Is Wal-Mart Good for the American Working Class?

I Wish It Were Better
E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
June 26 2006 6:35 PM

Is Wal-Mart Good for the American Working Class?

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Hi Jason,

Yes, you can call me Barb. I might resent the name if Wal-Mart had "given" it to me when I started there as a new hire (to research Nickel and Dimed), but I was just too tired, after my 8-hour-long indoctrination—excuse me, orientation—to peel off the letters "ARA" and affix them to the "BARB" on my ID badge.

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With your '05 article, "Wal-Mart: a Progressive Success Story," you've created a situation that has a certain Seussian appeal, and, if I had the talent, I'd write this in rhyme. Here was the Grinch, holed up in Bentonville, gnawed on by unions, churches, academics and grass-roots community groups. Then along comes a Democrat, a professor at an elite university, possibly a liberal—at least you use "progressive" as a praise word—to tell us we should love the Grinch after all and welcome it back to the human fold. It's as if Cindy Sheehan, wandering around Iraq, had stumbled on Saddam's WMDs and announced her support for the war.

Still, despite the nice man-bites-dog angle, I tried to wriggle out of this debate. Since I first reported on my experiences as a Wal-Mart "associate" in 2001, the field of Wal-Martology has expanded my comprehension. Get a real expert, I told Slate. Me against an economist is not a fair fight.

But here I am, and let me start by reporting from my corner of the ring that, yes, indeed, Wal-Mart critics do talk about Wal-Mart's low prices. We are not all in the Whole Foods/Pier 1 demographic. Some of us even shop there. (I went in for a lawn chair last summer, but Lowe's turned out to have both lower prices and a better selection.) And it is because we appreciate the low prices that we are not yelling: Stamp out the Beast! Crush it before it can bud off yet another Super Store!

We are saying, pretty calmly for the most part: Why can't it be better? Why can't it offer decent-paying jobs as well as low prices, especially if it's such a genius, as you say, at increasing productivity?

If you're right that Wal-Mart's low wages are redeemed by its low prices so that Wal-Mart offers a net boon to the working class, then I'll fold up my placards and go away. But your argument has been challenged, for example, by Jared Bernstein and L. Josh Bivens, who say that the numbers you base much of your case on—from the consulting firm Global Insight—are statistically dodgy. Then there's Barry C. Lynn in this month's Harper's, who confronts you with, among other things, Wal-Mart's wage-depressing effects on its many suppliers. He accuses Wal-Mart and other "dominant firms" of "dictat[ing] downward the wages and profits of the millions of people and smaller firms who make and grow what they [Wal-Mart et al.] sell."

The problem isn't Wal-Mart, we critics like to say, it's the Wal-Martization of the entire economy, which involves not only low wages at Wal-Mart itself but depressed wages throughout the company's whole supply chain as well as at competing companies (e.g., supermarkets).

I have my own, somewhat less technical, problem with some of the data you offer in your "Success Story" article: You expect me to believe Global Insight, which was commissioned by Wal-Mart to study the wage/price trade-off? You expect me to believe it when Wal-Mart says its mean hourly wage is $9.68 an hour?

I'm not being bratty here. Wal-Mart has a record of falsifying data on employee hours to conceal unpaid overtime work, so why should I believe them on anything?

Wal-Mart's reported mean wage of $9.68 seems to me particularly suspect. I was hired in 2000—at store in the suburbs of a major city—at $7.00 an hour. To my knowledge, wages for low-wage retail workers have not increased since then. Presumably my pay would have gone up in time; at least co-workers assured me I could be making $7.50 within a year or two. Now maybe the $9.68 figure reflects a lot of multiyear veterans, except that turnover is extremely high at Wal-Mart. (Jason: Got any numbers on that?) My store was "orienting" about 30 new hires a day, suggesting a sizable and steady leakage. So, I find it hard to believe that half of Wal-Mart's associates earn above $9.68 an hour.

By the way, the 8-hour Wal-Mart orientation included, in addition to much cheerleading from the dead Sam Walton, a 12-minute video on the evils of unions.

Best,

Barbara

Barbara Ehrenreich is the author most recently of Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream, as well as co-editor of Global Woman: Nannies, Maids and Sex Workers in the New Economy,and the author of Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America.

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