“All hope abandon, ye who go through me”—Wal-Mart’s Employee Credo

     “A truth forgotten is a truth lost.”—the author


I went to a Wal-Mart in Santa Fe, New Mexico, last Saturday. I had grave misgivings about doing so, knowing a little of its sordid dealings with the cities in which it locates and of how inhumanely it treats its employees.  Nevertheless I decided to shop there, curious to see what life was like at a Wal-Mart here in liberal Santa Fe.

The staff at this huge store was clearly harried and stressed out, rushing this way and that, barely stopping even to answer my queries—but their duty done, away they flew. No staff were smiling. They seemed in fact like an undermanned army about to be over-run by the enemy—anxious and fearful.

My shopping finished, I gathered up my purchases and went outside where I was to await a shuttle at a pre-arranged area to take me back to St. John’s College, where I’m a first-term graduate student.

It was a sizzling Saturday afternoon. Outside where I waited there was precious little shade with which to shelter oneself from the stifling heat. Three male employees, on break, stood nearby, smoking cigarettes and talking. I decided to ask them about Wal-Mart, partly to make the time go by faster, and partly out of curiosity.

They were all very nice, courteous and respectful. I asked the first man how he liked working at Wal-Mart. He could barely contain his disgust. “I don’t like it at all,” he fumed. “Why?” I asked. “Because although we work full-time, we’re classified as part-timers, so we don’t get any benefits.” I asked the other two what they thought of Wal-Mart; both gave similar answers.

I asked what the annual turnover rate was at this Wal-Mart. “About 70%,” answered one of the men, with the others nodding their heads in agreement. I was shocked. That sounded way too high, even for Wal-Mart. Not sure whether I should believe them or not, I decided to get the opinions of some other employees.

As it happened, at that precise moment two girls had just sat down on a nearby bench to take their break.  I was curious to see if they felt the same way the men did about working at Wal-Mat.

So I walked over and introduced myself. Then after some small talk, I asked them how they liked working at Wal-Mart. The young woman sitting to my left looked up at me and, smiling, said, “It’s a great place to work.”  I asked each one several more questions. All the responses were uniformly positive. This was very perplexing. Who was telling me the truth? Both couldn’t  be right.

It was then I noticed that the girls’ eyes were riveted on something behind me. I turned around to see what it was—and there stood two huge security men, aka “assistant managers”! They were mere inches from me. The name tag of one of them read “BIG MIKE.”  He was almost twice my size and several inches taller. The other big “assistant manager” stood next to him. Here was a classic example, right in front of Wal-Mart, of gross physical intimidation—but for what reason?  What had I done to deserve the unmitigated wrath of Wal-Mart?

“You can’t speak to employees,” growled Big Mike, his face cold and unanimated.  The two young women got up quickly and hurried back to the store. I glanced over at the men: they were gone too. Fear spreads quickly. Now it was just the three of us: two burly Cyclops—and myself.

This entire incident was so foreign to me. I had just spent six years teaching English in South Korea and had never once experienced anything even remotely close to this. Now I’m back home in the “Land of the Free” and….

“You have to leave the premises now,” said Big Mike firmly, his fierce eyes announcing that he was ready for battle if necessary. Defiant and angry, I looked up at him and said: “No, I’m not leaving; I’m waiting here for my shuttle. It’s coming to pick me up.”  Then I turned around and faced the parking lot, hoping the shuttle wouldn’t be too late, and wondering, too, whether a physical confrontation was imminent.

I paced nervously up and down the sidewalk in front of our pre-arranged pick-up area, now and then stopping to search in both directions for the van.  And always but a few feet away, watching my every move, as if the fate of the entire world depended upon it,  stood Big Mike and his fellow assistant manager.

Twenty minutes went by; then the other “assistant manager” left and went back inside.  But not Big Mike, who had taken up a position leaning against a wall, while still watching with hawk eyes my every breath and move.  Finally the van came. A door opened; I climbed up and took the last empty seat, by the window.  As we pulled away from the curb, I turned around to get one last look at Big Mike. There he stood. He hadn’t moved one inch, but was watching the van closely to make sure it left Wal-Mart’s premises. I must’ve been a serious threat to Wal-Mart to have garnered such complete attention!

One of the most disturbing aspects about all this is that in my research afterwards, I discovered that employees in point of fact do not have free speech—not in the work-place, and, incredibly, not even when an employee returns home! Case after case showed how businesses can, and do, completely control the speech of their employees.

So where is our vaunted Freedom of Speech, I want to know?  Is this what our Founding Founders envisaged when they wrote the First Amendment? What kind of country have we become when one can carry a military-style assault weapon into any establishment, including church and college, yet one is forbidden to speak to another even while on break?  or to voice different views while away from the work-place,  without getting fired? Thomas Jefferson is reputed to have said, “The price of Liberty is eternal vigilance.” Clearly as a nation we have not been vigilant enough!

Having newly returned from South Korea, where a customer is never threatened, verbally or otherwise, and with whose staff one may speak freely, whether on-break or off-, I had wondered what shopping would be like at an iconic American discount store like Wal-Mart, in a liberal city like Santa Fe. I found out.

It is so much easier to criticize the human rights record of other nations, as we do so often, than to ensure that one’s human rights record at home is beyond reproach. This of course is a truism,… but a truism today all but ignored and forgotten.

Len Sive Jr.