SR: From the UCLA Labor Center and KPFK, you’re listening to Re:Work.
[MUSIC – Charlie Johnson’s Paradise Ten Orchestra – You Ain’t The One (Tall Black Guy Remix)]
SR: I’m Stefanie Ritoper
SW: And I’m Saba Waheed
SR: In the US, we pride ourselves on our individuality. And growing up here, from the time when you’re small, the adults around us constantly tell you that we can become whatever you want to be. In the ideal world, we imagine doing things for work that are creative and expand our minds, work that allows us to express ourselves and show off our best talents.
SW: So if you’re someone that likes to build things, you can become an architect, if you like to tell stories, you can become a writer or a journalist. But what happens when you get a job that does the complete opposite?
SR: Well, I think a lot of people have had the experience of having a job where you really feel your soul is being slowly crushed by the work. It’s like sometimes the structure of how you have to work, the systems that can make you really efficient at work, can really take a toll on your creativity, your individuality, and what makes you a human.
SW: So this leads to today’s show. What is the cost of being effective at work? In this week’s episode of Re:Work, we explore the contradiction of who we are and what the work is. We begin our story on a late night shift at one of America’s largest retail stores.
Anthony works as a stocker at Walmart in Northeast Angeles. His job is to unload boxes into the freezer. He begins work at 10pm and works the night shift until 7am the next morning.
A: When we get there the freight that we work is the freight that comes off the truck that night. Before we start stocking we have to scan our badge and there’s this system they have call the my guide system. The my guide system, the times are calculated by the amount of freight that comes off the truck that’s assigned to your area. I guess the standard is, we gotta work fifty-six cases in an hour.
SW: Anthony is describing the My Guide task management system, which U.S. stores have been using for the past 12 to 18 months. It tells store employees where they should be, when they should be there and what they should be doing. The principle is efficiency.
SR: Walmart’s business model relies on low prices for its customers. To accomplish this, Walmart must cut down its own costs. These costs include supplies and because it is enormous, it leverages its huge negotiating power over the price of goods. The costs also include labor, the salaries of each of its employees, and Walmart tries to control these by making sure each person who works for it is extremely efficient. But there are drawbacks to having a computer plan your work day.
A: I think it’s just a way for them to, not only keep tabs on you, but to force you to work harder. Because the computer doesn’t know when you’ve gotta use the restroom, the computer doesn’t know when you gotta help a customer. And you can’t just point the customer, you’ve gotta like take him to where he’s going or where she’s going and look for that stuff. Say if there’s five people working foods we divide that time by five. So there’s actually times when I gotta stand at the scanner thing and pull out my calculator on my phone and divide the time.
If you really do the calculations that’s only like a minute, ten seconds, something like that. That’s not counting if the location is plugged. I gotta put this case of waters, maybe it comes in like twenty, and I gotta put it in this location here, but there might be something else there. I got to go looking through all the SKU numbers. And maybe that location is plugged too.
[MUSIC – Cypress HIll – Illusions? Instrumental]
SW: At Walmart, executives pressure store-level management to squeeze more and more from millions of clerks, stockers and lower-tier managers. Anthony finds that his bosses are making sure that he’s meeting his quotas. That he’s being as efficient as humanly possible. In fact, there are several positions dedicated to doing just this.
A: I have three bosses. They’re all the same job title, same position, but they rotate schedules. They get a print out of how much freight is on the truck. The system divides the time for them. And then they can add and subtract time. If they wanna give me an hour and fifteen minutes, and they wanna shorten me on time, they can take away the fifteen minutes and put an hour.
So they’re kinda, you know, they’re kinda like walking around. Like last night I kept seeing one of them passing by. Like trying to check up on me. And I’m like, like you don’t need to do all of that. Like I’m working. So I don’t think that’s necessary.
I remember one day in particular where I confronted him that day, I musta had like 90 something cases on the floor and I counted it. I went through the aisle and counted it. He kept passing by and asking, hey are you done yet? Are you done yet? Hey are you gonna be done by lunch? I said, hey. bro get off my back.
You know how many cases were here? He goes no, why does that matter? I told him, how many cases are we supposed to put up in an hour? And I gave him the benefit of the doubt and told him 60. And he was like yeah, and went along with it. And I was like actually it’s 56 cases per hour. And I said, you know how many cases I have here? I confronted him and he kind of like backed off a little bit.
[MUSIC – Bibio – dwrcan – play through whole EFFICIENCY/INDUSTRIAL SECTION]
SW: In the early industrial age in the US, factory owners began to realize that time was money. They began to realize that if they could get each worker to be more productive, they could increase their profits. It started a system where upper management watched over workers , sometimes literally towering over them on factory floor. We now live in a different era– since this time, people have dedicated years to studying productivity and have developed methods to make workers more efficient. And now we even have new technologies that are taking this to the next level.
