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 )