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Wal-Mart 'R' Us 

Does 'sustainability' mean meddling in workers' personal lives? San Francisco's Act Now Productions seems to think so.

Wednesday, Sep 19 2007

Leftists passing by newsstands last week saw an image of their movement's former poster boy. On the cover of the current issue of Fast Company magazine, former Sierra Club boy president Adam Werbach poses before a green backdrop and behind the words "He Sold His Soul to Wal-Mart."

The article inside reads like a rehabilitation of Werbach, a San Francisco environmental icon who became a liberal pariah last year after taking a job to help Wal-Mart burnish its green image.

I'd wondered what to make of Werbach's job choice. Could his critics be wrong? Might he be successful in changing corporations' environmental practices from within?

But after reading the Fast Company piece, and doing a little more reading and talking to people, I'm afraid Werbach's detractors are right. His current role as Wal-Mart's greenwasher-in-residence is almost certainly doing more harm than good. He's inflating Wal-Mart's public image at workers' expense.

The article describes how Werbach, who was made president of the Sierra Club in 1996 at age 23, took on a consulting job last year helping to design and run Wal-Mart's "Personal Sustainability Project," in which the company's employees are urged to make changes in their personal and work lives to improve the planet's health and their own.

Werbach's Mission District company, Act Now Productions, ballooned from 20 to 200 employees, resurrecting him from a brief spate of joblessness into newfound material success. Werbach had previously called Wal-Mart "toxic." After taking the job, he was shunned by his former environmental and social justice allies.

Fast Company writer Danielle Sacks interviewed Werbach, several Wal-Mart officials, a couple of skeptical activists, and then wrote nearly 4,000 words exploring Werbach's statement that "our goal is to have Wall Street look at Wal-Mart's green performance, and say, 'Wow, do more of that.'"

Corporations such as Wal-Mart can be expected to engage in greenwashing public-relations campaigns such as the Personal Sustainability Project.

Reputable magazines such as Fast Company should not happily play along.

Sacks, however, committed an egregious act of PR ball-playing when she prepared a cover story about a program directed at Wal-Mart employees without hearing from any workers.

"Wal-Mart would not allow Fast Company to interview employees," Sacks wrote.

If she had ignored this directive, she might have discovered that, while the Personal Sustainability Project's rhetoric is green, the effects may resemble the color of some Wal-Mart employee break rooms: painted khaki and navy blue, stained and filthy. It's another way, in other words, that Wal-Mart makes workers' lives miserable.

The public face of the Personal Sustainability Project is that by persuading workers to undertake seemingly small changes to benefit the environment and their own personal well-being, the positive cumulative effect might be huge.

In practice, this seems to mean the company in some stores takes cost-saving measures such as removing light bulbs in break-room vending machines and no longer supplying disposable cups for workers' coffee. It means endorsing efforts by managers to urge workers to lose weight, stop smoking, and otherwise straighten up their private lives. And it means urging employees to participate in Wal-Mart "sustainability" PR stunts off the clock, meaning they are not paid.

"I think that Wal-Mart wants to propagandize the workers that all power comes through Wal-Mart. If you're going to do anything, you have to do it through Wal-Mart," says Steve Zeltzer, founder of the Labor Video Project, which has reported on Wal-Mart in California and Colorado.

I spoke with Cleo Forward, 37, a Wal-Mart support manager in Dallas who's been working for the company for seven years. Last year he organized a rally in front of his store after he'd gathered 250 signatures to protest reductions in workers' benefits, and an attendance policy that harshly penalized workers for becoming sick or having to look after a sick child.

Forward received a lecture from a superior about his "disloyalty" to the company.

"They told me I owed them a duty of loyalty. Like I don't have the right to say anything. I should be grateful to have a job with them. It's like they wanted me to have an oath with them," Forward said.

The Personal Sustainability Project appears to be in a similar vein, where the company moves beyond merely oppressing workers while they're on the clock, and begins horning in on what were supposed to be employees' personal freedoms off the job.

Forward recalled attending a Personal Sustainability Project meeting and regarding it as another bit of corporate puffery.

