customers get pissed, but we never actually run out, with one of the CSM’s speeding to the nearest store at the last minute and jamming their car full with a case of bags. Again, customers may view this debacle as amateur hour, but in reality it is a purposeful effort to meet ever-lower quotas. The story is the same with big bags, small bags, freezer bags, and trash bags; with gift card envelopes; with car batteries and walkie-talkie batteries; with dustpans and snow shovels. In the end, all this does is save a couple of dollars and it makes our job much harder.

Not to sound whiny, but WAL-MART did ruin my Christmas. I knew going on into this that I would hate being inside a WAL-MART all day, but I had never been inside a WAL-MART all day during Christmas time. It takes hell to a whole new level. The mean customers and out-of-control consumerism were just too much for me, and WAL-MART somehow managed to make an already difficult job almost impossible. To top it off, I found out that Christmas bonuses ranged from a low of $25 up to a high of $75. However, with renovations that previous summer, money was tight, so I would not be getting my Christmas bonus that year. At least a new year was one the way.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

The Temp Trick

Quite possibly the most interesting revelation that I discovered in my time at WAL-MART was a devious scheme to control their new workers and deny them benefits. It is a slight of hand used by the store with its new hires and I am the perfect example of how this works.

As I mentioned before, I was hired as a temporary peak-time cashier, which means that the company can work me for as many or few hours as they want without providing benefits for three months. Ordinarily peak-time workers (which is the same as part-time) must wait for two years before becoming eligible for benefits; with this little trick that date is pushed back yet another three months. Just as significant is the fact that temporary workers aren’t peak-time or full-time, but rather any-time. If for example, I was hired as a permanent peak-time associate, I would be limited to working 32 hours per week. Due to my temp status, the store was not held to this threshold when scheduling me to work, a perk that they exercised during all 7 weeks of the peak holiday shopping season.

Not only this, but as a temporary worker I am only under contract for three months. WAL-MART sets a termination date for 90 days after being hired and is under no obligation to keep me on board. In essence the three months were a limbo period where I was forced to walk on eggshells in one marathon job interview. Inexplicably, in a lapse of judgment I had been lulled into believing my friends in the store when they reassured me that I would be kept on since I was such a hard worker. I was jarred back to reality a couple of weeks before Christmas when I overheard one of the CSM’s saying in a hushed tone that “We had a great group [of temporary hires] last year and they let them all go. And they were hiring again a month later.” With this I was forced into an exhausting guessing game of reading into the mixed messages of my co-workers. Once again, it isn’t hard to imagine the stress that this uncertainty would cause a low-wage worker who is trying to provide for his or her family. And it wasn’t until the day after Christmas that the Front-end Manager said as an afterthought on my way out the door that, congratulations, I would be staying on.

For these reasons, WAL-MART loves its temporary workers. So much so that it will use any excuse in order to get more of them. Mine was the rapidly approaching holiday shopping season that they desperately needed more cashiers for. But I would later find out that even the most flimsiest of occasions would serve as sufficient justification for not hiring permanent workers. For the previous half-year it had been the summer renovations that took place at the Supercenter, although the actual logic used by the store is unclear. Nearly all of the renovations were done by outside contractors with only the smallest of projects done by actual WAL-MART associates. This gap in logic was seemingly lost on the employees in the store who had been hired as temp workers, nearly all of whom dismissed the incident one big misunderstanding.

These aren’t theoreticals that I am speaking in; all of this did happen. I won’t be eligible for benefits until a staggering 820 days after my hire date. I worked as many as 46 hours in a week, even though I was hired as a peak-time worker. And most importantly, there was a Post-Christmas massacre at our WAL-MART Supercenter. I made the cut, but at least five of my fellow hires did not. There was the socially-awkward young man who I had painstakingly built a rapport with. Or the tough-looking but disarmingly polite teen. Or the tall, soft-spoken red-haired boy and the sadly forgettable girl. And most tragically, the friendly, emotional pregnant woman, who gave birth to a healthy young boy on Christmas Day. All five were young like myself, and perfectly capable cashiers in every sense as far as I could tell. And after slaving for months for WAL-MART Stores, Inc. all five were casualties of the temp trick on the day after Christmas. Two short weeks later the store would be hiring once again and the cycle started anew.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