SR: And the question is, how efficient can a human really be? Recently we’ve been hearing news about the mega-company Foxconn in China, which builds a lot of the electronics we use all over the world. In Foxconn factories, workers leave their homes to live in tall concrete dormitories, where they work long hours in complete silence. When workers go to the bathroom, a huge clock on the wall counts down the minutes until the end of their break.
SW: Yeah, it’s an extreme version, but where’s the line between what’s efficient and what drives people to the edge?
[MUSIC – Slick Rick – Street Talkin (Instrumental)]
SR: So, what kind of person thrives in an environment with so much structure? What’s striking is that Anthony is a guy who has always been extremely creative.
A: When I was little, I always wanted to be an architect. Like I said, when I was little I was really good at building Legos. I’d build like these big old masterpieces then I’d destroy them and build something else and then build this cool car. I always pictured myself being like a builder, a creator of something. I always had ideas and I was always like sharp on stuff like that.
I would get like my sister’s bike. I’d take it apart and put it back together. I remember she had a rainbow brite. Like a rainbow brite bike. And I took it apart and put like, I put a little tire on it and I scraped off all the stickers and spraypainted it. I put it like red, white, and blue and I put a big tire on the back. I put like some other handlebars on it. And my older brother and my sister like laugh at me but I was like whatever, I got a bike and you guys don’t got a bike.
SW: Anthony grew up in East LA with his mother, who played a key role in his life. In a rough neighborhood with part of his family living in the projects, she worked as a teacher for many years and was always struggling to provide for him and his siblings. When Anthony was in third grade, she revealed that she was actually his aunt and that she had adopted him and his sister. But she raised him and loved him fiercely, like her own son.
A: So I always looked up to her. She was a single parent, adoption family household that I grew up in. Middle class. I could say middle class. She always had the beat up car, packing all our cousins in the car and going to the beach like twelve of us sitting in laps and stuff. And she struggled, she worked hard. She was on section eight. She also tried to move us out of the ghetto.
She was always into encouraging us and showing us that we can do things on our own and figure things out. Figure it out, yeah you can figure it out, go ahead and figure it out. That’s how, I mentioned I put my bikes together in the back, I taught myself that. I had him in our life, I’d call him our stepfather, I had him in our life but not really like a father role. He’d come and go. But basically I taught myself how to shave. I taught myself how to be a man. What my mom couldn’t teach me, I taught myself how to be a man.
[MUSIC – TuPac – Dear Mama]
SR: And so he did. As Anthony grew up, he tried to learn how to “figure things out on his own,” and grow his creative side. Surrounded by hip hop music and culture, he started to express himself through music.
A: I fell in love with hip-hop at a really, really young age and I just always loved hip-hop. You know, the lifestyle, the freedom of expressing who are, the freedom of being unique.
A: I wrote that a while back. That’s why it’s a little, I mean I don’t smoke weed no more. That’s an old rap that I wrote a while back.
[MUSIC – Busta Rhymes – Show Me What You’ve Got (Instrumental)]
SW: So how did Anthony end up at Walmart? In fact, he was headed down another path entirely. He spent the early part of his career in culinary arts, a career path that he landed through the Job Corps vocational training program.
He took up jobs at a hotel and even moved up to Chef at a restaurant in Whittier where he worked for three years. But before he could fully grasp his dream, Anthony got mixed up with a bad crowd and made some bad decisions, including quitting his job at the restaurant. At one point, he ended up jobless and living on the streets.
But then in 2007, he met his wife, and began to raise her son as his own. He was ready for a new start.
A: But I pulled myself out of it, you know. God blessed me with a new family, maybe not my old family, but he blessed me with a new family. Yeah, that’s how I pulled out of it.
SR: But 2007 was also the beginning of the recession. With a tanked economy, finding work wasn’t easy. He eventually found a job in fast food but it was on the other side of town and his car constantly broke down. He needed something closer.
A: My mom actually worked for Walmart way back like almost 20 years ago when we lived in Oregon. And back then I guess it was a good place to work. She used to go to work. She never complained. So she kept telling me, she was the one who was telling me, hey hey hey, why don’t you go apply at Walmart, they’re always hiring. It’s a good place to work.
SR: Anthony applied and got a job working the night shift as an overnight stocker.
SW: And maybe times had changed since his mom worked there. Anthony was hit with the reality of what it means to work so hard for so little.
A: So Walmart, a lot of people know that Walmart starts off minimum wage. Which is poverty wages. You know, started off at $8.50, $8.60, something like that. I work overnight so I get a dollar more. So I started at $9.40 and like a few months back I got like a 20 cent raise. So that’s poverty wages.
