Walmart Upskilling or Too Good to be True

Screen Shot 2015-09-07 at 10.59.51 AMLittle Rock     Workers always need some good news around Labor Day and for the few that might have been reading the Wall Street Journal anytime around then, there was some amazing, life-changing, world-shaking news: Walmart had gotten religion. I don’t mean go-to-church religion, but a whole new corporate religion about how it was going to treat and value its workers at least according to the writer, Tamar Jacoby from Opportunity America, Inc.

To hear Jacoby tell it, they are “upskilling” their entire workforce, meaning that they were changing their training program from low-skilled entry level workers on up so that they could retain them longer, perhaps from 12 to 18 months, and stop some of the churn. She claimed that they were doing this partially for public relations given the current concern over inequity, but also to justify the fact that beginning next year they will be paying most rank-and-file workers $10 per hour and first line supervisors $15 per hour. Given training costs estimated at $5000 per worker, if they can stop some of the 50% “churn” common in the retail industry, Jacoby claims that they will save millions. Supposedly, this new found interest in their workers gaining new skills and enjoying more retention is in development now and will be moved to all 4500 Walmart stores “by early next year.”

What can any of us say, but “wow!” When the largest private sector employer in the United States with over one-million workers decides to pay more, add skills, and believe in seniority, this is a revolution in retail that could ripple throughout the economy. This is also a small, though insufficient, answer to the demands of unions and workers’ rights groups for more than a decade that Walmart start treating its workers more humanely, rather than like cogs in a machine. It’s a movement! Jacoby also claims this “upskilling” is a trend “rippling across the retail and service industries including McDonald’s, Starbucks, Gap Inc., CVS Health, Kaiser Permanente, and UPS are moving in the same direction.”

We can only hope this is true, but I don’t know how to reconcile this with another recent squib in the news that with sales numbers down in stores, Walmart is planning to even more aggressively employ its Bentonville, Arkansas computer-driver employee scheduling system, which has long been the bane of Walmart workers existence on the job. The computer contradiction where the company claims local managers run their stores even while the computer flip-flops workers from schedule to schedule where they are working 32 hours one period then, 16 then, 20, then 40 and back and forth.

Call me cynical, but despite how much I want to believe every word and suit up for this coming revolution, reading the list of newly enrolled true believers in their working classes, I just had to know more about Ms. Jacoby and this Opportunity America, Inc, which the Journal had called “a Washington-based nonprofit group working to promote economic mobility” because this sounded so good it read suspiciously like public relations pap.

Well, the website for Opportunity America is not very helpful, since it says essentially either nothing or the same thing on one tab after another. Under “leadership” there is only more about Jacoby, including her stints with the Times and then most recently a position with the hard rightwing business apologist and think-less-tank, the Manhattan Institute, which starts a big red warning flag waving. There are no board members listed. There is no information on donors or finances. Guidestar, the charity monitor, has essentially nothing on them anywhere and they are not registered there.

Why should they be though? Turns out they are not a tax-exempt charitable 501c3 outfit. According to contributions to Opportunity America, Inc. are not tax deductible because they are a 501c4, community coalition of sorts. As all of us have come to know, a 501c4 is not required to disclose its donors either as the Koch Brothers have taught us.

Call me old-fashioned. As much as I truly want to believe that Walmart is changing its ways, this puff piece by this writer and this so-called nonprofit has a certain bad smell to it. This op-ed of sorts seems almost like a “contract” piece, bought and paid for by Walmart. Before I genuflect here, I want to know that Walmart and the rest of the companies listed are not contributors to Opportunity America, and Ms. Tamar Jacoby is not just another arms-length spokesperson, cashing in on her last century reputation but now working-for-hire to promote their least movement in something that looks like a positive direction.

Workers deserve better, but this new Walmart makeover may or may not be the good news we hope to see.

NLRB Joint Employer Decision is Huge for Subcontracted Workers

Auto worker celebrate the victory of the UAW-CIO in the Ford National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) election. 1941

Auto worker celebrate the victory of the UAW-CIO in the Ford National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) election. 1941

New Orleans The NLRB on the last day when it had enough members to issue rulings before its one Republican member’s resignation took effect issued what could be a momentous decision, if allowed to stand, by returning the definition of co-employer status to pre-1980 interpretations. The headlines are saying this decision creates a path for organizing fast food workers. I’ll have to think about that. It definitely clarifies bargaining relationships, but one centralized corporate entity has not meant there has been a smooth path for organizing Walmart or other major retailers, and their workforces are larger by a factor of ten, compared to most fast food stands. We’ll see whether there’s any union that wants to step up to the task now, but as I’ve argued previously, the NLRB organizing route will still be unattractive to any union not willing to make a twenty to thirty year investment in such a strategy. The real impact of this decision will be for the gazillion subcontracted workers, temporary workers, casual workers and their precarious grasp on their jobs and the fragile and fraught bargaining positions of their unions working with them to protect and advance their interests.