My First Coaching

After nearly two months of cashiering, my move to the Customer Service Desk was a welcome one. This job was perfect for me, and I had been angling to get a transfer here. The desk was where the action was, not to mention the fact that I got the chance to talk with disgruntled customers all day long! At first glance the job appears simple: I had to accept returns of merchandise from customers. However, there were countless rules in place governing this process, and then an equal number of exceptions to these rules. In addition to this, there were money orders and Money Grams, vendor’s and left behinds to log in, gift cards and regular purchases to sell, not to mention all of the returns to sort and send back onto the sales floor. It was a lot to absorb at first but the up-and-coming guy who trained me on the desk reassured me by saying, “You will have a lot of judgment calls up here. Do your best and we will back you up.” Well, you can probably guess what happens next.

Once again they didn’t exactly ease me into my new job, leaving me to close down the desk all alone after only one full day of training. At some point during the madness that ensued a friendly elderly couple came in to bring back several defective products, one of which was a six-piece screwdriver set missing two of the tools. When I raised an eyebrow the woman embarrassedly explained that when she bought it the set the screwdrivers were arranged in such a way that she didn’t realize there were supposed to be six. I saw what she was saying and believed her, so with the advice I had received echoing in my head I took back the screwdrivers and quickly moved on to the next person in my long line. This return would precipitate in my being hauled into the manager's office four days later for my first official coaching.

Coaching is Waltonese for being written-up. This threat hangs over even the most minor of infractions, whereby the associate is taken aside by management and sufficiently bitched out. If you have an active coaching on your record you are disqualified from promotions, and could ultimately be fired. Knowing all of this, I fidgeted outside the manager's office while waiting for a full-fifteen minutes, plotting the scene I would cause on my way out the door. To be fair, the co-manager who finally came back to coach me was pretty restrained and handled the task fairly well. He tactfully disagreed with my conclusion that the old woman didn't steal two of our screwdrivers, advising me to ask a CSM next time in order to "cover your butt." I realized that this reprimand was all that was in the works for today and that the co-manager clearly wasn’t interested in my excuses. So I meekly nodded and promised to be more careful in the future, spinelessly swallowing the protests in my head.

Coaching at WAL-MART is a very demeaning and unpleasant exercise. I really don't care too much what management thinks of me, but even so I found myself thoroughly unnerved. You can imagine how much worse this would be for someone who cares about their job and depends upon it to make ends meet. While I was relieved at first to only get a slap on the wrist, I would soon become annoyed about the whole thing. Later that night I overheard our store manager mocking my decision to take back this return in front of other associates, a move he would repeat throughout the coming weeks. Besides being totally unprofessional, his words stung. Soon I realized that the real reason for my coaching was to crack the whip, and make sure everyone would be more stingy on accepting returns on the eve of our busy return season. Indeed, another one of my co-worker on the service desk was coached that same day for an even more petty offense.

But that isn't even the annoying part. While WAL-MART wants us on the service desk to be tightfisted when accepting returns, they will back down any time a customer puts up a fight. So associates are put into an impossible position: enforce written policy or else be coached, but if you do and the customer goes over your head management will ALWAYS side with the customer. And it doesn't take a customer long to realize that in order to get their way at WAL-MART all they have to do is raise a fuss. What it comes down to is that management is so afraid of losing a sale that they cowardly fail to stand up for themselves or their associates. I cannot emphasize how frustrating it is as an employee to always be sold out by your supervisor, and it is an indignity I suffer every single day. I overheard the front-end manager put it best: “I’m a big supporter of the no balls thing. It helps the store the most.”

