March 24, 2006

The Walmart Debate

The typical Wal-Mart entry-level worker stays on the job less than a year—not nearly long enough to qualify for the profit sharing that helped cement the loyalty of earlier generations of employees. While many longtime "associates" (as employees are known in Wal-speak) still believe devoutly in the Wal-Mart Way and tend to break spontaneously into the company cheer at the annual meeting or other large company gathering, their numbers have dwindled sharply at a company that hires new workers at the unheard-of rate of nearly 800,000 a year.

Today, the typical Wal-Mart someone like Jonnie Monroe, a 22-year-old rock musician who went to a Wal-Mart store in Olympia, Wash., to buy a can of spray paint one day and applied for a job instead, intending to work only long enough to buy an amplifier for her band. She sailed through two interviews and a drug test and was hired in February 2004, as a full-time cashier making $7.91 an hour. Her training consisted of shadowing another cashier and watching a video that included scenes of a sinister-looking union organizer working a parking lot. "It was weird, like an after-school special," said Monroe, whose supervisor made her cover up the small tattoo on her arm after a customer complained.

Monroe soon made friends with a co-worker, but within a few weeks the Customer Service Managers, or CSMs, separated them, making sure they worked in different sections of the store and eventually on different shifts. Wal-Mart discourages associates from forming friendships with the people around them, apparently because it both fears such fraternization will result in lost productivity and because there is a greater chance such bonds will facilitate unionization. If Monroe made even the smallest computation error, she had to call a CSM to fix it while customers waited impatiently. "Customers scream at you and there's nothing you can do," she said. Monroe was told not to joke around with her fellow workers or to make political comments, even on her breaks. Monroe came to particularly dread the "opening ceremony," otherwise known as the Wal-Mart cheer: "You guys treat me like crap, you won't let me switch shifts, you won't let me dress like myself, won't let me act like myself, and now you want me to be, like, 'Yay, Wal-Mart'?" Monroe quit on the spot after 11 months when her boss refused to allow her time off to attend her brother's wedding in Chicago.

Every worker soon learns there are two unforgivable sins at Wal-Mart: stealing from the company and consorting with a union.

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