May 30, 2012, 8:45 PM. I’m sitting in a plastic folding chair nestled in the center of a basketball stadium–turned–corporate event hall. Thousands of people seated in blocks of color-coordinated shirts fidget in anticipation. Onstage, at least five screens emit three gradations of blue. They are Pantone® 285 C, 284 C, and 287 C, the three hues officially sanctioned to represent the world’s largest company. I am one of very few people not wearing a lanyard covered in decorative pins.
The lanyard-wearers start going wild as the lights fade to black. A dissonant, high-pitched melody emanates from the stage, the kind that signals UFO landings in sci-fi movies. It is accompanied by a monologue:
There is nothing wrong with your perception of reality
Do not attempt to adjust the illusion.
We control the harmonics
We control your emotions
. . . .
Now is the time to submit quietly
We control all you hear and feel
You are about to enter a great adventure
An experience of awe and mystery
From your ultimate fantasies, to your deepest fears
From which you may never return . . .
On the largest blue screen (Pantone® 285?) a single word—WALMART—glows like an enormous moon. It disappears with a flick of a drumstick and suddenly before me stands a group of figures who might as well be aliens. Scarves and white leather bell-bottoms dominate my field of vision. I can almost imagine I’m somewhere other than Walmart’s annual Shareholders’ Meeting in northwest Arkansas.
The monologue turns out to be the vocal intro to the Aerosmith song “Love in an Elevator.” It’s an oddly perfect anthem for the event. Steven Tyler is now screaming the name of the world’s largest company like it’s the last stop on a world tour and there’s going to be a sick after party. Glancing around me, I see this is unlikely: to my left are two local photographers, one tapping his foot and the other looking embarrassed to be there. To my right are fellow members of the media, still and inscrutable. Nearby, Walmart’s gelled-hair chief spokesperson, is beaming. He seems to be having a genuinely great time, though I’m worried he may also be peering over my shoulder at my notes.
We are in the University of Arkansas’s Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville, Arkansas, home to the main events of Walmart’s 2012 Shareholders’ Meeting, also its fiftieth anniversary celebration. The meeting has been dry almost since its birth in 1971. (Strike two for the after party.) Sobriety isn’t getting in the way of enthusiasm, however. There are workers from at least seven countries at tonight’s show, and all are vigorously competing to out-cheer one another as Tyler calls their nations’ names in succession. At an event two days from now, Justin Timberlake will lead the crowd in Walmart’s official cheer: “Give me a W! An A! An L! A Squiggly!” The squiggly, which stands for the hyphen in the company’s name, is typically accompanied by a hip gyration.
During my 24 hours and counting in Arkansas, I’ve glimpsed several squigglies and would venture to say they’re the most asexual pelvic thrusts I’ve witnessed. Many elements of the meeting are aggressively family-friendly, in keeping with Walmart’s one-time practice of placing U-shaped blinders over risqué covers of Cosmo and Glamour on its newsstands. Earlier this evening, Cheap Trick, another grizzled ’70s rock act, amped up the crowd with a bizarre bit of censorship: “Will you please welcome to the stage the best BLEEEEEEP-ing rock band you will ever see!” a voice yelped as they took stage.
I am staying in a Holiday Inn Express on the outskirts of Bentonville, Arkansas, about twenty-five minutes away from the university campus. Three miles down the road, past a Wendy’s, is the Walmart Home Office, a collection of flat, warehouse-like buildings surrounded by parking lots. In this part of the world, no building is taller than a few stories: Fortune 500 companies who supply Walmart reside in bland office parks known locally as “Vendorvilles.” There are eighteen Walmarts and two Sam’s Clubs within twenty miles of my hotel. The stores are bigger and less bleak than the ones in my own Southern hometown. On the drive to Fayetteville, they blend into the green-yellow hills like natural boulders.
May 31, 2012, 11:50 AM. The bathroom of the Embassy Suites in Rogers, Arkansas, is empty, quiet and cool—one of the best places for writing I’ve found in the last 36 hours. Next door in a conference room, members of the national media and the Walmart PR team will soon be mingling over catered lunch. Along with other journalists, my personal schedule is packed with luncheons, dinners, mixers, and other events with a high quotient of professional media handlers and catered snacks. Transportation to these functions is provided by air conditioned bus which leaves from the Embassy Suites, the hotel where Walmart suggested we reside. Scant time has been carved out for writing, save after the events Walmart hopes to get press for: this afternoon’s executive Q&A and the Shareholders’ Meeting on Friday.
