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Tuesday, February 10, 2009
A writer for the New York Post went undercover to see what it was like to work at the evil Wal-Mart. Turns out, it's a pretty sweet place to work.
Some people, usually community activists, loath Wal-Mart. Others, like the family of four struggling to make ends meet, are in love with the chain. I, meanwhile, am in awe of it.
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Yet still the company is rebuked and reviled by anyone claiming a social conscience, and is lambasted by legislators as if its bad behavior places it somewhere between investment bankers and the Taliban.

Considering this is a company that is helping families ride out the economic downturn, which is providing jobs and stimulus while Congress bickers, which had sales growth of 2% this last quarter while other companies struggled, you have to wonder why. At least, I wondered why. And in that spirit of curiosity, I applied for an entry-level position at my local Wal-Mart.

Getting hired turned out to be a challenge. The personnel manager told me she had received more than 100 applications during that month alone, chasing just a handful of jobs. Thus the mystery deepened. If Wal-Mart was such an exploiter of the working poor, why were the working poor so eager to be exploited? And after they were hired, why did they seem so happy to be there?
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A week later, I found myself in an elite group of 10 successful applicants convening for two (paid) days of training in the same claustrophobic, windowless room. As we introduced ourselves, I discovered that more than half had already worked at other Wal-Marts. Having relocated to this area, they were eager for more of the same.

Why? Gradually the answer became clear. Imagine that you are young and relatively unskilled, lacking academic qualifications. Which would you prefer: standing behind the register at a local gas station, or doing the same thing in the most aggressively successful retailer in the world, where ruthless expansion is a way of life, creating a constant demand for people to fill low-level managerial positions? A future at Wal-Mart may sound a less-than-stellar prospect, but it's a whole lot better than no future at all.

In addition, despite its huge size, the corporation turned out to have an eerie resemblance to a Silicon Valley startup. There was the same gung-ho spirit, same lack of dogma, same lax dress code, same informality - and same interest in owning a piece of the company. All of my coworkers accepted the offer to buy Wal-Mart stock by setting aside $2 of every paycheck.

They were less enthused about health benefits, which offered minimal coverage during our first six months. The full corporate plan would kick in after that, but seemed to require significant employee contributions. Still, my fellow trainees assured me that health plans at other retail chains were even worse, and since the federal government had raised the limits for Medicaid eligibility, that was an option for people with children.
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We were given only a handful of outright prohibitions. No swearing in the store, for instance - not even the word "damn," because some people might be offended. No funny-colored hair or blatant skin piercings, because some people might be offended. In fact almost all the rules devolved to the sacred principle of never, ever offending a customer - or "guest," in Wal-Mart terminology.

The reason was clearly articulated. On average, anyone walking into Wal-Mart is likely to spend more than $200,000 at the store during the rest of his life. Therefore, any clueless employee who alienates that customer will cost the store around a quarter-million dollars. "If we don't remember that our customers are in charge," our trainer warned us, "we turn into Kmart." She made that sound like devolving into some lesser being - a toad, maybe, or an ameba.
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My amiable, laid-back department supervisor had been doing this kind of thing for 15 years. When I asked him why, he took a moment to process the question. He had to think back to other employers he'd worked for in the distant past. None of them, he said, had treated him so well.

What exactly did he mean by that?

His answer lay in the structure of the store. "It's deceptive, because Wal-Mart isn't divided into separate stores like a mall," he said. "But really, that's how it works. Each section is separate. This is - my pet store! No one comes here and tells me how to run it. I could go for weeks without a supervisor asking any questions." Here was the unseen, unreported side of the corporate behemoth. Big as it was, it was smart enough to give employees a feeling of autonomy.
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My starting wage was so low (around $7 per hour), a modest increment still didn't leave me with enough to live on comfortably, but when I looked at the alternatives, many of them were worse. Coworkers assured me that the nearest Target paid its hourly full-timers less than Wal-Mart, while fast-food franchises were at the bottom of everyone's list.

I found myself reaching an inescapable conclusion. Low wages are not a Wal-Mart problem. They are an industry-wide problem, afflicting all unskilled entry-level jobs, and the reason should be obvious.

In our free-enterprise system, employees are valued largely in terms of what they can do. This is why teenagers fresh out of high school often go to vocational training institutes to become auto mechanics or electricians. They understand a basic principle that seems to elude social commentators, politicians and union organizers. If you want better pay, you need to learn skills that are in demand.

The blunt tools of legislation or union power can force a corporation to pay higher wages, but if employees don't create an equal amount of additional value, there's no net gain. All other factors remaining equal, the store will have to charge higher prices for its merchandise, and its competitive position will suffer.