The decision was brought on a case involving Browning-Ferris or BFI as most of us know the outfit. Along with Waste Management they are one of the huge companies that have marketed and benefited from the push for municipal privatization of sanitation and recycling services in the USA. The little known reality of such privatization by the taxpayers in these cities is that most of the labor, usually all but the truck drivers, is subcontracted out to temporary employment services. The Teamsters in this case organized the subcontracted recycling center workers and, correctly, wanted to push BFI to the table since they controlled pretty much everything about the job.

Local 100 United Labor Unions knows this routine intimately. Almost twenty years ago when we organized hundreds of minimum wage laborers on the back of Waste Management garbage trucks throughout south Louisiana cities in New Orleans, Lafayette, and Baton Rouge it was front page news in The Wall Street Journal. We won all of the elections but only after losing a hearing at the NLRB where we tried to force Waste Management to be named a co-employer. Later in winning the contract the temporary company admitted to us that they had perjured themselves at the hearing because Waste Management had told them it would cancel their contract if they were named a joint employer. By that time we had won huge wage and benefit increases by exploiting the fact that as semi-casual workers our members could simply decide they were tired and not come to work and by demonstrating how that worked in July as garbage sat rotting and stinking in heat and humidity, we closed the contract at 11 PM one night to keep the trucks rolling and the hoppers, as the laborers were called, slinging the cans into the truck. We organized similar workers in Dallas who in fact were called gunslingers there.

Regardless the wink-and-nod dodge of these companies has meant that we have had to reorganize them time after time. We have a huge case still pending before the NLRB on one company. This same situation exists in tens of thousands of other situations where companies routinely evoke 30-day cancellations when a union is organized. Pushing the joint employer buttons years ago led to the first victories in Pittsburgh for the Justice for Janitors campaign when building owners buckled, and that same reality has triggered other successes where property owners were pressured successfully, though before this new decision at some risk of secondary boycott charges. Now they will likely either have to employ the workers directly or stand up and carry their burdens. Same for hotels that have subbed out their housekeepers, schools that flip over their custodial and food service contractors, nursing homes that do the same, and on and on and on. The huge percentage of wage theft and unfair labor practice claims that are never collected because the subcontracts have collapsed may now finally come due as well.

It will be interesting to see whether or not public employers can be forced to the table as well. That’s one worth watching.

So who knows when and how this might impact fast food workers other than to make McDonalds and the like liable for unfair labor practices, but, regardless, this is huge for the vast millions of part-time, contingent workers on subcontracts everywhere.

For workers – and their unions – this is a game changer.


I Don’t Want Your Millions, Mister ( Almanac Singers )

An Organizing Retreat and Defeat at Walmart

UFCW-Walmart-ProtestNew Orleans     As we have looked at the effort of the United Food and Commercial Workers’ avowed aim over recent years to organize Walmart using various strategies, many of them based on our own earlier work, and some breaking new and different ground with OUR Walmart in mobilizing actions using the internet and launching mini-strikes with maximum publicity, our consistent counsel has been that this all could work, if (big if!) the UFCW was committed finally to supporting this campaign for the ten to twenty years it would take to win against the dominant employer in the retail sector and the largest private sector employer in the country. The verdict seems to finally be emerging publicly, that many of us have feared continually, and it is not promising for either workers at Walmart or the necessity for new and innovative organizing strategies and models.

David Moberg, the long-time labor reporter for In These Times, finally broke the news publicly in a recent piece called, “Which Way OUR Walmart?,” that many observers had feared was inevitable especially in light of recent developments.

Joe Hansen, International President of UFCW, had retired at the end of last year. Hansen had been a grudging, but fair and open-minded, supporter of our Walmart projects in 2005, though zealous of protecting the jurisdiction and tight fisted financially, forcing SEIU and the AFL-CIO to pay for us to establish the “proof of concept.” Internal labor politics around the split within the federation, hurt feelings around SEIU’s embrace of Walmart on healthcare reform, and general turf concerns, rather than the organizing results, most of which argued that our organizing strategies were working, made that project collateral damage with only the anti-FDI efforts in India surviving another decade. To his credit though once his grip on the union consolidated, he led the UFCW to expand the Walmart initiative, hired talented organizers like Dan Schlademan and Andrea Delhendorf, both formerly of SEIU to make it happen. From 2010 through 2014 the UFCW pumped up to $7 million a year into the effort.

