Baton Rouge Wal-Mart had been on a charm offensive since Hurricane Katrina trying to prove to an increasingly doubtful public that it was about something more than cutting prices and pinching pennies at the expense of its workers. Over the last week they have been trying to weather a firestorm initiated by the release of an internal memo from the head of Human Resources that left way too little to the imagination.
We had seen the memo more than a week ago as it started to circulate secretly among those most attuned to the goings and comings of the company. Wal-Mart Watch had shared the memo with me confidentially to see if I thought Wal-Mart workers would be interested in talking about the contents of the document. I did not need to read much to know this was hot and that workers would be in shock and awe when they were finally allowed to take a look at the way the company was spinning their benefits and the very future of their employment. Hinting to our organizing staff with the Wal-Mart Workers Association (www.walmartwork.org), they could hardly wait to see what we had.
Wal-Mart Watch had no idea how the memo had come to them, but they knew they had something here. They also thought they had a couple of weeks to roll it out, before the company started responding and implementing the memo. They wanted us to see if we would pull together a dozen workers to talk publicly about the memo while reading it for the first time. This was candy! We were ready to move.
So was the company it turned out. They spun the memo out on the upside. HR had argued that they needed to make some “strategic investments” to make it appear that they were improving some parts of their health coverage, even while increasing deductibles and changing the workforce. Wal-Mart Watch ended up just mass blasting the memo out everywhere they could and counting on the big papers to run with the story, which many of them did.
There was a lot to digest when you read the memo. (see the memo on www.walmartwork.org) First, one is amazed that as crummy as much of the health plan is, the price tag given the size of the company is still in the billions. These are not easy problems when we have no real national health insurance program in the country for working people. Secondly, Wal-Mart really does not like its workers in any real way. There are comments about the fact that they are old and fat, and this cost them money. They do not come out and say that they will be pushing out everyone who fits this profile, but the message seems unmistakable. This is especially the case when one sees that they want to push even more workers from full to part time positions. We have already been at the bleeding edge of this shift over the last several months as Bentonville computers have unilaterally pushed huge numbers of workers in Florida that we know out of jobs and on to supplemental unemployment benefits.
One could see in the memo some honesty on other fronts as well. Wal-Mart knows it is costing the public money because its wage scale and paltry benefits push people onto public programs. They also know they have critics high and low and clearly and not impervious to this — no matter what their culture has traditionally been — and some of these “revisions” are meant to move in these areas.
There seems little question as one peeks inside the company through the window of this memo that this is now Fort Wal-Mart and their workers and customers are hostile forces in a critical important alliance, which could push the company in directions that are outside of their happy face.
October 29, 2005