Journalist Barbara Ehrenreich worked as a hotel housekeeper, a waitress, a nursing home aide and a maid. But it was her stint at Wal-Mart that was “unlike anything else I had experienced.”
“It wasn’t like going to work for a corporation as much as it is like joining a cult,” said Ehrenreich, who wrote about her experience as a $7-an-hour Wal-Mart worker in her book about the working poor, “Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America.”
Ehrenreich said the “cult-like atmosphere” began with an eight-hour orientation where she and other new hires were welcomed into the “family” fold with a splashy video about the company’s history, a lecture on stiff penalties for stealing and a 12 1/2-minute video on “the evils of unions.”
“You’re told you’re part of one big family — although it’s this strange family,” said Ehrenreich, who worked at a Minneapolis-area Wal-Mart for three weeks in 2000.
“At the top [of the family] you have the Waltons — four of whom are among the 10 richest in America — and at the bottom are the Wal-Mart workers.”
Some of those workers at the bottom have decided to air the family’s dirty laundry in the largest civil rights class-action suit in history. It’s a family fight that Ehrenreich says is long overdue.
“I think it’s great this has happened,” she said of the judge’s decision last week to make the sex-discrimination lawsuit against Wal-Mart a class-action case. Though only a Wal-Mart woman for three weeks, Ehrenreich is likely to be included in the class.
“It’s shocking that 65 percent of [Wal-Mart] employees are women and 30 percent of them are managers,” Ehrenreich said in a phone interview from her Charlottesville, Va., home.
She’d heard stories about Wal-Mart workers being locked in stores overnight and of being forced to work extra hours without overtime pay. But she said she had no idea of the scope of the gender disparity detailed in the sex-discrimination case against Wal-Mart.
Wal-Mart declined to comment for this article. The company has repeatedly denied that it has a system that favors men over women in pay and promotions.
Ehrenreich concedes the Wal-Mart women are in for a tough fight: “It’s really hard to go up against something that big.”
So big, in fact, that retailing experts say the Bentonville, Ark.-based retailer has singlehandedly reshaped the way retailing — and much of American business — is done in this country.
While Wal-Mart touts its image as a community-conscious, caring and family-oriented company, Ehrenreich says she saw a side of the megaretailer most people outside the company will never see.
During her three weeks at Wal-Mart, Ehrenreich remembers having to crouch behind racks of clothing to be able to chat with co-workers because her department head forbade workers from talking to each other during work hours.
“[It's] kind of undignified for women in their 50s” to have to resort to that tactic, said Ehrenreich, now 62.
Worse, she said, were the financial struggles she and her co-workers endured as low-wage workers. Even the discount retailer’s cheapest items were often unaffordable to the people who sold them, and some sought charity to make ends meet.
Ehrenreich remembers a co-worker couldn’t afford to buy a $7 shirt she intended to use for work — even after it was marked down. A manager wouldn’t allow the worker to use her employee discount because the item was already on sale.
“When you work for a company who you can’t afford to buy their product, you’re in trouble,” Ehrenreich said of the retailer, which posted $256.3 billion in sales and nearly $9 billion in net income for the 12 months ended Jan. 31.
“Here is this store that’s oriented toward the lower end of the economic spectrum but not low enough [for its own workers].”
Ehrenreich herself sought help at an emergency food bank. She was mistaken for another Wal-Mart worker who had come in earlier.
Recently a former Wal-Mart colleague confided in Ehrenreich, saying she was being ostracized by co-workers and managers. Hurt on the job — she fell from a ladder while putting away merchandise — she said managers refused to let her leave work to go to the emergency room. Ultimately, she sought help on her own time.
“‘Now nobody likes me anymore,'” Ehrenreich said the woman told her. “Once you’ve injured yourself in any way, you’re regarded as a liability.”