Walmart Upskilling or Too Good to be True

Citizen Wealth Financial Justice

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.