Walmart is a Machine with People in the Gears

WalMart Workers

             New Orleans       The headline was an attention grabber blaring out that Walmart store managers might make $240,000 a year.  With a worldwide reputation for scrawny paychecks, was this possible?  Having run an organizing program for a coalition of unions at Walmart stores almost twenty years ago in central Florida, I couldn’t resist reading the story to get a better behind-the-checkout-counter look at how the company was managing the stores, even if much of what I learned was between the lines and in throwaway observations.

The story was about an early-40s mother of four running a Walmart superstore in a lower income, working class area outside of Waco, Texas.  She started as a high school graduate working part-time at 19 and stuck with it to become a manager. There’s no question she’s doing a good job by all accounts, including the company’s, or they wouldn’t have pointed a Wall Street Journal reporter to her and given them access to shadow a day in her work life.

Just to get this out of the way, managers have never been our organizing target, but even if the headline touted good pay, her guarantee was only about $120,000 a year to manage a store grossing $100 million, which is chump change.  Half of her pay was in bonuses, which is hardly a vote of confidence, though Walmart would surely argue it was an incentive.  She needs a union every bit as much as the workers!  She works ten hours per day from 7am to 5pm and eats lunch at her desk.  She walks 20,000 steps a day around the store that is 300 yards long which adds up to about 8 to 10 miles per day, and gets two days off, but not together, a Wednesday and a Sunday.  Walmart has 4700 store managers and thinks they are key to its success, but this description is hardly a good want ad.

The story doesn’t say so, but I’m sure staffing levels are still set by headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas, but it’s her job along with her HR manager to somehow sort and fill 300 workers to make it come together.  She ends up doing three walking tours of the store, pushing a shopping cart with her boss on one to find errors in shelf stacking or missing items between online and in-store, plus has four staff meetings, three formal and one in the front of the story before the evening rush.  This is hands-on to go with walking her dogs off with a walkie-talkie at full blast.

The other challenge is constant data streams from headquarters on products, deliveries, and of course the sale numbers, which she has to balance to make orders and predictions of demand and interest for her customers.  When she gets it wrong, she ends up with a truck full of deer corn, and that can’t mean that Texans are suddenly giving deer a fair chance.

What about the workers?  Some time was spent talking about one woman who was doing a good job, but bored, who they wanted to keep.  The pictures of her line managers and her boss made this seem like a solid working class opportunity for some, but it was impossible not to feel that these were the survivors, just as she was, not the rank-and-file on their knees filling the shelves or working the cash registers.  She complained about the unpredictability of her daily work, while the workers seem mainly to be interchangeable cogs is a hugely complicated mashup of algorithms and people on both sides of aisles.  It’s amazing that this whole Rube Goldberg operation actually works, but it’s impossible not to see the whole affair, even from a manager’s eyes as a “flesh-eating machine.”