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How low can they go? 

With all the mixed messages these days about Wal-Mart’s employment practices, Lis van Berkel decided to see for herself what it’s like to work for the retail giant.

Dozens of protestors wore blue paper placards and paraded around Halifax’s Mumford Road Wal-Mart store parking lot in the cold rain and wind. Their bibs lampooned the Wal-Mart name and slogan: they read “Mal-Wart” and “Always Low Standards.” The ink ran in the rain. Some fliered Wal-Mart customers with mock ads for items like the Super Suck Vacuum—“Sucking up more than their fair share in Canada for 10 years”—and flashlights, because “Mal-Wart is happy to keep you in the dark about their huge profits and poor labour practices.”

The May 7 demonstration was part of a national day of solidarity organized by the Canadian Labour Congress, a coalition of labour groups opposed to Wal-Mart’s anti-union strategy. They stood their ground alongside two uniformed security guards—one of whom taped the protest with a camcorder.

Store manager Willard Urquhart moved among the protestors, customers and reporters, offering krullers and honey-glazed donuts. Dressed in a white shirt and dark tie, the middle-aged Urquhart resembled many of the pro-union protestors—among them, members of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers, the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, the Carpenters and Millwrights and Allied Workers of PEI and the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, the union campaigning to represent Wal-Mart workers throughout North America.

Urquhart offered me a donut and, for a fleeting moment, I thought he recognized me.

November 23 “That’s union, right?” I ask two men in the breakroom of Wal-Mart. When I sit down, they are talking about relatives who are firefighters, not unions, but I feel a need to prod at something. Someone. The older one, whose father used to be a fireman and who is eating a bagged lunch, nods, but the subject goes nowhere. I am suddenly too nervous and tired to push my question. The other employee, who eats pasta entrees from the store’s Pantry freezer—Wal-Mart employees get a 10 percent discount on all merchandise—rolls his packaging into a ball, pushes back his chair and leaves.

My stint at Wal-Mart was born of a plan conceived last summer when news reports from Jonquiere, Quebec, and Weyburn, Saskatchewan, said employees of the self-described “union-free” company (which recorded revenues of $258 billion in 2003, roughly equal to two percent of the US GDP) were unionizing. Well, I thought, 65,000 people work for Wal-Mart in Canada. There were 300 Wal-Marts here, 28 in Atlantic Canada, 12 in Nova Scotia—now there are 14—including four in HRM. Wouldn’t the most populous Atlantic province take the plunge and try to unionize?

In July, Tim Hosford of the Atlantic office of the UFCW, which regularly pamphlets employees in Wal-Mart parking lots, said the Moncton store might be the first in the Maritimes to attempt unionization. In Amherst on other business, I inquired about union activity from two Wal-Mart employees in their parking lot. But both Amherst employees walked away from me: “No one particularly cares for it,” said one blue-vested guy in his 30s who was collecting shopping carts. “How do I know you are who you say you are?” he asked. “Not in my department” was the other response from a quiet, middle-aged man who walked briskly toward his car.

But how to really find out if at least some of Nova Scotia’s Wal-Mart employees are thinking about unionization? Maybe if I applied for work there, I’d meet a young rabble-rouser who collects signatures on her breaks, or leaves UFCW pamphlets in the aisles for the backshift. I set my sights on the same west end store the CLC picketed, which Wal-Mart calls its “downtown” store—it’s an ironic name for a chain blamed for draining the hearts of cities. This is one of the biggest criticisms of Wal-Mart: it effectively kills local downtown businesses by establishing stores on the outskirts of communities. I found the Amherst store not by asking directions but by heading for the edge of town.

