Abandon Text!

W. H. Auden once said: "Poems are not finished; they are abandoned." I have been abandoning writing projects for many years, since only the pressure of deadline and high expectations ever got me to finish, or even start, anything of merit. This blog is an attempt to create a more consistent, self-directed writing habit. Hopefully a direction and voice will emerge.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Everyday low respect for human dignity

The Wall Street Journal reported earlier this week that Wal-mart will begin rolling out to all its stores a new computerized scheduling system. Rather than working predictable shifts, the workers will now have to list the times when they will be "available" to work, and then they will be called in to work based on whether the computer predicts they are needed. Wal-mart asserts (probably correctly) that the new system will allow for faster checkout times and a better customer experience, because the stores will always have the right number of associates available to help. The workers, and all the anti-Wal-mart organizations shilling for the unions, are pointing out that the change will create vast disruptions in workers' lives, because they will never be able to predict their schedules or their income.

After having read The Wal-Mart Effect, I can see how this system is a classic Wal-mart move. Wal-mart, of course, is always looking for inefficiencies to wring out of their business and the businesses of their vendors. Sometimes they remove inefficiencies that are true inefficiencies -- for instance, telling all the deoderant makers to stop packing their products in little cardboard boxes. In cases like that, everyone wins: Wal-Mart gets more product on the shelves, the vendors save money on packaging, millions of acres of forest are saved from being turned into paper, and the customer ultimately gets a cheaper product. (The company that printed and produced the little cardboard boxes probably wasn't happy, but we can hardly blame Wal-Mart for that.)

However, there is another way for Wal-Mart to remove inefficiencies from their business: make them someone else's problem. For instance, Wal-Mart saves money on sending orders to its vendors . . . by making the vendor pay for the overnight delivery. Wal-Mart gets free market research for its products . . . again, by making the vendors do all the work. Of course, in a free market, all those vendor companies doing business with Wal-Mart are entering the business relationship freely, and, as one executive put it, "we're all big boys." The vendors might not like Wal-Mart wringing the nickels out of their hides, but they accept it in order to have the volume that Wal-Mart can provide.

Now Wal-Mart is turning that same "make-it-someone-else's-problem" approach on their single largest fixed cost: labor. Wal-Mart has been staunchly anti-union because their margins simply don't allow for expensive labor. With a computerized system handling scheduling, Wal-mart liberates an army of middle managers from tedious scheduling, and they also turn a fixed cost into a variable cost. The guys in Bentonville must be rubbing their hands together . . . what a spectacular way to bring new efficiency to the very center of their operations.

But the employees are not exactly the free agents that the vendors are. Most of the vendors have other channels besides Wal-Mart that carry at least two-thirds of their volume. The workers at Wal-Mart are . . . well, they wouldn't be working at Wal-Mart if they had anywhere else to work. And Wal-Mart can't lean on them much harder on wages -- those are already about as low as they can go -- so they are taking away what they can take away: their lives. Under the new regime, the worker could never (efficiently) schedule childcare, because they never know if they will be working or not. One could argue that the employees do have a choice: they can decide for themselves when to make themselves available. But the very efficiency that Wal-Mart aims for with the system guarantees they will not be working as many hours as they were before. They will only be able to get the hours they need if they make themselves available for night and weekend work, and management has strongly recommended they make themselves available for a weekend shift "if at all possible." And it's not likely they could fill those gaps in their work week with some other part-time job.

I am not a knee-jerk Wal-Mart basher. I like efficiencies. I like free markets, and occasionally I even like Wal-Mart low prices. But this system feels like a naked attempt by a corporation to steal away every vestige of human dignity from its employees. There is absolutely no way someone could even conceive of such a system and consider themselves to be "pro-family." The very nature of the system is geared to wring an efficiency directly out of the personal lives of the workers.

I am especially not a knee-jerk "let's-regulate-an-industry" kind of guy, either. I don't think one can outlaw what Wal-Mart is doing. It may be that the net effect is that Wal-mart runs its stores entirely with part-time employees, because no one will be able to afford to work full-time for Wal-mart without sacrificing their entire lives on the altar of low prices. The unions, in fact, see this as the entire point of the new system. And I haven't made up my mind yet as to whether that goal is morally wrong, or just morally repugnant. Either way, I am inclined to vote with my dollars . . . and hope that more people, those more fortunate than the Wal-Mart workforce, will do the same.

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