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.