Platt’s Life at Wal-Mart

I found this article by Charles Platt interesting: Life at Wal-Mart. Platt went undercover to find out just how bad it was working for the bane of unions everywhere: 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.

Pro- and anti-union readers: Feel free to have it out in the comments.

13 Responses to “Platt’s Life at Wal-Mart”

  1. J.A.Y.S.O.N. Says:

    Interesting article, I have a couple of thoughts…

    I’m in the ‘pro-union’ camp. This isn’t to say that I think all workers everywhere should be in a union, but they should have the choice to form one if they want to.

    Historically the roots of the union lie in those turn of the century jobs where people were held in virtual slave labor, working long days in unsafe conditions, getting paid in company scrip, etc; legitimately life and health threatening things. There were literal wars fought over it.

    I think the current information age goes a way in ameliorating some of these problems. Walmart doesn’t want bad press, if it’s getting some it’ll go and start changing things. I think that’s a good thing.

    The one thing I want to address in this is the comment about how the author’s manager was a nice guy. Good for you. That’s a total crap shoot and really has nothing to do with anything but good luck. I’ve worked for bigger companies and smaller companies (but no one as big as Raytheon or GM) and you get whoever you get, it just depends.

  2. Steve Says:

    I’m not sure what the difference is between pro- and anti-union readers would be regarding this article. It seems pretty clear that working at Wal-Mart is a job like any other low end service job. The workers benefit if they become unionized, and the employers lose a little money treating their workers better.

    If I were in charge, I’d let the free market decide what happens at Wal-Mart. As things currently stand, Wal-Mart’s business strategy relies on bypassing the free market as much as possible (anti-union activities, large tax subsidies for building new stores, etc…).

  3. J.A.Y.S.O.N. Says:

    I actually do think the free market is deciding what happens to Walmart. Businesses don’t like the market and they don’t want compete, they’re very simple in that regard.

  4. NorthernLite Says:

    I think Wal-Mart is almost single-handedly responsible for lowering the standard of living in the US and Canada. Their stores are loaded with cheap crap built by people earning 25 cents an hour, which is what they would pay their workers if it weren’t for labour laws.

    I have never bought anything there. Never will.

  5. J.A.Y.S.O.N. Says:

    I don’t either, but that’s because I’m making a conscious decision not to do and I have the option of making that decision because (at least while working) I made enough money that it was something I could consider.

    This is kind of the problem of Walmart though, it does fulfill a market niche. I think you have two kinds of people who shop there, people that can’t afford anything at higher prices and people who don’t care.

    At the same time, while not for Walmart, it’s a complicated issue about the forces that led to it being where it is today.

  6. knarlyknight Says:

    Walmart is as much of a sympton as it is a part of the disease itself. That’s all I wish to say on that.

    On related topic,
    someone was asserting that the Employee Free Choice Act would take away worker’s rights to a secret ballot (that was on another recent thread.)

    Now I’m hearing that “the bill would not “ban” secret-ballot elections. Rather, it would in part allow workers to decide whether to hold a secret ballot election or a majority sign-up process when dealing with the question of unionization,…”

    So, does the Bill mean that if passed the workers can, or can no longer, have secret ballots?

  7. enkidu Says:

    I was part of a union once: the CWA Communications Workers of America. You had to be a member to work at AT&T if you weren’t management. When I asked if I could not join, they said no. The dues were insubstantial and I viewed it as insurance. If I ever got hurt or had some weird experience w management, they’d be there to back me up. I viewed it as insurance. They negotiated higher wages for us and that is about all I can say about my inion experience. Other than that the management at AT&T was atrocious (which is why I moved on from there rather than going management).

    We try not to shop at big box stores. It isn’t good for US jobs, wages, mfgr base, the environment etc. One time we were forced to: we were vacationing in Kentucky (don’t ask) and the airline lost our luggage for like 5 days. We had two small boys and no clothes for anyone other than what we had on our backs. So after a day or two we went to the only store within many miles. WalMart. Every single thing we bought there was crap. The shirts fell apart or were made of materials that were so uncomfortable you longed for them to fall apart so you wouldn’t have to wear them any longer. Every single item was badly designed, badly made, and most of it overseas to boot.

    The comments on that bb thread are quite interesting. Charlie Platt is quite the right winger.

    knarls I think it is one more way to begin unionizing, thus bad from the view of the Rs (how higher wage higher skilled labor became ‘bad’ is beyond me)

  8. enkidu Says:



  9. shcb Says:


    From what I understand under current law if a certain percent of workers, 30% I believe, want a union, they can vote on it, at that point they can either use a card check (petition) where their name is signed to their vote or a secret ballot, or a voice vote (not positive about that) if they get 50% then the company is unionized. But the owner of the company can request a secret ballot. It some instances companies like unions because they only have to negotiate wages periodically instead of on an individual basis, so in those cases the employer may not request a secret ballot. What this new bill would do is remove the right of the employer to request a secret ballot. I would assume that if the union wanted to allow a secret ballot there is nothing to stop them, but they probably wouldn’t want to as this would limit intimidation. In many cases when the secret ballot is used they don’t even get the 30% that signed the original petition.

    Also from what I understand the issue of whether you have to be a member of a union to work in a union shop is on a state by state basis, I believe that is call “right to work state” if you want to Wiki it. I don’t know if a company can make the decision to allow workers to work non union in a union shop or not but I don’t think they can, I think that is on a state by state basis. So in Enky’s case if he were to have worked for AT&T in another state the answer may have been that he could work there and not be a member of the union.

  10. knarlyknight Says:

    shcb – Thanks, I get it now.

  11. shcb Says:

    I don’t like unions, never have, probably never will. But they serve a necessary evil purpose. Schumpeter said that a company could be a monopoly and act as a company in a competitive market so long as there was a threat to that monopoly. Meaning as long as government didn’t give it that monopoly. Similarly one of the reasons Wal-Mart treats its employees as well as it does is the threat of being unionized. They know their competitive advantage will be compromised if they are unionized so they treat their people well.

  12. enkidu Says:

    For those of you who might be interested, Charles Platt has been holding forth on ‘climate change’ denial over at – the comments area is quite interesting.

    You may have to scroll down and hit previous day postings to get the full effect.

    Boingboing is currently overrun with TED talks postings
    including that dang Socialist Commie PigDog Al (DHF!) Goreski

    shcb – walmart treats their employees well? what a joke
    they’d treat em even ‘better’ if they were a union

  13. shcb Says:

    … or close the store

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