In some ways, the Walmart Shareholders’ Meeting is a typical corporate party, with questionable taste and inordinate amounts of free stuff. Like other corporate parties, it contains some awkward paradoxes: the superficial qualities indicate freewheeling hedonism, though institutional rules remain in place. But it’s also the Walmart of corporate parties—which is to say, a behemoth: about 14,000 people are attending this year, 5,000 of whom are workers, one from every store in the world. Massive company vacations are far from standard in retail, but then again, so is selling 1.3 million televisions on Black Friday, beating FEMA to Hurricane-hit areas, and bribing your way through Mexico. Walmart is the largest company in the world. It is also the largest private employer, overseeing 2.2 million workers—or “associates,” in company parlance—in twenty-seven countries.
This corporate carnival is what Walmart calls “Shareholders’ Week,” though it’s open to associates only. Investors in the company’s stock arrive on Friday for the official Shareholders’ Meeting, a financial event that feels more like a Hollywood awards show. Musical performances and celebrity skits jazz up executive presentations and investor proposals. Leading up to the meeting, associates have been spending their days engaging in planned activities. According to a pamphlet given to me by Aaron, a twentysomething Sam’s Club grocery stocker from North Dakota, these include concerts; rock climbing and fishing; tours of the Home Office and nearby Walmart stores; and milking the “Fun Fair,” which features free food, live music, and carnival games, courtesy of the companies who sell goods at Walmart. A place called Lot 56 promises “the latest in automotive fun.” There are also buses to Crystal Bridges, the Bentonville art museum opened in 2011 by heiress Alice Walton.
Every Walmart in every country chooses an associate to send to the event, says Aaron, who on Wednesday before the concert invited me to his room in a University of Arkansas dorm to check out a commemorative Coke bottle that his employer gave him. Aaron had only briefly heard about the Mexico bribery scandal. He was more excited to talk about which country would cheer the loudest at Friday’s main event, Tuesday’s Carrie Underwood concert, and the greatness of Sam Walton, the company founder whose face beams omniscience from informational literature and items at the official souvenir shop.
Mr. Sam, as associates call him, has a kind face, gently wrinkled in the right places, like Paul Newman’s on his salad dressings. He wears both a suit and a baseball cap. Walton’s life is usually told as an American rag-to-riches fable: born in 1918 in Oklahoma, Walton worked at several retail chains before opening up a five-and-dime in Bentonville’s town square in 1950. Walton was never poor—his wife’s wealthy family was an early investor—but took extreme care to channel folksiness even as his fortunes amassed. Today, the six richest Waltons own as much wealth as the poorest 41.5 percent of Americans, according to a 2012 analysis by the Economic Policy Institute, but you won’t catch them flaunting it.
Admiration for Mr. Sam runs deep here. The associates I meet speak of him with familial loyalty, even though it’s unlikely any of them saw him speak before his death in 1992. “I see Sam Walton as a genius,” said Alan, a 29-year-old Sam’s Club associate from Baltimore who boarded his first plane ever to attend the meeting. “And I’m glad he was because now we all have jobs.” The structure of the meeting seems designed to keep journalists like me away from workers like Alan, but all I manage to locate are so peppy they could have been handpicked by the PR team.
Later in the afternoon, I drive to a meeting with activists from Organization United for Respect at Walmart (OUR Walmart), the labor group responsible for rogue flyering on the outskirts of the meeting. Walmart has hired a militant security force to stamp out such behavior, so I’m surprised to see so few protesters—no more than ten people picking over onion rings at a diner in Bentonville’s main square. Details on just how many of them are in Bentonville are vague, though it’s clearly nowhere near the size of Walmart’s police force.
An organizer sits me down across from Janet Sparks, who works at a Walmart in Louisiana. Like her OUR Walmart peers, Janet is accustomed to handing out souvenirs of her poverty to reporters with notepads (“I make $11.60 an hour after seven years at Walmart”). She reminds me of Alan. Both speak in drawls littered with the maxims of their respective organizations; both paint Walmart in glaring, primary colors. In one version, the company is a pioneer of sustainability, a job creator, a champion of family values, and the reason middle class parents can afford to buy Christmas presents for their kids. In the other, it is a corporate oppressor slowly impoverishing the 1.3 million Americans it employs.