People get confused. We may talk about a labor movement, but unions are not movements. They are highly political membership organizations, where existing, dues-paying members elect the leaders and pay the local union bills and those same officers. This is different from “likes” or press notices or attaboys. Every project like this whether to organize an industry giant like Walmart, fight for equality, or a $15 an hour raise has a hard “use by” expiration date, unless they end up increasing membership.

A new leader of the UFCW now has the same problem that Hansen did a decade ago. He has to satisfy the leaders and power blocks that swept him into office, and they want more members now in their own unions. So Schlademan is out. The budget is on the chopping block. Trial balloons are being floated about redirecting organizing and resources. There will always be something that waves a banner or a sign at Walmart, but this has the smell of death and finality all over it down to the fact that private donors and foundations have stepped in to keep OUR Walmart breathing a little longer. That worked for us another year or so after the plug was pulled too, but these donors will move to a new flavor even faster than union leaders did, and they will never put down the dollars that the UFCW invested, and that will continue to be needed to organize a company as huge and powerful as Walmart.

Déjà vu is painful and sad, particularly for the workers, not just at Walmart, but throughout the economy who continue to suffer and dream and be willing to fight, if given the opportunity, for a real voice and a real organization to advance their interests and give them voice on the job. Meanwhile Walmart walks away again, maybe a wee bit wiser, but without an organized workforce, whatever lessons they may have learned in recent years, will be quickly forgotten.

Wages Up but How High is Fair?

Chicago-Raise-the-Min-Wage-Rally-300x189New Orleans       Walmart has announced that over a half-million of its workers will get a raise to $9 now and up to $10 sometime in 2016 at the cost of one-billion dollars.  This is good news, so I won’t remind people of the Pinocchio stories the company has told for years about its so-called average wages.  The company is joining Gap, Target and others that have already said they are raising wages.  Aetna Insurance several weeks ago raised all of its workers to $16 per hour to lead the way.  Economists speculate that the labor market is finally beginning to tighten and that Walmart is recognizing the inevitability of wage increases, so wanted to jump ahead of the pack, embrace reality, and try to change its reputation as one of the country’s worst employers.

All of this is happening as President Obama tries to breathe some new life into his proposal to raise the minimum wage in various steps to $10.10 per hour which has been dead-on-arrival in Congress since it moved from his mind to his mouth.  Not to rain on the parade, but Congress will no doubt use the announcement by Walmart as the nation’s largest private sector employer as evidence that there is no need for new federal minimum wage legislation.

All of this is happening as many of us have been in lengthy conversations in recent months about how to move forward on a different “living wage” strategy.  The “fight for fifteen” has won huge publicity, but aside from Aetna, very little take-up, and, practically speaking, the notion that minimum wage fast food workers might suddenly find their wages doubling from the $7.25 they are earning now ranks somewhere next to Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny on the reality scale.

What is fair and practicable?  Our brothers and sisters in Canada have tried to navigate their campaigns around figures produced by respected nonprofits that include day care cost and other facts that live for many of us only in our dreams.  A recently released poll in the States though found that there is 75% support among Americans for a $12.50 minimum wage achieved by the year 2020.  The same poll found that even in the South that number was supported by 74% including over 50% of Republicans.

We tried to reverse engineer the math using statistics based on the average housing cost in our cities for a single person to rent an apartment and assuming that would represent one-third of their income.  The results were interesting and would seem to resonate with people.  Using this formula a “living wage” now would look like the following:

Little Rock      $11.53

Baton Rouge   $11.59

Houston          $13.00

New Orleans   $13.24

Dallas              $13.56

The wage train is starting to rumble forward finally.  These numbers seem fair and make sense.  It’s campaign time!


Please enjoy Green Day singing Working Class Hero

Continuing Confusion on Companies and Affordable Care: Walmart Example

walmartNew Orleans            Reading continuing reports on the number of people seeking coverage directly in the marketplace or through their employers under the Affordable Care Act makes it clear in many fundamental ways, people still don’t get some of the dimensions of the healthcare contradictions.  Nothing made the case for this argument more conclusively than a column in “The Upshot” in the Times about more Walmart workers signing up for the company’s plan.

In an earnings call, Walmart announced that there had been a significant increase in the number of its workers who signed up for health insurance. Given that it is the nation’s largest private sector employer with over a million workers, we would hope that’s a good thing. They were warning stockholders because the increased participation would tally about a half-billion in additional costs.

What does that really mean?

Well, if they are paying a bargain price of $2500 per year, a tad over $200 per month for employee-only coverage, then perhaps 200,000 workers signed up for the company’s coverage due to the individual mandate. Of the 1.3 million workers Walmart says that it employs in the US that would mean an additional 15% of the company’s workforce enrolled, and let’s keep calling that good news.