SW: This is particularly rough as he and his wife both work to support themselves and their three kids, with another one the way.
SR: And Anthony is not alone. Walmart employs 2.2 million people worldwide and 1.4 million people in the US. It’s America’s largest private employer, but just saying that doesn’t do it justice. To get a sense of it’s size think about this – Walmart is bigger than its five largest competitors, combined.
SW: Yet the average Walmart employee makes just $8.81 per hour. An employee who works full time at Walmart, which is 34 hours a week, makes just $15,500 per year. Walmart provides the option for its employees to buy health insurance, but for many it’s at a price that’s out of reach.
A: We depend on food stamps. We’re living paycheck to paycheck. Actually not really, I live from loan to loan. I get this loan to cover this loan and then I gotta wake for my check and then I’ve gotta get a direct deposit loan from there to pay off this loan and for that loan I’ve gotta get another loan to pay that loan. That’s how I’m living.
I’ll take sandwiches to lunch. I can’t buy Subway everyday or McDonalds. We have a McDonalds at my Walmart and some people come in, the employees that live with their Mom’s or something and they come in with their McDonalds. And I’m sitting there eating my beans with some tortilla chips. That’s how it is.
Today I was at an appointment today because I have psoriasis, so I’m involved in this clinical study. Everytime I go, I go like once a week and they give me $55 so I in turn use that for gas or if I need to buy some type of protein like chicken so my wife can make in the Crock Pot. We just moved and we don’t have a stove. I’m not looking for people to feel sorry for me. I’m just letting the world know this is how it is. I’m a Walmart associate, I work for like the biggest private retailer in the world and they make like billions of dollars
SR: In fact, many Walmart workers who work full time still need to use state subsidized benefits to make ends meet.
SR This means that while Walmart increases its profits, taxpayers often foot the bill. The government spends over $2000 per Walmart employee each year, in food stamps, school lunches, Medicaid, housing assistance, and so on. That’s a total taxpayer subsidy for Wal-Mart of nearly $3 billion a year.
SW: Walmart invests tons of resources in portraying a positive image of itself as the “all american company.” They claim a strong culture of camaraderie and care for their associates. “Associates,” that’s what they call their hourly workers.
SR: Part of corporate research on efficiency shows that people work more productively when their morale is up. So Walmart has organized a whole system to pump people up to work.
When Anthony begins his shift at 10pm, he attends a pre-shift meeting where all Walmart employees gather around to hear about Walmart sales — if they’re up, or if they’re down– to get people excited about bonuses. And then the whole crew will do a cheer.
A: They do a couple different ones like everybody claps and they’ll spell out Walmart and then you’ll repeat like W, A, or they like clap and say Wal, Mart, and customers look and they’ll get all pumped up and stuff.
SW: Founder Sam Walton invented the Wal-mart cheer as a morale booster. When you get to the hyphen in walmart, the managers tell employees to wiggle their rear ends. It’s embarrassing for some workers, but they have to do it.
A: And if you don’t do it you get in trouble. You have to do it the next day or whatever. And then we do stretches and we go onto the floor.
[MUSIC – You – Gold Panda]
SR: So why doesn’t anyone say anything about what’s going on at Walmart? Why don’t people speak up? It turns out that it’s actually quite difficult when you’re a Walmart employee to go against the norm.
A: I mean, me, myself, there at Walmart it’s kinda hard to speak to other coworkers, because a lot of them, most of them actually are intimidated. You know, when I got hired I went through orientation, they talked so bad about organizing. Unions are bad. There’s this organization called OUR Walmart and they wanna take your money.
SW: In fact, Walmart goes through a lot of effort to prevent organizing, even though it’s a right. The company has workers attend anti-union meetings. They also have specialized trainings for supervisors. One assistant manager described his management training was filled with information about how to monitor staff and spot unionizing efforts. Trainers told him to be on the lookout for words that employees would use, like “committee,” “organize,” “meeting.”
With this much attention to keeping organizing at bay, Walmart employees easily embrace the attitude that speaking up is a bad idea. There’s a lot at stake for the workers that choose to organize.
SR: When Anthony first came on to Walmart, he felt the same way. He saw some other coworkers protesting on Black Friday, one of the largest and most important retail shopping days in the US. Among the protesters, he saw his coworker, Richard, who also worked as an overnight stocker.
A: I find it weird that Walmart scheduled everybody that day and nobody could request a day off in November and you had to be there. And I seen him out there picketing and I’m like tripping out. I was fairly new. I’m ashamed of saying but I was one of the ones laughing at my buddy, he was over there, he was on strike. I was ignorant to what that was all about. I was one of the guys laughing.