In 1954, General Electric brought in some new talent to aid in its battle with unions: the then-actor Ronald Reagan, who starred in a television program called General Electric Theater and traveled to plants around the country as a motivational speaker. GE called Reagan its “ambassador from the film world.” His hiring was part of a “job marketing” program aimed at influencing the minds of employees with techniques from advertising. This tactic went down smoother at some plants than others. At a 1957 visit in Hendersonville, North Carolina, one heckler demanded of Reagan, “How much are they paying you for this shit?”1
During the years Reagan was giving motivational tours at GE, IBM, Sears Roebuck, Eastman Kodak, National Cash Register and other companies hired anthropologists and psychologists by the dozens to conduct new behavioral science experiments on workers: Muzak, therapy sessions, productivity enhancing color schemes, attitude surveys, and team building exercises were among them.23 The movement was called human relations. Prior to it, many companies viewed workers as capital to harness in the tradition of Frederick Taylor, the turn of the century engineer who sought to improve efficiency by dividing up work into discrete, systematic tasks. In Taylor’s era, workers were machines to exploit. After human relations, they were also minds to mold.
Walmart’s early personnel policies coated human relations in a honeyed Arkansas drawl. Group cheers and calisthenic exercises became fixtures of store functions after Walton observed them at a Korean tennis ball factory in 1975, he and his wife Helen recalled in his autobiography. Gatherings also included barbershop quartets and odes to the company composed by associates and set to gospel tunes. Executives and managers were fond of lampooning each other at public functions.4
The 1995 Walmart logistics meeting, for instance, featured a drag show of at least seven men parading around in wigs, pastel dress, and stuffed bras. Mary Jo Schneider, an anthropologist at the University of Arkansas who has attended almost every Shareholders’ Meeting since the very first, remembers Walton as something in between a “revival preacher” and a “circus master.” Early meetings, she said, “were good, clean, wholesome entertainment, the kind that made you feel like Walmart would be a way to find meaning in your life.”
Fun also had a business payoff. “When folks get together and do this sort of silly stuff it’s really impossible to measure just how good it is for their morale,” Walton wrote in his autobiography. Of course, the rhetoric of oneness had to be “something other than window dressing,” he said. While Walmart never paid its workers more than competitors, it pioneered profit sharing plans, bonuses and other benefits previously seen mostly in white-collar work. (Such programs had an additional bonus of vaccinating Walmart’s stores from unions.) By the 1980s, Walmart had become one of management theorists’ favorite example of the new concept of “corporate culture.” Happy employees who felt one with management provided great service to customers, the story went, giving Walmart an edge over other retailers who offered few perks.
But if happy workers and good service distinguished Walmart from other regional discounters in the 1970s and ’80s, technological efficiency and rock-bottom prices made it what it is today. The company was one of the first to install barcodes on merchandise in the early 1980s, and in more recent years has pioneered radio-frequency ID tags, allowing it to track sales data and keep inventory levels (and costs) low. In the late 1980s, it installed what was then the world’s largest private satellite network to facilitate communication between stores and the home office. (Walton also used the system to broadcast messages to workers via an in-store TV network.)5
Rural heritage is still the glue of Walmart’s identity, despite its global reach. The souvenir shop at the Shareholders’ Meeting contains products such as the Ol’ Roy jigsaw puzzle, named after Sam Walton’s hunting dog. Attendees from all nations take tours of Walton’s original store in downtown Bentonville, now the Walmart Visitor Center, photographing relics such as Walton’s old Ford pickup truck, “preserved and intact with dents, rust and even Ol’ Roy’s teeth marks on the steering wheel,” according to the company’s website. The irony of Walmart’s glorification of small-town charm in relation to its regional indifference—sprouting identical stores across the globe, homogenizing the landscape—goes completely unacknowledged. There’s no irony here, of any kind, at all.
In recent years, Walmart has applied technological efficiency to its Human Resources or “People” divison. In 2007, it implemented an automatic scheduling system which tailors worker hours to foot traffic. Associate productivity and performance, meanwhile, is evaluated by how quickly they can scan or stock items, measured in scans or items per hour. (Workers say those who fail to meet standards—assigned by the Home Office—are “coached,” the company’s euphemism for disciplining.) The strategy has helped lower costs: in 2008, the year after Walmart introduced automatic scheduling, it reported productivity up 12 percent. Meanwhile, workers complained of erratic schedules and paychecks.
In other words, though Walmart still beats the drum of human relations with rituals like the company magazine, the Walmart Cheer and the Shareholders’ Meeting, it has meanwhile pioneered a kind of neo-Taylorism, quantifying and measuring everything from productivity to customer service. It’s a strange combination: these days, high-tech companies like Apple and Google are the ones famous for cultivating happy “environments” for workers, while Walmart’s direct competitors focus primarily on maximizing labor efficiency. Walmart, rejecting the distinction, insists on mastering both. Historically, human relations and Taylorism were opposing models, and it’s easy to see how one might undermine the other. At Walmart, the Shareholders’ Meeting presents workers, management, celebrity performers, and billionaire Waltons as one big family. Stores, meanwhile, have a hierarchical, top-down structure. Workers at company functions are encouraged to “let loose.” By contrast, the mood in the stores is bare-bones business, with computers acting as 21st century stopwatches.
