Where Do We Go From Here? The Rise of Walmart and the Retail Experience in the United States

In this third post in our four-part series, OHMA student Sara Jacobs discusses Adam Reich’s recent OHMA Workshop Series lecture, “The Summer for Respect: Student Activists, Walmart Workers, and the Future of the American Labor Movement” and the echoes she heard in the stories told by her mother.

 When I tell people I’m an oral history student, many respond with something along the lines of, “So you study people, like anthropology?” Or, “It’s in the sociology department, right?” Though oral history is its own field of study, it overlaps with the social sciences and has far-reaching connections with other disciplines, like history.

How exactly does oral history function when it becomes a social science tool? What does it look like to work in an interdisciplinary relationship with other fields of study? Over the course of the year, we have seen a variety of projects seeking to address this question from different angles.

On Thursday, March 30, Adam Reich (Assistant Professor of Sociology at Columbia University) joined us to discuss his work. In the summer of 2014, Dr. Reich coordinated a project that sent twenty undergraduate and recent graduate students to five Walmart stores in Chicago, Southwest Ohio, Central Florida, Dallas, and Los Angeles. The project, called Summer for Respect, teamed up with the worker advocacy group Organization United for Respect at Walmart (OUR Walmart), comprised of current and former Walmart employees.

It was inspired by the fiftieth anniversary of Freedom Summer, which sent hundreds of young northern activists to the south in 1964 to organize for Black voting rights. The students had dual roles as oral historians and labor organizers, responsible for both conducting interviews and also actively organizing on the ground with OUR Walmart local chapters.

  Adam Reich, Columbia University

Adam Reich, Columbia University

Dr. Reich writes, “Walmart is the largest employer in the world. Over 1.4 million people work for the company in the United States alone, which is nearly a full percentage point of the country’s employed civilian labor force. If Walmart were its own city, it would be the seventh biggest city in the country, just behind Phoenix.” The Summer for Respect aimed to delve into this statistic and grapple with how Walmart workers understand their experiences and what meaning the company has for people. How and in what ways do Walmart employees like working at a company well known for its labor abuses, and how do they come to see their circumstances as unjust?

As the world’s largest employer, Walmart sets the tone for other retail jobs. Its influence increasingly defines life and labor for the working classes. Hearing parts of Walmart oral histories, I was immediately reminded of my mother, Karen Jacobs—who worked at Lowe’s, the U.S.’s second largest hardware store behind Home Depot. Lowe’s counted 270,000 employees in 2016 with 1,840 stores. Her experiences and the understandings gleaned from them were strikingly similar to those in Dr. Reich’s presentation, so I decided to talk to her further.

Like many Walmart workers, Karen describes the job at a Springfield, IL Lowe’s as enjoyable at first. She says:

“I started working at Lowe’s in the garden center. I was a seasonal employee. I actually really liked it. I liked the work because I like gardening, I like plants, I like being outside. The people I worked with, for the most part, I liked. They were hardworking.”

However, also like many Walmart workers, it became difficult to sustain that initial feeling. Karen goes on to say:

“My impression of working there kind of soured over time. My happiness with being there became less and less, which I think was typical of people that worked there. People come in kind of excited, like ‘oh, this is kind of fun.’ That quickly dwindles.”

How Karen’s feelings changed over time and how they led her to eventually quit her job are not easily measured in statistics—there are many factors and points in time that led to her decision.

This is where oral history comes in. To more fully understand the nature of U.S. labor today and the possibilities for change in the future, we must talk to those on the ground. As Dr. Reich highlighted in his presentation, “The best and worst things about work at Walmart have to do not with the market in the abstract (i.e. wages) but with people: coworkers and managers. Oral history interviews help us see the importance of these non-contractual elements of labor contracts.”

Though dozens of stories played a role in Karen’s understanding of Lowe’s, one she highlighted early can be found below. For the full story in more detail, you can listen to the audio here:

“A big thing that was occurring rather often, sometimes on a daily basis, was the return of stolen merchandise. The particular Lowe’s I worked at became known as the store you could take merchandise to without a receipt and get a gift card in exchange. So, these rings of thieves that were operating across the country would bring merchandise into our Lowe’s. One day, I remember it was $13,000 worth of returns.

The cashiers, the people in customer service, could not say a thing. You would be fired if you questioned it. When we left at night, if you worked the night shift and you had a bag or a purse, the managers had to look in it. So it’s this kind of demoralizing thing where you know that we’re just giving money to thieves and they can’t trust an employee to not steal something.

I remember one instance where one of the head cashiers, her name was Carrie, walked into the break room and she was disgusted. She said she had just that morning given out more gift cards for stolen merchandise than she made in a year.”

  Screen shot from Lowe’s website. There are 12,098 open positions as of 4/13/2017

Screen shot from Lowe’s website. There are 12,098 open positions as of 4/13/2017

Why is it important to listen to the experiences of Walmart and other retail workers? I agree with Adam Reich in that it helps us imagine the future of the United States, where we’re going, and how we can get there. If there is to be a revitalized labor movement in the coming years, it must be led and informed by the experiences of the workers themselves. Oral history can help us build a strong framework of understanding and analysis that informs our future organizing and actions.

To learn more about the Summer for Respect, visit the project website.

Sara Jacobs is a part-time OHMA student. She works with the Prison Public Memory Project in her home state of Illinois to engage communities in conversation about the role of prisons in the rural United States. Her work intersects with labor issues in that prisons are one of the fastest growing “industries” in rural areas, often sold as a panacea to economic decline.