SR: He thought nothing of the protest, and went back to work as usual. Months went by of much of the same – he’d arrive at at work, join the pre-shift meeting, do the Walmart chant, and tap his MyGuide card, ready to go, focused on making his quota. But the system started to wear on him.
A: Well I started, I started complaining on Facebook. You know, this ain’t right. Different things about the MyGuide system and that was just complaining on Facebook. One of my coworkers, he responded to me and said hey I wanna introduce you to somebody and that night on my break he introduced me to Phillip.
SW: Philip was an organizer with the OUR Walmart Campaign, the one the Walmart orientation warned him about, which is working to organize Walmart workers across the country to ask for fair wages and to end poverty wages. When he heard about the campaign, it blew Anthony’s mind.
A: From there on I jumped in, I jumped in the deep as he says, the deep side, and I started to paddle right away. I saw that we needed to change, if not now then in the future. If not for us, then for our kids.
SR: At the OUR Walmart meetings, Anthony started to meet other workers who were going through similar things as he was– and who wanted to make a change. It inspired him to participate in his first action, a Southern California rally to see off a caravan of workers who were making the trek across the country to the Walmart headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas.
A: I was touched that there was people from the community there like the city council members of other cities and you know a lot people, I ran into the pastor that married me and my wife there, I said oh you have our back too? I was so inspired. Not only that, we walked in uniform to the front of the store, and I seen our management come out and was intimidated by us, for a change. They try to intimidate us all the time.
They came out and they were scared. They didn’t wanna let us in the store. So I seen how organized and calmly and peacefully how we marched and we chanted in uniform. So I started getting involved and I fell in love with also, like I fell in love with culinary arts I fell in love with that also, the labor movement. I wanted to be a part of history.
[MUSIC – OUR Walmart (lyrics)]
SR: And that brings us up to the current day. I’d like to say that Anthony speaking up led him to receive better wages, that he no longer needs to worry about food stamps, or food banks. But history is still in the making.
In the meantime, Anthony still works at the Duarte Walmart as an overnight stocker. So what gets him through the day?
A: Challenging myself. I’d say I like to challenge myself. I try to beat my time on my tasks. I put my timer on my phone and it makes me work faster. I have really good work ethics.
SW: The thing is, Anthony likes working at Walmart. He wants people to keep shopping there. If Walmart claims to be an all American company, Anthony is its all American worker. He’s just asking for working conditions that reflect those values.
A: The reason that I joined the organization was to call on Walmart to end poverty wages. There’s no reason why I have to depend on Welfare. There’s no reason why I need to go to a food bank. There’s no reason why I need to not want health benefits because they’re so expensive and I’d rather be on MediCal.
We need Walmart to respect their employees, and to end the retaliation and to end the intimidation. Just hear us out, you know. We’re not asking for much. I have three days off. All I would like is another day to work. I wanna become full-time associate. You know, I wanna own some shares in Walmart and I want some affordable benefits. I don’t want to have to depend on MediCal and some free dental events where they have to pull my tooth because they can’t do a root canal.
SR: And it just so happened that getting involved also sparked a little bit of creativity for Anthony.
A: That’s what I bring to the table when it comes to the organization. I plan on doing a rap with Phillip. He raps also. I wrote a rhyme, I don’t have it memorized yet but we plan on putting something out regarding the organization and things like that. So, you know, I bring, try to bring some creativity to the table. On every perspective. If it’s my ideas, hey are we gonna do action? Hey do you like this poster I made? You know what I mean? I’m always trying to create and do stuff, so now I can aim it towards a more positive direction.
[MUSIC – Picketman – Throw your OW’s up OR OUR Walmart (lyrics)]
SR: This show covered Anthony Goytia, a member of OurWalmart. To learn more about their efforts, please visit their website at forrespect.org Thanks to Anthony for sharing his story with us.
SR: You can join Walmart workers during peaceful protests at stores across the country this Black Friday. To stay up-to-date on Black Friday actions and to find an action near you, please visit ChangeWalmart.org
SW: You’re listening to ReWork a program of the UCLA Labor Center and KPFK. This weeks show was produced by Stefanie Ritoper, Saba Waheed, Vanessa Moreno, Tyler Milles and Clarine Ovando Lacroux.
SW: For more information about ReWork, visit our brand new website at rework radio dot org. There you can listen to previous shows and subscribe to our podcast. To listen to the Our Walmart rap created by Philip, AKA Picketman, go to our Facebook page at forward slash reworkradio. You can also tweet your reactions to this show to @uclalabor or send us an email at rework@IRLE.UCLA.edu
SR: Until next time re-think, re-work!