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Barbara Ehrenreich Is Full Of It

Barbara Ehrenreich Is Full Of It
She isn’t the only journo to take a job at Wal-Mart, but Wired’s Charles Platt tells a different story on BoingBoing than she did in her book Nickel and Dimed. An excerpt from Platt’s version of working for Wal-Mart:

The job was as dull as I expected, but I was stunned to discover how benign the workplace turned out to be. My supervisor was friendly, decent, and treated me as an equal. Wal-Mart allowed a liberal dress code. The company explained precisely what it expected from its employees, and adhered to this policy in every detail. I was unfailingly reminded to take paid rest breaks, and was also encouraged to take fully paid time, whenever I felt like it, to study topics such as job safety and customer relations via a series of well-produced interactive courses on computers in a room at the back of the store. Each successfully completed course added an increment to my hourly wage, a policy which Barbara Ehrenreich somehow forgot to mention in her book.

My standard equipment included a handheld bar-code scanner which revealed the in-store stock and nearest warehouse stock of every item on the shelves, and its profit margin. At the branch where I worked, all the lowest-level employees were allowed this information and were encouraged to make individual decisions about inventory. One of the secrets to Wal-Mart’s success is that it delegates many judgment calls to the sales-floor level, where employees know first-hand what sells, what doesn’t, and (most important) what customers are asking for.

Several of my co-workers had relocated from other areas, where they had worked at other Wal-Marts. They wanted more of the same. Everyone agreed that Wal-Mart was preferable to the local Target, where the hourly pay was lower and workers were said to be treated with less respect (an opinion which I was unable to verify). Most of all, my coworkers wanted to avoid those “mom-and-pop” stores beloved by social commentators where, I was told, employees had to deal with quixotic management policies, while lacking the opportunities for promotion that exist in a large corporation.

Of course, I was not well paid, but Wal-Mart is hardly unique in paying a low hourly rate to entry-level retail staff. The answer to this problem seems elusive to Barbara Ehrenreich, yet is obvious to any teenager who enrolls in a vocational institute. In a labor market, employees are valued partly according to their abilities. To earn a higher hourly rate, you need to acquire some relevant skills.

As for all those Wal-Mart horror stories–when I went home and checked the web sites that attack the company, I found that many of them are subsidized with union money. walmartwatch.com, for instance, is partnered with the Service Employees International Union; wakeupwalmart.com is copyright by United Food and Commercial Workers International Union. Why are unions so obsessed with Wal-Mart? I’m guessing that if the more-than-a-million Wal-Mart employees could be unionized, they would be compelled to contribute at least half a billion dollars per year in union dues.

Subsequently I considered writing about my brief experience, but a book defending a company that has been demonized does not have a large potential audience, and the writer tends to be dismissed as either hopelessly naive or bribed by corporate America.

He goes on to tell the tale of a guy who entered a homeless shelter with $25, worked as a day laborer and then for a moving company, and in 10 months, had $2,500 saved up, plus a pickup truck and an apartment. That story is Adam Sheperd’s, and his book about it is Scratch Beginnings: Me, $25, and the Search for the American Dream.

Platt continued in the comments:

“Is there an incentive for this level of decision making by “sales-floor level” employees?”

I spoke to a guy who took the initiative to order, I think, 100 tentlike carports during his first month on the job, just because he noticed that a sample of four of the things had sold out within a day, and several people then came in asking for them as a result of word-of-mouth.

His gamble was successful. As a result he was invited to some kind of annual Wal-Mart gathering at company HQ, he met the CEO, and of course was promoted. That’s a very unusual story but, yes, I’d say there’s an incentive!

The biggest sin at Wal-Mart is not to take initiative. It is to offend a customer. We were warned quite severely that each average Wal-Mart customer is expected to spend, as I recall, about $200,000 during the rest of their lives. If you terminally alienate one customer, you may have just lost the store almost a quarter-million dollars. The second-biggest sin might be to hurt yourself, since your reimbursed medical expenses will reduce the annual bonus for your coworkers.

Oddly enough, Wal-Mart reminded me of startups that I visited in Silicon Valley during the 1990s. Same informality, same devolution of responsibility to low levels, same gung-ho optimism, young-aged work force, willingness to innovate, emphasis on growth, and a sense of very smart management behind the scenes. But of course the work is MUCH more boring!

Also from the comments is another person’s perspective that’s in tune with mine:

“how can you raise a family on that money in a company town?”

You probably can’t. Starting a family is a decision that from a financial perspective should be delayed until one has a sizeable nest egg. Gratification can be delayed despite to protestation of young hormones otherwise. Most don’t wait and that’s their right but it doesn’t give them any justification to complain that entry level employment doesn’t cover the cost of maintaining a single family private dwelling with their one true love an a brood of entitled young ones. No legislation or labor union will ever prevent people from procreating themselves into poverty. Study hard, avoid unhealthy vices, keep your willy in your trousers or seated with a dime between your knees as the case may be and save up your money to start a family. Poor planning does not obligate Walmart to provide mitigation for bad decisions.

It’s like the idea that health care is a right — one other people should pick up the tab for, even if you’re mentally healthy and capable of working to pay your own way. An old boyfriend of mine does liver transplants. He spent years and bazillions on his education, worked insane hours during his training, and continues to work insane hours now, at one of the country’s finest hospitals. He makes a lot of money and the people whose lives he saves can tell you he deserves every cent.

via Kate Coe