In 2012, journalist Hugo Meunier went undercover as a Walmart employee for three months in St. Leonard, Quebec, just north of Montreal.
In great detail, Meunier charts the daily life of an impoverished Walmart worker, referring to his shifts at the box store giant as “somewhere between the army and Walt Disney.” Each shift began with a daily chant before bowing to customer demands and the constant pressure to sell. Meanwhile Meunier and his fellow workers could not afford to shop anywhere else but Walmart, further indenturing them to the multi-billion-dollar corporation.
Beyond his time on the shop floor, Meunier documents the extraordinary efforts that Walmart exerts to block unionization campaigns, including their 2005 decision to close their outlet in Jonquiere, QC, where the United Food and Commercial Workers union had successfully gained certification rights. A decade later he charts the Supreme Court of Canada ruling that exposed the dubious legal ground on which Walmart stood in invoking closure and throwing workers out on the street.
In Walmart: Diary of an Associate, Meunier reveals the truths behind Walmart’s low prices; it will make you think twice before shopping there.
Thanks to NetGalley for this ARC!
Walmart is famous throughout the US, Canada, and Mexico for its low prices. However, they are also famous for low wages and demanding, wacky customers. (A glance at the site PeopleOfWalmart.com may tell you all you need to know). In this book, journalist Hugo Meunier goes undercover for 3 months as a Walmart associate, then emerges to tell us all about the good, the bad, and the ugly behind the scenes.
The corporation at the top is a warm, family-oriented company. At the store level, it is a place where low pay and hard work go hand in hand. There are stories of employees who cannot afford good food, despite the generous 10% off card they are given. There is an almost cultlike atmosphere in team meetings each morning (Give me a W! Give me an A! Give me an L …) and each associate is encouraged to tattle on those team members who “steal time”. Heavy, heavy emphasis is placed on the customer always being right, with posters in the break room exhorting staff to remember that “The most important person you will meet is your next customer”. Meunier portrays the clientele as brutish, demanding, and thankless. That sounds like most customers in retail – but to hear the author’s inner monologue as he complies with their demands is funny. This monologue will also be familiar to those who work in any service industry.
Something struck me amongst all the descriptions of hard work, lazy colleagues, clueless managers, and low pay. The author is someone with a good paying job and a high-end lifestyle – so the juxtaposition between his real job and his Walmart job is telling. He even notes that he misses sleeping in and not having to punch a clock. Perhaps the most elitist moment is when he notes the difference between Walmart’s and his newspaper’s holiday party. One is filled with wine, truffles and caviar…and the other is not. Can you guess which is which? His reassuring thoughts to himself are that soon he will be able to leave the world of Walmart behind and return to his normal, happy, financially secure life. As he described his fatigue, aching feet and lack of sleep I thought to myself, This is what most of the US consists of – perhaps there needs to be reform?
Speaking of reform, Walmart believes unions are anathema and supports the illegal practice of squashing union talk. On the surface they claim to be open-minded, yet there is a top secret procedure that managers need to follow immediately when they hear talk of organizing. The final chapters of the book describe a hard-fought battle between the retail giant and some employees who wanted to unionize. If most of the book did not depress you, this portion will.
Most of the blurbs that surround this book note that you will never think of Walmart in the same way again. I will say that I wasn’t that surprised at some of the things I learned, except for the way the store demands associates interact with customers. I have never been smiled at or addressed first at my local store – perhaps it is a kinder world in Canada.
Final thoughts – this book is a quick and easily digested read about the class difference and extreme profit seeking of a major corporation. I would have liked if the author followed up in 6 months with his former co-workers to provide a bit more closure to his readers. In any case, it will be interesting to see how/if Walmart responds to the book (despite the fact that it came out a while ago in Canada and was recently translated to English).
You can pick up your own copy here.