Sprawl-Busters is a group that fights big-box stores on behalf of the little guys. It consults with local community groups that want to keep out chain stores— “Hometowns not Home Depots” is its motto. Like UFCW, it focuses much of its effort on an anti-Wal-Mart campaign. Founder and consultant Al Norman, according to, helps “local community coalitions on-site to design and implement successful campaigns against megastores and other undesirable large-scale developments.” But unlike the union, Sprawl-Busters wants to stop the expansion of Wal-Mart, as it did in Miramichi and Lincoln, New Brunswick. Unions, on the other hand, seem to regard Wal-Mart’s expansion as fait accompli.

October 19 I am excited although I have a feeling this is not going to work. Harper’s magazine has just published an Indiana Wal-Mart’s hiring policy: no university education, no upstarts, no questions. Why hire me? I don’t have retail experience, and I've written several critical business articles human resources could access online. But maybe if I use my full name, and don't mention benefits...fake some retail experience, lie about my university degrees—and definitely don't mention benefits. I call the nearest store, where a woman named Barb inspires me to think about Wal-Mart as a career: seven years ago this month, she was hired as Christmas help. “And look at me now,” she says. She tells me to write her name across the top of my application. I do.

Barb, the first of many people I’ll meet at Wal-Mart whose last name I will never be told, did call me back for an interview. While preparing, I was coached by friends to “act stuck.” To say things like: “I really like working with numbers.” And, “I want to work at Wal-Mart more than anything because I haven’t figured out what I want to do with my life.” Others questioned my motive: “Why do you think Wal-Mart employees are stuck? Are you making fun of the people who work there?” I feel like I’ve waded into some philosophical sea about low-wage work.

UFCW-Canada’s website says union arbitration for the Wal-Mart in Jonquiere, Quebec, was scheduled for last week. Just over a month ago, Wal-Mart closed that store, claiming it was operating at a loss. Around the same time, employees at the stores in Ste-Hyacinthe and Gatineau voted to certify. As well, according to the union, 10 more certification applications are pending across Canada.

The union certification process differs somewhat between provinces. In Nova Scotia, if 40 percent of employees sign union cards, the store must hold a certification vote or, according to the Department of Human Resources and Skills Development, the Nova Scotia Labour Relations Board could automatically certify the union if it “believes that the vote does not reflect the true wishes of the employees” and the union represents at least 40 percent of those in the unit.

But just how pro-union is Nova Scotia? Our province has gone out of its way to protect Michelin Canada since 1979. Introduced as an amendment to the Trade Union Act, the Michelin Bill reads that in order for one Michelin plant in Nova Scotia to unionize, the other two plants must also get a 40 percent vote. It’s legislation the NDP and union-types like CAW’s Buzz Hargrove have been pressing government to remove for nearly 25 years.

October 27 Step one: Sit in the Layaway department filling out a four-page survey with scenarios like: “I used to have a problem with lateness, but that is behind me now.” Either disagree or agree, fully or partially, circle one through eight. Theft, drugs and lateness are its major themes. I am bad at these things: if I pretend I have never been late, then the problem can’t be behind me. I think my only option is to pretend I am never late, though I often am, including now.

Step two: Go down the hall for a pre-interview with an HR trainee, a 30-ish Filipino woman who records my verbal responses to hypothetical scenarios. “Describe a time when you had to deal with a difficult customer and what you did,” she asks me. And, “Where do you see yourself in our company?”

Step three: Return to HR where an assistant manager questions seven of my answers, including “John smokes some drugs during his lunch break but comes back to work and does his job satisfactorily. Why do you sort of agree with that?” I retract my answers, and he offers me a full-time temporary position in Health and Beauty Aids at $7.75 an hour. HBA, he calls it.

Step four: Take the job and feel lucky.

Although the wage was more than I was expecting, it’s not what Wal-Mart boasts on its corporate website: “up to $3 or $4 more than minimum wage.” I’ve beat minimum wage in Nova Scotia, the fourth lowest in the country (after Alberta, Newfoundland and New Brunswick), but by only $1.25. I’ve also surpassed the wage of two regular “peak-time associates” who I meet— “part-time” and “employee” are not words Wal-Mart sanctions—both with previous retail experience, who tell me they make 50 cents less per hour than me.