In the company’s own narrative, as in Sam Walton’s original vision, making mega-profits, caring about one’s workers and improving the world go hand in hand. Like in certain branches of evangelical Protestantism, profit and piety are mutually reinforcing. Even the company’s motto, “We save people money so they can live better,” sees cash as a means to an end of a happy life. Kory Lundberg, a Walmart PR representative, disputes the argument that efficiency is philosophically opposed to worker happiness. “Associates are constantly helping the company come up with new ways to become efficient,” Lundberg said, citing as evidence a new program called Open Shifts that allows workers to view and sign up for available shifts online. The company hopes the program will give workers more control over their hours and make it easier for them to transition to full time. “Efficiency is a part of our culture. It has been part of the company since it was founded in 1962 and it is the reason we’re able to operate our stores and sell products to folks for less,” he said.
This narrative is complicated by the fact of Walmart workers’ poverty. Though the company doesn’t give out complete data on its wages, they’re low enough to put massive numbers of employees on public assistance. Since 2004, Walmart has topped the lists of companies with the most workers enrolled in Medicaid in twenty-one states, according to data published by state agencies. During the protests and strikes that occurred in 2012, low wages were the central complaint.
Walmart believes that saving money means living better and being happy, but it also knows not all happinesses were created equal. Its workers are poor (and perhaps therefore unhappy), but the company’s corporate happiness, bigger than any one worker and concentrated in this week of overwhelming spectacle and community feeling, somehow makes up for the loss. The number of actual workers on strike in 2012 was infinitesimal in comparison to its 1.3 million US workforce, as the company is quick to point out. One explanation is that Walmart is everything it claims to be: sincere, pious, compassionate. A more cynical one is that the company’s culture is a powerful antidote to the reality of its stores. More likely is that workers aren’t happy so much as happy enough. Given the world outside their stores, it’s likely that associates aren’t so much brainwashed by Walmart as they are grateful to have any job, whether or not it includes a free vacation.
June 1, 2012. 8 AM. It’s Friday’s main event, and the stage of the basketball stadium is set to look like a life-size copy of the Walmart Visitor Center, complete with red-and-white-striped awning and American flags. “I must warn you we may be joined today by some folks who want to interrupt our meeting,” announces Robson Walton, son of Sam, chairman of the board and the seventeenth richest person in the world according to Forbes. “We’re hoping that they will respect all of you who want to hear what’s going on and what we have to say and listen to the program.”
This statement is one of the only references to a world outside the barrage of musical performances, executive reports, and rambling stories about life in rural Arkansas that constitute this morning’s event. At 7 AM, the official Shareholders’ meeting, this week’s grand finale, kicked off with a story from Alice Walton, the second wealthiest woman in America. “Dad figured out that the movie theater down the street on Saturday sold little bitty bags of popcorn for ten cents,” she reminisced. “So we sat our popcorn machine right outside the front of the store and happily gave . . . all the movie customers three times as much [popcorn for the price].”
“Every Day Low Prices didn’t just start yesterday, did it?” quipped her brother Robson.
For hours, the crowd maintains its enthusiasm at a frightening decibel level. Associates from South Africa, Mexico, and Japan (still identifiable by T-shirt color) are yelping and smiling in perpetuity, along with the Waltons and this year’s celebrity host, Justin Timberlake. At one point during Friday’s event, Timberlake tells a story about his time spent at Walmart as a child in Tennessee. “The first toys I ever got, from Walmart. The first ham we ever had, bought over Thanksgiving.” Taylor Swift, Celine Dion, and Lionel Richie also appear, lolling in this rich, sticky syrup of mutual appreciation and loyalty.
Three quarters of the way through the meeting, a woman wearing a green “OUR Walmart” T-shirt gets a five minute turn with the microphone to summarize the proposed change to executive compensation that her organization is backing. Scattered applause, and the mike is passed. Protesters never show up.
Thomas Evans, The Education of Ronald Reagan, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006). ↩
Sanford Jacoby, Modern Manors: Welfare Capitalism since the New Deal (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997). ↩
Elizabeth Fones-Wolf, Selling Free Enterprise: The Business Assault on Labor and Liberalism. (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1995). ↩
Bethany Moreton, To Serve God and Wal-Mart: The Making of Christian Free Enterprise, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010). ↩
Nelson Lichtenstein, The Retail Revolution: How Wal-Mart Created a Brave New World of Business (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2009). ↩