Yesterday, while shopping at WalMart, I noticed a gaggle of blue smocked women following WalMart manager around the place. Trainees. Oh boy, first day on the job at WalMart. Because it was 8:00 AM, the Official Voice of WalMart Show was playing over the sound system. Somebody in Bentonville, Arkansas plays DJ, spinning CDs and congratulating all the WalMart associates celebrating birthdays and anniversaries. Not wedding anniversaries, mind you, these are celebrations of the time spent at WalMart.
Mr Happy Voice was ticking off all the people who’d been there 21 years. I’m always amazed that anyone could stay there that long. I worked at WalMart and lasted all of one month. As I listened, it occurred to me that I started that job at the beginning of August 1996. If I’d stuck it out for eight years and eleven months more, the nice guy on the radio would be congratulating me.
Of course, the idea of giving WalMart nine years of my life is abhorrent. I still am a bit resentful of the one month they got from me.
Fortunately, I will never have to work at WalMart again. I only gave one week’s notice instead of the two weeks WalMart insists upon, so officially I was fired and would not be approved for re-hire. I decided an extra week with my baby daughter was worth that black mark on my permanent record, at least as far as WalMart goes.
In her book Nickle and Dimed Barbara Ehrenreich describes her experience of working at Walmart in Minneapolis. She decided to explore the world of low wage work and see if she would be able to come up with enough money to cover the rent earning the prevailing wage of $7 an hour. In addition to WalMart, she worked as a waitress in Key West, and a house cleaner/nursing home attendant in Portland, Maine. The only time she managed to make ends meet was when she had two jobs.
Ms. Ehrenreich deftly points out the disconnect between the corporate philosophy of WalMart (“Our people make the difference”) and the abysmal way employees are treated. Drug tests, endless repetitive tasks, work schedules made up with no consideration for the outside lives of the employees, (the author describes one employee who pleads for a Sunday morning off so she can go to church, but she never gets it), and managers who act like tyrants, because they can.
What I recall about WalMart was how management did not trust the workers to make any decisions on their own. For very small matters, such as price checks, a manager had to be brought in. I always hated that moment, because everything came to a standstill while the customers and I waited for the manager to notice my little white light flashing. Stuck in the customer's contemptuous glare, I felt lower than dirt, and not at all like I was a person making a difference. The fact that I was only making $5 an hour didn't help much either.
There has been increasing pressure on WalMart to pay its workers a living wage and allow them to unionize. So far, the only store to be unionized was in Canada and WalMart decided it didn’t really need a store in that city and closed it down. What a coincidence!
And yet I still shop there. Call me a hypocrite. My rationalization is that my husband is the one earning the money through the sweat of his brow and he wants it spent at WalMart because the prices are so good. I never shopped at WalMart when I was single. I always went to Kroger’s, which had a union, and department stores, like JC Penney which paid their sales associates commissions along with their salary. At that time, I didn’t believe I needed one-stop shopping, although I could have used the low, low prices.
But I can’t go in to WalMart without thinking what a difficult job the associates have and how little they are appreciated. And I remember how lucky I am that I’ll never work there again.