(Charles Platt is a guest blogger)
As I begin my second week here as a guest blogger, I'm going to risk venturing into a couple of contentious political areas. My aim is not to provoke dissent; I simply feel that some stories are not being told.
The picture above is of me, finishing my shift at the world’s largest retailer. How did I move from being a senior writer at Wired magazine to an entry-level position in a company that is reviled by almost all living journalists?
It started when I read Nickel and Dimed, in which Atlantic contributor Barbara Ehrenreich denounces the exploitation of minimum-wage workers in America. Somehow her book didn’t ring true to me, and I wondered to what extent a preconceived agenda might have biased her reporting. Hence my application for a job at the nearest Wal-Mart.
Getting in was not easy, as more than 100 applicants were competing for fewer than 10 job openings. Still, I made it through a very clever screening quiz, then through a series of three interviews, followed by two days of training. I felt ambivalent about taking advantage of the company’s resources in this way, but I was certainly willing to do my part by working hard at the store, at least for a limited period.
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.
Similar factors result in someone such as Adam Shepard remaining relatively obscure.
If you haven’t heard of Adam Shepard, this illustrates my point. His remarkable book Scratch Beginnings, now being promoted through www.scratchbeginnings.com, describes how he went through an experience far more gruelling than my brief flirtation with low-paying work. He placed himself in a homeless shelter with $25 in his pocket, found a job as a day laborer, then worked for a moving company, and after 10 months had a pickup truck, an apartment, and $2,500 in savings. His conclusion: People can still make it in the United States if they are willing to live carefully on a budget and work hard.
Somehow that kind of news is never as popular as denunciations of the free market written by professional handwringers such as Barbara Ehrenreich.