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

A Black Start to the Holidays

Both a blessing and a curse, my time at WAL-MART coincided with the holiday shopping season. I had no delusions that this would be an easy experience, but it wasn’t one I wanted to miss... and it all kicked off on Black Friday. In the days leading up to this orgy of shopping, veterans of past Blitz Day’s (WAL-MART’s pet name for the day) had regaled me with their favorite horror stories. One woman tore up her arm when it became pinned between a shopping cart and a shelf. Another was pushed upside-down into the cart she had wheeled out stuffed with Furby’s, stuck there as the surging crowd pulled the toys out from underneath her. And then of course there were the numerous reports of customers who had been trampled in that first stampede into the store. My interest was sufficiently piqued; I had to see this for myself.

When I arrived at the store at 4:30 am I had to fight my way through the crowd that would swell to an estimated 670 people by the time our store manager radioed the go-ahead at 4:57 am. Many were dressed in pajamas; even more had Dunkin’ Donuts coffee purchased from a cart that wound its way through the crowd; cell-phones and store maps completed the insanity. The lead row of carts surged through the front doors, sprinting toward Electronics with the rest of the crowd jogging in behind them. For five full minutes the shoppers poured in, until every aisle was packed with the speed walkers. Only the lucky few who had snagged the $398 laptop computers checked out early, but by quarter past five the lines were six people deep in all 30 some registers. Flush from the cold then exercise the shoppers seemed at once relieved to be done and sad to leave.

Then the unthinkable happened: the power went out! A nervous hush went over the crowd as I hurriedly plotted the best way to initiate the rioting that would surely ensue. Sadly less than a minute went by before the lights came back on; ten minutes later all operations were again running at full capacity. And this was hardly the only snafu in the much ballyhooed plan to get people out the door smoothly (clocking-in in single file, sharing register tills, etc.) The biggest problem was mispriced DVD’s, which required constant Supervisor Overrides (although this mistake did provide a nice extra boost to WAL-MART’s bottom line…) There were a few reports of pushing and one woman claimed to have been trampled coming inside, but nothing too out of the ordinary given the number of people and the store’s narrow aisles. The long lines and ridiculous customers frazzled me a couple of times, but I didn’t freak out like some.

Two of my friends were casualties on day one of the shopping season. Our exhuberant door guard (and currently reigning "Associate of the Year") lost it when a customer went off on him for asking them not to take pictures in the store. A sensitive fellow, he would submit his resignation before the end of his shift (but would stay on after failing to find another job...) Another buddy of mine quit mid-shift when CSM's refused to let him buy a digital camera on sale during his break. Despite written policy in his favor management insisted that blitz items were to be saved for our customers (probably not wanting to give him his 10% markdown.) Needless to say our store made out much better on the day than its associates did, reporting gains from the previous year. By the end of the day I alone had checked out 177 customers for a whopping $20,128.19 in sales! And I was only one of thirty plus cashiers working one of three shifts. It all adds up to a million dollar day for our Supercenter, easy. While this is outrageous, I think what will stick with me will be the mood of the day: pure madness.

As I mentioned before, I try not to blame to customers who are rude since it seemed to be misplacing blame that properly belonged to WAL-MART. After all, many customers would be upset by the time they reached my register since the store kept them waiting in line for so long; I too would be annoyed at such a wholly unpleasant shopping experience. In addition to this, many WAL-MART regulars were just as poor as I was, not to mention the toll that the holidays seem to take on just about everyone. However, as the Christmas season dragged on I found it increasingly difficult to forgive shoppers who lashed out at associates.

A nasty customer really could ruin your entire day; thinking back weeks later I still get a little upset. There was the unspeakably rude woman who browbeat me into loading her cart up on my own, only to return and curse me out further after her container of apple juice broke in the parking lot. Or the one who suffered a mental breakdown when my register asked to see her State ID, complete with tears and screaming at her 5 year-old daughter. (Her vow to never return to the store was short lived since I saw her refilling her cart 45 minutes later.) I’ve seen co-workers had things thrown at them, pushed out of the way, and called literally every name in the book… all during the Holiday Season. Indeed, WAL-MART would prove to be some bizarro world where the true spirit of Christmas played out to its perverse opposite.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Joining The Boy's Club

