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January 04, 2005

A Slew of Books on Wal-Mart

Wal-Mart is the Big Bad of the union movement right now and a whole new literature has arisen analyzing its evil effects. The New York Review of Books highlights a number of these new books, including Selling Women Short: The Landmark Battle for Workers' Rights at Wal-Mart, by a friend Liza Featherstone.

One thing that all activists need to recognize is that Wal-Mart combines ruthless labor policies with cutting-edge use of new technologies, much as Ford Motor company did in its headday:

McKinsey also makes much of the company's innovative use of information technology, for example its early use of computers and scanners to track inventory, and its use of satellite communications to link corporate headquarters in Arkansas with the nationwide network of Wal-Mart stores.
The reason this makes Wal-Mart formidable is that its advantages versus its corporate competitors due to low wages is supplemented by advantages due to greater productivity-- which means that any union challenge to Wal-Mart has to be that much stronger to threaten enough damage to corporate profits to make them come to the bargaining table.

What is striking is how much Wal-Mart has decentralized its abuse of workers through the corporate budgetting process:

Each year Wal-Mart provides its store managers with a "preferred budget" for employment, which would allow managers to staff their stores at adequate levels. But the actual budget imposed on the store managers always falls short of the preferred budget, so that most Wal-Mart stores are permanently understaffed. The gap between the preferred and actual budgets gives store managers an idea of how much extra work they must try to extract from their workforce.
Without needing explicit orders, local managers are forced to violate wage and overtime laws to meet these corpoate budgetary commandments.

The result is the worker turnover and lawsuits that have embroiled the company:

Some 50 percent of Wal-Mart workers employed at the beginning of 2003 had left the company by the end of the year. . . Perhaps the best evidence we have of this selective harassment is to be found in the depositions of 115 women who have testified against Wal-Mart in the Dukes case, a class-action lawsuit brought in 2001. . . The suit, which alleges systematic discrimination by Wal-Mart both in the pay and promotion of women, is brought on behalf of 1.6 million female employees of Wal-Mart past and present, the largest civil rights case of its kind in US history.
Read the article and a few of the books and studies mentioned. This is capitalism for the 21st century and we all need to understand it if we are going to fight it.

Posted by Nathan at January 4, 2005 06:32 PM