President and CEO of Walmart US Bill Simon reports on the company’s sustainability goals, March 17, 2011. (Flickr/Walmart Corporate)
New York City—Walmart drew positive press and White House praise this morning for pledging to hire 100,000 veterans over the next five years. The plan, first reported by the The New York Times, was formally announced by Walmart US President Bill Simon in a keynote address at a National Retail Federation conference. It was panned by labor activists, dozens of whom marched through the Jacob Javits convention center lobby following Simon’s speech.
“Sadly,” Simon told the NRF gathering, “too many of those who fought for us abroad now find themselves fighting for a job when they get home.” He called veterans “leaders with discipline” and “a purpose instilled in them by their military training. We need that in our business.” Simon urged the assembled retailers to followed Walmart’s example: “We could be the ones who step up for our heroes just as they stood for us.”
Reached by phone, Tulsa Walmart worker Christopher Bentley Owen was less than impressed. “You’re still subject to all the crap that comes from working for Walmart,” Owen told The Nation. “Extremely low wages, poor benefits and everything else. If that’s the best that’s available for veterans, then there is something wrong.” Owen served in the US navy for two years. He joined the union-backed workers’ group OUR Walmart after being required to attend a meeting in which management read a statement urging workers not to go on strike.
“Beginning on Memorial Day,” Simon pledged this morning, “Walmart will offer a job to any honorably discharged veteran within his or her first twelve months off active duty.” Simon added that “the vets will have to adhere to the same basic hiring criteria that everybody else does,” but he said the company is “going to do our best” to offer jobs at nearby Walmarts to any veterans who are seeking them. Simon told NRF that if enough other retailers make similar commitments, “We could set a goal like slashing the unemployment rate for veterans in half.” He said, “There really isn’t a better group to lead our recovery, and the revitalization of our economy, than our nation’s veterans.”
A Walmart official clarified in an interview with the Times that not all of those jobs would necessarily be full-time positions. Simon’s speech did not make clear what fraction of the newly hired veterans are expected to land full-time jobs, whether the plan involves any increase in Walmart’s overall staffing levels or whether the plan imposes any economic cost on the company. Following an early morning inquiry from The Nation regarding these questions, Walmart e-mailed a statement summarizing Simon’s speech but did not directly address them.
As attendees filed out of Simon’s speech, activists from several labor groups marched through the lobby in a surprise “mic check,” echoing a series of speakers slamming alleged discrimination, understaffing and poverty wages under Simon’s watch. As convention staff confronted one speaker, another would take over, until the group turned and left as staffers threatened to call the police. Outside, workers and organizers led a series of chants slamming Walmart and Darden, the restaurant industry giant on whose board Simon sits.
Among the protesters was Walter Arevalo, a former two-year New Jersey Walmart worker who said he was fired after being unfairly disciplined for not making it to work when his schedule was repeatedly changed without notice. “Bill Simon,” Walter told the crowd outdoors, “we’re just letting you know that you’re not getting away with this.” Walter, a member of OUR Walmart and the Retail Action Project, told The Nation, “This is a company that makes billions and billions of dollars. They can afford to pay everyone a full-time schedule, give everyone full-time benefits. And for them to say that they can’t, it’s just nonsense. So if they do hire the veterans, I hope they get full-time scheduling.”
A Walmart spokesperson told The Nation last month that “the average hourly wage for a Walmart associate is $12.57 per hour.” In contrast, a report by IBIS World found it to be $8.81. An investigation by The Huffington Post, based on internal documents from the company’s Sam’s Club subsidiary, found that “a ‘solid performer’ who starts at Walmart as a cart-pusher making $8 an hour and receives one promotion, about the average rate, can expect to make $10.60 after working at the company for 6 years.”
Owen noted that seven of the roughly twenty workers on his overnight shift at the Tulsa Walmart supercenter are already veterans, and questioned whether the newly announced policy would really increase the number of veterans in the company’s ranks. “I did have quite a bit of trouble,” trying to get hired elsewhere after leaving the Navy, Owen said. But it was “relatively easy for me to get hired at Walmart…If they already have this practice, it makes a lot of sense for them to milk it for public relations as best they can.”
“Walmart offers low wages,” said Demos policy analyst Catherine Ruetschlin, the author of the report “Retail’s Hidden Potential: How Raising Wages Would Benefit Workers, the Industry and the Overall Economy.” “It doesn’t give full-time hours to workers who want them. A large percentage of their workers depend on Medicaid for their health insurance, a large percentage of their workers depend on social programs just to make their ends meet, and that’s not what veterans need.”
Today’s announcement follows discussions between Walmart and the White House regarding the Joining Forces campaign, led by first lady Michelle Obama, to improve support for returning veterans. In a statement e-mailed by Walmart, the first lady called “for every business in America to follow Walmart’s lead…” In a statement to the Times, she called the plan “historic” and said, “Walmart is setting a groundbreaking example for the private sector to follow.”
This isn’t the first time Walmart has drawn kind words from the Obama administration. As The Nation has reported, Michelle Obama also praised the company’s announced plans to sell fresh produce in “food deserts” (plans which critics contended amounted to cover for the company to overcome activists’ opposition to its urban expansion plans). In November, days before workers mounted a Black Friday strike, White House Senior Adviser David Plouffe sent out a mass e-mail touting Walmart’s CEO’s support for a “balanced” deficit plan. Walmart’s presence at a White House meeting on gun policy last week heightened speculation that the Obama administration will seek to enlist the retail giant in selling a gun control compromise. The White House did not respond to an early morning request for comment, or to a previous inquiry from The Nation regarding Walmart’s labor strife.
Simon’s speech also announced a plan to increase its sourcing of US-made products by $50 billion over the next decade, and changes that he said will improve the process for part-time workers seeking full-time jobs to attain them. “I think retail is a meritocracy because our industry is one that has no limits,” Simon said in answer to a pre-screened question from the audience. “You’re only limited by your ability and your work ethic…. You don’t have to go to college…. You can get a job, work your way through the system, and make as much as a firefighter or a doctor or an accountant.”
“Retail is hard,” Simon told the NRF crowd. “It’s fun but it’s hard. But the opportunity is just incredible…. We’ve never held a good person back. Nobody in business has.”
Walmart has a reputation for low wages; if New York City privatizes its bus-driving force, Allison Kilkenny writes, drivers could get a taste of the same medicine.