You probably have not heard the name Betty Dukes, but if justice is done, you soon will. She is the lead plaintiff in the largest class action suit in American history, asserting on the behalf of all women who have ever worked at WAL-MART that the company discriminates according to gender. The lawsuit’s claim is backed up by a mountain of statistics that show men are promoted disproportionately more than women and also paid more for doing the exact same job. In my store gender discrimination is most prominent in the repeated references to “the boy’s club” of managers and casual comments about one of the sexes being more suited for a certain job. At first glance these notes seem trivial, but taken as a whole they illustrate the culture that exists in the store and point to the larger problem of institutionalized discrimination. And the reason that I know gender discrimination is a systemic problem at WAL-MART is because I was the beneficiary of this very practice.

Originally I was hired as a cashier due to the high-turnover and their desperate need for people on the front-end. It quickly became clear, however, that this wasn’t where I, a competent, young male, was supposed to be for long. An associate in Electronics said exactly this, “Man, what are you doing here?” in one of his many attempts to have me ask to move back to his department. Indeed, when I was hired only four of the forty-some cashiers were male. Early on one of the store’s fast-rising stars, the only man at the Customer Service Desk, took me under his wing and saw to it that I would be trained on the desk. In so doing I skipped ahead of at least three women my age that had been at the company longer than I, two of which had already been trained on the desk (the third was denied the opportunity), and all of whom had repeatedly requested a permanent position there. It wasn’t right. I had received my first promotion and was being groomed for bigger and better things to come, all a mere six weeks into my career as a very average cashier.

Even more damning was the phone call I received two days after moving to the Service Desk. A manager from the photo lab offered me a recently vacated position after hearing from personnel that I might be interested (I never mentioned any such thing.) Not wanting to leave the action at the desk for this small back-water department I declined the offer, citing satisfaction with my new position. Needless to say this was an unusual decision given the possibility of full-time hours and the fact that I “wouldn’t be a temp anymore.” The question here is why was I offered the job? First off, it is company policy that all jobs are supposed to be posted publicly, but this one never was. And again there were females who were equally qualified and had shown more interest than I in the position but were not considered. One female my age, who had been at the store longer that I, had applied for every position that opened unsuccessfully. Another young woman was a far better cashier than I but continued to languish on the hated self-checkouts. Why then did I get that call and not they? (I believe that this position was eventually filled by someone from outside the company.)

My friends and family liked to say that WAL-MART must have realized what they had on their hands, which while flattering, is simply not the case. Truthfully, I am not that good at my job: I forget things constantly, make tons of stupid mistakes, and am easily distracted from the task at hand (I never miss a chance to get dirt from one of my fellow workers...) To be fair though, I think that gender is only one of three main factors for my quick ascension up the ladder: I am quick, compliant, and male. Simply put, I have the necessary attributes and fit their image for someone who succeeds in the company. Customer Service Manager’s who thought me incompetent only a month earlier, have made this much clear, winking that soon I will be one of them. My favorite CSM would soon encourage me to apply for an opening for the position, insisting that the requirement of having 6 months experience wasn’t a problem; just lie when asked the question and they will look the other way, she promised. Needless to say there will be more on this topic as I continue to climb up the company ladder.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Lee Scott: Environmental Steward

My brief tenure at WAL-MART has been a very significant time for the company. According to CEO Lee Scott, Hurricane Katrina marked a turning point for the corporation; no doubt after their donation of merchandise and timely delivery efforts generated widespread accolades. This PR coup stymied the increasingly vocal and well-organized opposition groups, that is until a memo was leaked suggesting various under-handed strategies for the board to deny benefits to employees. On its heels came the debut of the documentary Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price, which was shown to a million people worldwide. Scott came back swinging, unveiling a barrage of new initiatives. WAL-MART would now offer a Value Plan in an effort to insure more workers. WAL-MART would support a higher minimum wage to help out its impoverished customers. WAL-MART would become a green company and “a good steward for the environment.” The whole thing was so out of left field that you just had to laugh.

