New Year's resolution: Be more like Wal-Mart

The pros and cons of labor optimization; a 21st century zeitgeist of "flexibility."

By Andrew Leonard
Published January 4, 2007 4:45PM (EST)

Whenever you hear employers talk about their desire for more "flexibility," you know workers are about to get the shaft. It's one of the standard Washington Consensus-style prescriptions for developing countries seeking faster economic growth: Promote labor market flexibility. Translation: Make it easier to fire workers.

So it's natural that the gut reaction to Wal-Mart's plan to ramp up real-time computerized scheduling of worker shifts in an effort to be more "flexible" is the queasy feeling that workers are going to be screwed, again. Wal-Mart wants to be more efficient -- to have workers in the stores when the most customers are there. It has hired a company that breaks down sales data for all its retail outlets in 15-minute increments and cooks up scheduling plans to match, and it is asking workers to indicate when they are willing to be on call for surprise Sunday morning shifts.

It's one thing to be on call for heart surgery -- but to ring up sales of diapers?

For Wal-Mart, "labor optimization" also may mean the company can better fine-tune scheduling so it avoids paying overtime or giving a worker enough hours to qualify as a full-time worker who gets health benefits rather than a mere part-timer. Again, more grist for the Wal-Mart critic's mill.

For the consumer, there are benefits. Who hasn't stood in long lines at a retail store and cursed the management for not having enough cashiers available to handle the load? The day before Christmas, I was in a Best Buy, picking up a set of iPod Nano speakers, and found myself directed by an employee whose sole job was to steer customers into the shortest cashier lines (just as yesterday, a similar functionary managed the security lines at the Tampa airport). In both cases the micromanaging was extremely efficient -- those lines moved.

It's always icky for progressives when customers benefit because workers are being more efficiently exploited. In functional terms, is there a real difference between Wal-Mart's attempting to keep lines short by employing the latest technology, and the price pressure it exerts on its suppliers that results in everything being manufactured in China? In both cases, customer satisfaction encourages labor exploitation. And as long as customers shop for the lowest price, so it shall ever be.

Whenever Wal-Mart makes a move, the world snaps to attention. But as the Wall Street Journal's coverage reported, Wal-Mart isn't the first company to attempt real-time, ultra-flexible worker scheduling. It's just the biggest. And the real significance of the story isn't confined to the struggle over Wal-Mart's role in the global economy, it's what the changing circumstances of Wal-Mart's workers say about the fundamental nature of existence in the world today.

"Flexibility" can imply a lack of security, a fragility, a sense that the center is not holding, anywhere. Jobs don't just disappear -- entire industries skip from nation to nation, faster than ever before. There is no commitment, no mutual responsibility between worker and employer: Workers are expected to constantly retrain and reeducate themselves, flinging themselves from opportunity to opportunity like hop-scotching lemmings, while employers are punished by their shareholders if they don't reconfigure themselves from top to bottom in response to each transitory twitch of the market. As China and India and Eastern Europe come online, competitive pressures force adjustments in the lives of everyone, everywhere. The earth is always quaking, the tsunami is always crashing toward shore. The rate of change accelerates. It's hard to keep up.

But flexibility is also a source of strength -- the only long-term successful strategy for keeping up. Psychologically speaking, being open to new opportunities, new challenges, new ways of doing business is essential for growth. Rolling with the tide could be a weakness, but surfing in the pipeline is a sign of power.

Don't misunderstand me: It is grossly insensitive to tell a single mother of two toddlers that she will be empowered if she agrees to be more "flexible" in accepting a new uncertainty in her weekly shift assignments. If she can't find a baby sitter for that unexpected Saturday night shift, telling her to be more open-minded about change won't mitigate a whit of anything.

But as I consider Wal-Mart's new plan, even as I see how neatly it fits into the classic power struggle in which capital seeks incessantly to gain the upper hand on labor, I also see an approach to confronting reality that I can embrace on a personal level, as a way of being in the world. Call it a New Year's resolution for 2007. I want to trim my own unnecessary fat. With every new dawn, I want to consider, and possibly implement, new ways of organizing my own labor, strive for new efficiencies, and master new technologies for learning and excelling. I want to be a little more like Wal-Mart.

But not too much.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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Globalization How The World Works Unemployment Wal-mart