Wal-Mart: Give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to break free (so that we can exploit them).

I love it when Jeff and I take a story in two different directions! It makes me feel like I'm part of a team. Today's Cleveland Plain Dealer story is a great example. While Jeff's post is excellent, he didn't bring you my favorite quote. Here it is, with full context:
Sadly, few of the people interested in working at Cleveland's first Wal-Mart actually got a job. Those 6,000 people were competing for some 300 positions. That means for every one person hired, 19 people walked away empty-handed. It could have been worse. In Illinois recently, [Wal-Mart spokesperson Mia] Masten said, 25,000 and 15,000 people applied at two Wal-Mart stores in the Chicago area, and neither of those is a large Supercenter. "Sometimes, it's easier to get into [someplace exclusive] than a job at Wal-Mart, statistically speaking," she said. [Emphasis added]
I would just love to know which exclusive place Masten mentioned that the Plain Dealer felt the need to bracket since Cleveland readers wouldn't understand. My guess is that she said "Harvard." It's one of those hilarious memes that I see every time a new Wal-Mart opens in an urban area. [Try here, here, or here, for example.] It's also an enormous load of b.s. Let me see if I can take care of this one once and for all here. In a nutshell, the problem with this comparison is that assumes that Harvard and Wal-Mart are both meritocracies. Leaving aside the possibility of legacy admissions, Harvard is looking for qualities that most people would assume to be good: intelligence, creativity, leadership, etc. Wal-Mart is looking for almost the exact opposite qualities. I can't help but think of Barbara Ehrenreich's experience during her interview with Wal-Mart. Besides the obvious fact that she had to hide her Ph.D. - a sure sign of a trouble maker - she had to hide any sign of creative thought in order to get the privilege of work there. This is from Nickeled and Dimed ( p. 124):
When presenting yourself as a potential employee, you can never be too much of a suck-up. Take the test proposition that "rules have to be followed to the letter at all times" I had agreed only "strongly" rather than "very strongly" or "totally" and Roberta wants to know why. Well, rules have to be interpreted sometimes, I say, people have to use some discretion. Otherwise, why, you might as well have machines do all the work rather than actual human beings. She beams at this-"Discretion, very good!"-and jots something down.
Yeah, they ended up hiring her anyways, but the point is that Wal-Mart actually wants machines. Besides, this wasn't a new Wal-Mart anymore so they had to take what they could get. Then there's the question of scheduling. Make believe the new Cleveland Wal-Mart is down to two identical applicants except one has another job somewhere and the other doesn't. Which one is more ambitious? The one with the other job. Who's going to get hired? The other one. Why? Ask the evil scheduling computer:
The briefing document, released by WakeUpWalMart during an annual meeting of Wal-Mart store managers in Kansas City, instructs managers to tell staff that workers who are unwilling to be available at peak evening and weekend times could wind up with fewer hours or drop to part-time from full-time.
In other words, Wal-Mart is more interested in people whose scheduling is flexible than people who are good at what they do. That's the only way its evil computerized scheduling system can actually save the company money. Wal-Mart wants people who will devote themselves entirely to Wal-Mart instead of bettering themselves with higher education or another job. In my book, this is not a good quality. Lastly, there's the criteria that Wal-Mart itself admits to having, and while it is a good one for most people to master, it certainly differs from getting into Harvard. That criteria would be good health. Here's the infamous 2005 Susan Chambers memo:
A healthier workforce will lead to lower health insurance costs, lower absenteeism through fewer sick days, and higher productivity. It will be far easier to attract and retain a healthier workforce than it will be to change behavior in an existing one. These moves would also dissuade unhealthy people from coming to work at Wal-Mart. Even a modest shift in Wal-Mart’s ability to attract and retain a healthier workforce could result in significant savings: $220 million to $670 million in FY2011.
Fat people can get into Harvard. I'll bet you anything that the workforce at Wal-Mart's Cleveland store is a lot skinnier than the rest of town. After all, weight is not a protected class in US employment law. Neither is health. Age is, yet I bet the workforce at that store skews young too. [The 49-year guy who couldn't pass the bar is in management so he doesn't count.] Overall, I think Andrew Carnegie said it best back in 1910:
When labor is plentiful, a man is zealous to keep his job. When labor is very scarce, and you cannot get other men, the man will be a great deal less attentive to his duties. That is my experience, and it is that of every employer of labor I think.
In short, Wal-Mart is not doing Cleveland a favor. Cleveland did Wal-Mart a favor by letting the company build in a town where people are desperate for whatever work they can get, no matter how degrading it happens to be. But then Jeff has basically already told you that.

One Response to “Wal-Mart: Give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to break free (so that we can exploit them).”

  1. […] just some of what I wrote in response to this stupid, stupid argument back in 2007: In a nutshell, the problem with this comparison is that assumes that Harvard and Wal-Mart are both […]

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