Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Cautionary Note about Elitist Critique

One of last year's hot books was journalist Barbara Ehrenreich's expose of minimum wage workers, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. Charles Platt, senior writer at Wired magazine, was suspicious, and so decided to go undercover to work at Wal-Mart:
The job was as dull as I expected, but I was stunned to discover how benign the workplace turned out to be. My supervisor was friendly, decent, and treated me as an equal. Wal-Mart allowed a liberal dress code. The company explained precisely what it expected from its employees, and adhered to this policy in every detail. I was unfailingly reminded to take paid rest breaks, and was also encouraged to take fully paid time, whenever I felt like it, to study topics such as job safety and customer relations via a series of well-produced interactive courses on computers in a room at the back of the store. Each successfully completed course added an increment to my hourly wage, a policy which Barbara Ehrenreich somehow forgot to mention in her book.

My standard equipment included a handheld bar-code scanner which revealed the in-store stock and nearest warehouse stock of every item on the shelves, and its profit margin. At the branch where I worked, all the lowest-level employees were allowed this information and were encouraged to make individual decisions about inventory. One of the secrets to Wal-Mart’s success is that it delegates many judgment calls to the sales-floor level, where employees know first-hand what sells, what doesn’t, and (most important) what customers are asking for.

Several of my co-workers had relocated from other areas, where they had worked at other Wal-Marts. They wanted more of the same. Everyone agreed that Wal-Mart was preferable to the local Target, where the hourly pay was lower and workers were said to be treated with less respect (an opinion which I was unable to verify). Most of all, my coworkers wanted to avoid those “mom-and-pop” stores beloved by social commentators where, I was told, employees had to deal with quixotic management policies, while lacking the opportunities for promotion that exist in a large corporation.

Of course, I was not well paid, but Wal-Mart is hardly unique in paying a low hourly rate to entry-level retail staff. The answer to this problem seems elusive to Barbara Ehrenreich, yet is obvious to any teenager who enrolls in a vocational institute. In a labor market, employees are valued partly according to their abilities. To earn a higher hourly rate, you need to acquire some relevant skills.

As for all those Wal-Mart horror stories—when I went home and checked the web sites that attack the company, I found that many of them are subsidized with union money. walmartwatch.com, for instance, is partnered with the Service Employees International Union; wakeupwalmart.com is copyright by United Food and Commercial Workers International Union. Why are unions so obsessed with Wal-Mart? I'm guessing that if the more-than-a-million Wal-Mart employees could be unionized, they would be compelled to contribute at least half a billion dollars per year in union dues.
(via Instapundit)

5 comments:

OBloodyHell said...

> I'm guessing that if the more-than-a-million Wal-Mart employees could be unionized, they would be compelled to contribute at least half a billion dollars per year in union dues.

No, no, they just want to unionize for the benefit of the workers!!!!

How DARE you impugn the motivation of union organizers?!!

:oS

Hatless in Hattiesburg said...

i remember a few instances of mob-union-thuggery around here, which i'd guess are more rare in a right-to-work state:

1) the media's hit-pieces about food lion grocery stores, alleging all sorts of horrors like tainted food and worker abuse, none of which turned out to be worse than national averages.

2) the threats made against dallas movie theaters by chicago mob-unions for resisting unionization.

3) the incompetence and illiteratcy of the mob-union representative sent to organize workers at the factory where dad worked years ago.

disclaimer: i understand the traditional and proper role (and benefit) of unions, which is why i'm even more disgusted with what they've become.

Carl said...

AVI & HiH:

Agreed.

Anonymous said...

You are knee-jerk anti-union people. It's like a religion with you. I guess you don't think the accomplishments of unions (e.g., 40-hour work week) are worthwhile. I don't think you think when you see or hear the word "union." Coincidentally, did one or both of your parents happen to be anti-union? Perhaps you prefer slave labor. It is cheaper.

Carl said...

Anony, you oppose the right of Wal-Mart employees (as they have so far) to reject unionizing?