What is left unsaid is what the percentage of participation might have been before the mandate began coming into play requiring coverage. My experience organizing Walmart workers would have held that participation earlier could not have even been 15%, so perhaps with this self-reported “surge” of enrollment in the company plan, the total participation is now 30% of the workforce or 400,000 of the 1.3 million workers. Hey, let’s be liberals, which we are not, and say that a quarter of the workforce previously had been on the plan and the numbers are now up to 40% or a bit more than 520,000 workers. We’re searching for real progress here, remember?

Any way you slice it, almost 800,000 are NOT covered by the company’s plan. Some, as we know, make so little money that they would be covered under state and federal programs that were income qualified, saving the company money and transferring the costs to the government. In this discussion we’re OK with that if it means that the workers have healthcare. No way to know how many workers that might be though. Another 200,000? Maybe even 400,000? Either way, a lot of workers will still have nada.

Meanwhile, here’s the hurting thing. Walmart is clear that the increased enrollment did NOT “come because of a more generous company policy.” Gulp, the old policy pretty much sucked, and the old boss here is the new boss still, meaning workers have a relatively low, qualifying monthly premium under 8.5% of their gross income, and relatively high deductible and general coverage plan.

These other 400 or 500,000 workers are likely “stuck like Chuck,” trying to figure out a way to get other coverage or pay the fine for not having any, and since Walmart offers this no-frills health plan, they are also barred from getting any subsidies from the federal or state marketplaces and any cost sharing.

Only in a country where something is better than nothing, is any of this report really within a mile of being good news.

Walmart Business Model Crashing and the False Claims of Foreign Direct Investment

walmart2Kiln     Walmart may be the largest company in the United States in terms of gross sales, but mounting evidence indicates that its business model is collapsing.  The company seems in a near state of panic as return on investment dips and quarterly returns drag consecutively lower.  In a bitter irony the very inequality ravaging the United States may be a fundamental part of the problem, since the company harvests 18% of all food stamp expenditures from low income families, and our constituency has been the slowest to recover from the Great Recession.

A report in the Wall Street Journal indicates the whole Walmart business model is up for grabs.  The new CEO is requiring people to read a book on Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, who claimed to have built his company by watching and then targeting Walmart.  They are even talking about building standalone liquor stores in some communities.

This year, for the first time in its history, Wal-Mart will open more smaller grocery and convenience-type stores than supercenters. At 10,000 to 40,000 square feet, its Wal-Mart Express and Neighborhood Market concepts are a fraction of the size of a 200,000-square-foot superstore. Stores now double as pickup stations for shoppers to collect televisions, bicycles and other items purchased online.

Talking to one of UFCW Canada’s national representatives, Ken Shimmin, recently on KABF/FM’s “Wade’s World,” about the impact of the Supreme Court of Canada’s recent decision affirming back pay for almost 200 workers displaced by Walmart’s antiunion closing of a store to prevent there being a collective bargaining agreement in Quebec, it was clear that the union’s phones have been ringing off the hook with workers who are fed up and want to organize.  Something is happening here.

Furthermore, analysts are finally beginning to notice how few clothes the emperor is wearing overseas, and looking harder at the company’s failures internationally. As even the Journal notes, “It has stumbled in country after country in its attempts to expand overseas….”   As ACORN International’s India FDI Watch Campaign has consistently highlighted in our decade-long effort to force accountability on any big-box operator, whether Walmart, Tesco, Carrefour, Metro, or others trying to upend the mass employment and small scale retail operations within India, the company’s claims there will lead to the same problems of reduced employment and hollowed out retail districts that have been the company’s hallmark in North American countries from Canada to Mexico.

I have only gotten through the first 100 pages of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, but it didn’t take me long to find on page 70 that he would join us in questioning the demands of Walmart and others for modifications of foreign direct investment in retail in India.  Piketty says,

Furthermore, if we look at the historical record, it does not appear that capital mobility has been the primary factor promoting convergence of rich and poor nations.  None of the Asian countries that have moved closer to the developed countries of the West in recent years has benefited from large foreign investments, whether it be Japan, South Korea, or Taiwan and more recently China.  In essence, all of these countries themselves financed the necessary investments in physical capital and, even more, in human capital, which the latest research holds to be the key to long-term growth.  Conversely, countries owned by other countries, whether in the colonial period or in Africa today, have been less successful…

If the Walmart business model is up for grabs, as it certainly should be, perhaps the international footprint and the way the company stomps around the world, as well as its labor relations policies and the way they stomp down their workforce, should get the same kind of attention as smaller stores, liquor, and their website.


Please enjoy Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young  Love the One Your With from CSNY 1974.