Wal-Mart also has installed automatic systems that help to make sure that associates receive their meal breaks and that they do not work off the clock. For example, we have programmed the cash registers in our stores to provide each cashier with advance notice before each meal period, and then to lock the user out before the break becomes overdue. And we have programmed all electronic systems that require associate log-on so that they cannot be operated by an associate who has not clocked in.
Besides offering my normal Luddite response of “machines are not a panacea,” I want to detail exactly why this is particularly true at Wal-Mart. From Simon Head’s “Inside the Leviathan,” perhaps the best article on Wal-Mart ever written:
Since there is no assembly line at Wal-Mart its senior management uses blunter methods to achieve higher levels of productivity from the workforce. These methods are governed by a simple principle: when deciding how many workers to employ, Wal-Mart management relies on a formula guaranteeing that the growth of the labor budget will lag behind the growth in store sales, so that every year there will be more work for each employee to do. In her paper “The Quality of Work at Wal-Mart,” presented at the conference in Santa Barbara, Ellen Rosen of the Women’s Studies Research Center at Brandeis described in detail how this squeeze on labor works. 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.
As long as this perverse system of giving management every incentive to be exploitive remains in place, it doesn’t matter how many bells and whistles Wal-Mart uses to remind workers to take their breaks and go home at night. Their immediate supervisors (like the guy who said “we all needed to be more like Hitler” in dealing with the associates) will get around whatever Bentonville devises to stop future lawsuits from getting as far as this one.