As much as I would like to be encouraged by Scott’s proposed reforms, given their track record I could not help but be skeptical. The Value Plan still has high deductibles and many hidden charges, with little meaningful coverage for employees. Pushing for a higher minimum wage without offering their own employees a livable wage reveals the company’s motivation not as humanitarian but as yet another money grab. But perhaps Scott’s aim to become a green company was the most surprising about face. Over the next three years WAL-MART would improve the fuel efficiency of its truck fleet, favor “green” factories in China, and reduce waste from its domestic stores. Up until this point the company has demonstrated an utter disregard for the environment and has repeatedly been ordered to pay fines for violating the Clean Water Act in a number of states. However, most of the environmental damage wrought by WAL-MART is institutionalized and therefore much harder to stop. For example, the retailer had $18 billion worth of goods assembled in China in 2004, meaning that tons of toxic emissions were released by ships and trucks in the unnecessary detour back and forth across the Pacific Ocean.

Closer to home, my store does not recycle its plastic clothes hangers, instead throwing them away. While this may seem like a nit-picky qualm, you have to realize that my store easily has hundreds of hangers left over from sales at the end of each day; multiplying this number by 365 days and 5,000 some stores and you realize that we are talking about hundreds of millions of perfectly good hangers being sent to our nation’s landfills. WAL-MART could reuse these hangers, but it would take a little bit of effort… and what is in it for them anyways? However, from now on, whenever I think of WAL-MART’s utter lack of concern for issues like the environment I will think of dead birds. Before winter set in my store undertook some renovations in their Lawn and Garden Department, exposing a hole to the outside. Through this opening dozens of birds flew into the store, buzzing from department to department and shitting on the merchandise. I noticed the birds late one night while returning products to Lawn and Garden and realized that they were trapped inside the store. Needless to say my concern fell on deaf ears; one employee could only lament what a messy job it was to fish the dead birds out from on top of the racks of merchandise. Over the next couple weeks no less than four different concerned customers came up to alert me that someone needed to free the birds from inside the store. Toeing the party line I promised them that someone was looking into it, before rushing back to the job at hand. I wish I had saved those birds.

One of the main reasons I chose to work at the Supercenter that I did was the unbelievable sprawl that WAL-MART had started near my hometown (although sometimes it’s hard to know which came first, the store or the suburb…) In the city I worked in it was definitely WAL-MART. Fifteen years ago when the company first started building on the lot on the outskirts of town there was nothing, except hills and trees. Once WAL-MART and SAM’S CLUB moved in it was all over. Barnes & Noble, Michael’s, Staples, Home Depot, Old Navy, Linens N' Things, Radio Shack, Eddie Bauer, Kohl’s, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Cicuit City; the horror show goes on. Take them all together and you now have big-box buildings and parking lots as far as the eye can see. Insane traffic has completely transformed this quiet section of town (not to mention the now ramshackle main drag downtown.) Air pollution from these cars, not to mention light pollution from the street lamps at night, obscures the sky by day and stars by night. Sadly, there is no end in sight. Now this sleepy little city is home to the largest mall in my entire state.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

The Open Door

Working on register eight hours a day can be mind-numbingly boring and all too often I found myself zoning-out. During one of these times a friend came through my line (just to get a look at me in my spiffy blue vest) and was horrified by the zombie he found. Apparently I was just robotically scanning items, emotionlessly greeting customers, and even looked straight through him without a trace of recognition. After this I resolved to be more observant and mindful of what was going on around me… and it quickly paid off.

It was late afternoon on a Thursday when the scene unfolded directly in front of the register where I was spelling a lunch break. An off-duty middle-aged female sales associate had pulled one of the Assistant Manager’s aside into the Optical Center to talk to him. Straining to hear over the incessant beeping of my register, I caught enough bits and pieces to gather that the associate needed to change department’s or possibly shifts. She had been visibly brooding over some misfortune for the past few days and I was sure that the two were related. One thing was for certain: the woman was using the company’s Open Door Policy by skipping her immediate supervisor and taking the issue directly to management. At WAL-MART there is an Open Door Policy in place that allows an associate to bring an issue to any member of management, all the way up to the CEO Lee Scott in Bentonville, without fear of retaliation.