This is Economics 101, but no one wants to believe it, because it tells us that a legislative or unionized quick-fix is not going to work in the long term. If you want people to be wealthier, they have to create additional wealth.
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In fact, the deal at Wal-Mart is better than at many other employers. The company states that its regular full-time hourly associates in the US average $10.86 per hour, while the mean hourly wage for retail sales associates in department stores generally is $8.67. The federal minimum wage is $6.55 per hour. Also every Wal-Mart employee gets a 10% store discount, while an additional 4% of wages go into profit-sharing and 401(k) plans.
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Based on my experience (admittedly, only at one location) I reached a conclusion which is utterly opposed to almost everything ever written about Wal-Mart. I came to regard it as one of the all-time enlightened American employers, right up there with IBM in the 1960s. Wal-Mart is not the enemy. It's the best friend we could ask for.

5 comments:

Chris A said...

I wouldn't call Wal-Mart evil, but certainly it isn't that great of a place to work. There are always multiple sides of a story like this, but this one limited viewpoint is hardly "the truth about Wal-Mart". If we want to get a bigger picture, maybe we should ask all those mom and pop shops in small towns that no longer exist, or maybe those people in the Southeast who used to work in the now extinct textile industry, or maybe the people living in the Chinese labor camps. The United States isn't going to survive if it cannot produce its own goods. Wal-Mart has good prices, but what's the long term cost of importing so much without a stable manufacturing industry in the U.S.? I'm not saying the government should intervene, I'm just saying that there is a high cost for the low price.

Darius said...

For a libertarian (if I'm wrong, please excuse me), you're surprisingly negative on free market capitalism. Those mom and pops went to work for Wal-Mart if they couldn't stay in business, ditto for those people in the Southeast. People evolve their occupations and business practices to meet the demand.

As for the people in labor camps, I'm not sure what you're referring to. Labor camps don't make the goods that are sold here. There have been some allegations of child labor (which I'm not sure what is so wrong with a family letting a 14 year old help support it, that was pretty typical 100 years ago IN THIS COUNTRY), but whenever evidence has come to light, Wal-Mart has cancelled their contract with that particular supplier. And in case you mention low-wage labor, I will remind you that low wages are better than no wages.

Chris A said...

Well, I'm not saying I'm against the free market or even against Wal-Mart. I am saying that "the truth about Wal-Mart" isn't as simple as the article portrays. Plus free market or not, the U.S. isn't going to continue to be a world leader in any capacity if we have no manufacturing. In other words, this isn't a black and white good guy or bad guy scenario. You are wrong about the labor camps. It has all been documented on film. They have camps in China where workers all live in small rooms on bunk beds. It isn't forced labor, but people live there, get paid very little, and actually have to pay rent. Not technically slavery, but close to indentured servitude.

Darius said...

Again, you are sounding more like a socialist and not much like a libertarian. As long as the people choose to be there (at unforced labor camps), then what is the problem? Indentured servitude is Biblical, after all. As long as people's freedom is not infringed upon, I don't see how it is so wrong. Please explain your position further so I can understand.

Chris A said...

I'm not really into blanket labels like "socialist" or "libertarian" when they are meant to pigeonhole people or to oversimplify things, although I don't see anything particularly socialist about what I said - unless you think Americans actually producing goods is somehow socialist. The bottom line is this: Wal-Mart is neither good nor bad necessarily. Its much more complicated than that. We have to consider the framework within they operate - taxes, shareholders, laws, etc. Yeah, people were indentured servants in the Bible; that doesn't mean it is "biblical". Its certainly not the ideal situation for any person, especially when there is almost no way out of it and you become something like a fifth generation sharecropper forever in debt to your master. That type of oppressive system is anything but biblical; in fact, its satanic. Yeah, those people have a choice, but not much of one. And I'm not even defending them anyway. I'm just saying that this is part of the Wal-Mart big picture. If you don't have a problem with it, fine. Many others when they are informed (Christians included) do have a problem with it, and choose not to support it. My personal opinion about Wal-Mart, which you should note I have not previously referenced, is like the one I have towards many other multinational corporations - it is mixed. I will say that when given the opportunity I am more likely to support local businesses.

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The Cross Centered Life: Keeping the Gospel The Main Thing
Crazy Love: Overwhelmed by a Relentless God
Overcoming Sin and Temptation
According to Plan: The Unfolding Revelation of God in the Bible
Disciplines of a Godly Man
Money, Greed, and God: Why Capitalism Is the Solution and Not the Problem
When Helping Hurts: Alleviating Poverty Without Hurting the Poor. . .and Ourselves
The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith
Respectable Sins
The Kite Runner
Life Laid Bare: The Survivors in Rwanda Speak
Machete Season: The Killers in Rwanda Speak
A Generous Orthodoxy: Why I am a missional, evangelical, post/protestant, liberal/conservative, mystical/poetic, biblical, charismatic/contemplative, fundamentalist/calvinist, ... anabaptist/anglican, metho
Show Them No Mercy
The Lord of the Rings
Life at the Bottom: The Worldview That Makes the Underclass
The Truth War: Fighting for Certainty in an Age of Deception
Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist's Guide to Global Warming
The Chronicles of Narnia
Les Misérables


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