"I'm wondering why they put that much money into that, when they could have lowered my medical deductible instead?" said Forward during his break, in reference to his $350 deductible on the health insurance coverage he pays for through Wal-Mart.

Perhaps as bad, PSP may be a sort of toadie-empowerment program that spoils workplaces everywhere.

"Those people that are doing that are select people," Forward said. "Those are the pro–Wal-Mart associates."

For an even more candid discussion of Werbach and Wal-Mart's Personal Sustainability Project, I signed up for an Internet bulletin board frequented by Wal-Mart employees.

Workers' comments paint a picture of an Orwellian workplace made even more so by this green PR scheme.

"At our meeting this morning they told us they are not going to order cups for coffee to help with our store's PSP. If you have ever seen our lounge you can't imagine what it's going to look like with all the dirty coffee cups around," writes an employee with the handle "overthecap." "They also want us to look at our personal lives and promise to do something to improve our lives. When did they forget work is work and personal life is just that: personal?"

Another Wal-Mart employee with the handle "WhatAmI?Crazy" also objects to the PSP thrust of invading workers' personal lives: "This is one program that really burns my ass. We're told to keep our personal problems at the door when we come in, and our work problems at the door when we leave. Now they want to invade our home like Big Brother to make sure we are living correctly. If we follow this program at home, wouldn't that make us working off the clock since it is a company program?"

An employee with the handle "Dhead" describes a store meeting about the Personal Sustainability Project in which employees were asked to work off the clock giving a bogus presentation about how "green" their employer was.

"They asked if any of us wanted to volunteer for a dumb town festival coming up. It's 'volunteer,' so we'll be off the clock," Dhead wrote. "They said we will start using the bailer to crush cans, cardboard, and plastic. Then stack them and make a so-called 'sandwich' with them. They want to haul one down to the festival to show it off to the town, and show them how well we recycle and care about the Earth."

Workers all over the country apparently have seen the program as an opportunity for subversion.

"I asked for one of the 'I quit smoking' buttons, but they refused to give me one. An assman (manager) told me he had seen me smoking an hour earlier. So he knew I was lying about quitting," wrote one employee. "I said I'd quit after that last smoke and was turning over a new leaf. He told me if he gave me one, and if he sees me in the break room smoking, that I could get in trouble. Can I???? Should I test him???"

Several workers, upon being told to adopt a Personal Sustainability Project, strove to find a way to quit Wal-Mart in order to improve their lives.

"I looked around — others had written things like 'to loose [sic] weight' or 'to stop smoking.' Blah. On mine I wrote, 'Find a new job.' Management took it away. And they wouldn't give me another one," wrote a poster named "Penguini."

Some even followed through on quitting Wal-Mart as a Personal Sustainability Project.

"Since I've left Wal-Mart, my blood pressure has returned to normal, I haven't had the urge to drink myself dead, and I've dropped a few pounds," wrote one former worker.

Sadly, few Wal-Mart workers can afford to quit, because the 1.3 million-worker company has established benchmark wages and working conditions wherever they've opened a store or distribution warehouse. In hundreds of towns all over the country they've driven local businesses bankrupt, eliminating in the process other employment opportunities.

Of all the measures that might uplift the standard of living of American workers, the hope of a trade union someday getting Wal-Mart to sign a collective bargaining agreement is the most important. But the company's strenuous anti-labor stance has made that prospect impossible so far.

"The commitment to stay union free must exist at all levels of management — from the chairperson of the board down to the front-line manager," says a Wal-Mart manager handbook cited in a 2004 article in The Nation. "Therefore, no one in management is immune to carrying his or her own weight in the union prevention effort."

In this spirit, when 10 butchers at a Wal-Mart store in Jacksonville, Texas, voted to join a union, the company switched to pre-packaged meats throughout the country, eliminating jobs for on-site butchers nationwide. When 200 workers at a Quebec store joined the United Food and Commercial Workers union in 2004, Wal-Mart closed the entire store.

Posing, as it does, as a phony job benefit with an environmental twist, the Personal Sustainability Project seems like yet another weapon in Wal-Mart's ongoing battle against workers' rights.

About The Author

Matt Smith


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