As the associate continued to speak, the manager from Department 65 (WAL-MART’s secret code name for store security) walked through the empty adjacent register, studying the conversation taking place in front of her. The woman from security then abruptly stopped behind the associate, turning on her tiptoes to face the Assistant Manager and catch his eye. In a single exaggerated motion she signaled to him by cutting her throat with her index finger, disappearing as quickly as she had come. Looking back at the Assistant Manager in disbelief I saw that he was still earnestly nodding to the associate’s story, never once breaking character. The message being conveyed was immediately clear: don’t listen to a word she is saying. What I had witnessed was two members of management failing to respect the Open Door, and as a result the sales associate was never given a fair hearing. By the middle of the following week the associate was gone; whether she quit or was fired I never found out.

For management to not take an employees complaint seriously in my store is hardly noteworthy; it is just rarely so blatant. The Open Door Policy is a sham that is mainly used as a tool by the home office to discourage associates from seeking a union. The logic goes that if an associate can bring any problem to management without being retaliated against, why would anyone need a third party to represent them? During unionizing efforts WAL-MART throws this message into overdrive, distributing buttons that read “I can speak for myself!” The problem with this, of course, is that associates will be retaliated against when using the Open Door. No associate with half a brain would bring up a serious complaint about a supervisor or the company a whole through the policy. Best case scenario is that you would be ignored; worst case is that you would be fired. As one of my fellow cashiers advised me, you can get by here just as long as you “play their game, and don’t rock the boat too much.”

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Indian Wallets

I was checking out probably the twentieth mother-daughter combination of the day when my blood ran cold. The item that gave me pause was a George wallet, which I had seen before, or more accurately, I had seen its case before. The wooden case was simple, yet very sharp looking. The interlocking wooden pieces were unstained, with the logo burned into the wood, perfectly framing the black leather wallet. While unremarkable to most, the case was etched into my memory from an experience on the other side of the world -- the slums of Chennai, India.

On my semester abroad during college I had the opportunity to visit several different countries for a few days, with this city on India's southeastern coast being one of the stops. My last morning in Chennai I visited the Tamil Nadu Slum Clearance Board, a group that built housing for those living in the city's low-lying slums. While their work was interesting, what really caught my attention was the tiny concrete building we visited: a sweatshop. The shop was relatively well-ventilated and not too cluttered; however, this was the shop the state-government run board brought us to. Several bare chested men in the front room labored to cut small wooden pieces for the boxes using a deafening buzz saw. In the adjacent room several dozen brightly dressed women crowded around the tables to build the boxes, using a potent glue and paintbrushes. What appeared to be the two youngest girls of the group did their work on the floor, sitting cross-legged and barefoot. When completed their finished product would be filled with the leather wallets that the shop had made the previous month.

After pestering all of my tour guides and one of the male workers who spoke broken English (my Tamil is not what it used to be...) I pieced together the story of this sweatshop. Small orders for various multi-national corporations were filled here, with the product being made rotating on a fairly regular bi-weekly basis. It was hard to become a worker in the shop since this was one of the few employers in the slum. While the jobs were hard and the hours were long, what little money they made was still better than nothing one of the guides reasoned. To my obvious follow up question he informed me that the workers logged 48 hour weeks for $40 per month, which I later calculated to be less than 19 cents per hour. The leather George wallet in its sharp wooden case sells for $14.96 at WAL-MART. Hard to beat that price.

With my line beginning to grow behind the two women, I stopped my unsuccessful search for a tag inside the wallet (obstensibly pretending to deactivate the wallet's alarm.) I realize that the odds are small, but I would bet a day's pay that this wallet and case were made by Indian's in the state of Tamil Nadu. Now I know that the allegation that WAL-MART makes some of its products in developing countries in less than ideal working conditions is hardly shocking, but this experience certainly made this reality hit home for me. From then on, whenever I saw a tag that read Made in China, or Honduras, or Bangladesh, I couldn't help but conjure up the image of that quiet barefoot girl, who wore all the colors of the rainbow, making WAL-MART's $14.96 leather wallet for 19 cents per hour.