UFCW organizer Andrew MacKenzie’s full-time job is to help Wal-Mart employees who want to unionize through his union. On the phone from Toronto, the 12-year veteran organizer sounds like a busy man who would prefer to give me sound bites instead of an in-depth interview.

MacKenzie says the real average wage of a Wal-Mart associate in Canada, taking into account regional differences, is “probably less than $9 per hour...We’re talking about the person who’s working on the floor.” MacKenzie also points out that jobs like mine at Wal-Mart ensure that regular peak-time employees don’t get the full-time hours they deserve. “Only getting 28 hours per week is ‘full-time’ to Wal-Mart,” he contends. “And whether it’s $8 or $9 is irrelevant when you're only getting 12 hours per week.”

A truly full-time workweek for Wal-Mart employees seems to be a UFCW demand, although MacKenzie says employees are mostly fighting favouritism: “Number one concern is the whole issue of fairness and respect. For example, an assistant manager and store manager evaluates you, and your raise is done on a 20-, 30-, 40-cent scale. It’s not an objective thing; it quite often depends who-gets-along-best-with-who sort of thing. People with families to feed with 30 hours—all of a sudden their hours are cut. Especially over the holidays, and they only get their usual hours and they are not working more because then they would be owed benefits.”

What about benefits? Are they not an issue? Somewhat, according to MacKenzie, who says the level of coverage at Wal-Mart is low while the deductibles are high. He says it would cost an employee close to $3,500 per year in deductibles before she could access benefits, and that these don’t cover extras like physiotherapy and chiropractic services.

According to the UFCW website (, its own benefits package would cost employees nothing extra. In fact, the union takes no money from Wal-Mart employees until ratification happens, which means so far it’s been purely a labour of love. Clearly, the UFCW stands to gain a lot of profile and strength if the courtship succeeds. Its website includes a survey for Wal-Mart employees interested in talking to the UFCW. In exchange for giving them your contact information and information about where you work, your hours, your job satisfaction and a ranking of the workplace issues that are important to you—including your answer to the following: Describe the most distressing situation you have witnessed or experienced while working at Wal-Mart— you get entered into a draw for $100.

Wal-Mart’s Associate Handbook describes its “union philosophy” in this circular way: “Wal-Mart is not anti-union. However, while union representation may be of benefit to persons working for other employers and for competitors within the retail industry, Wal-Mart believes that by following our values, beliefs and practices there is no visible or measurable benefit resulting from having union participation in the business.”

When I asked MacKenzie for his take on what one Wal-Mart spokesperson called UFCW “aggressively targetting” Wal-Mart employees, he disagreed: “Being overly aggressive backfires. Ultimately it’s going to not be successful. Wal-Mart has the advantage, and it doesn’t allow workers to talk. Wal-Mart makes sure that people understand that if they talk about or hand out union info, they will get into some trouble. So we try to talk to them in their homes. If I approach them and they’re not interested, then I don't go back if they don’t want. If they get riled up, then I don’t want them to come out—it’s not in my best interest for them to come out mad.”

October 29 Training day, my first paid day as a Wal-Mart employee, I am given the complete names of all assistant managers. We each get a “We Work For You. Always.” name tag, our names in blue Letrasign. An MBA graduate from India is my only fellow trainee. He gets a blue vest that is too tight to button up and I get a bib. We watch videos on Wal-Mart history and culture.

In 1969, Sam Walton opened the first Wal-Mart in Arkansas, still home to the store’s headquarters. He turned the department store model on its head by promising Every Day Low Prices, which I come to know by its acronym, EDLP. By 1972, Wal-Mart’s founder had expanded his enterprise to 51 stores. By 1981, there were 330 stores with sales of $1.6 billion. He was awarded the American Medal of Freedom by president George Bush, Sr. shortly before his death in 1992. A year earlier, he opened his first Wal-Mart outside of the US, in Mexico; two years later, Wal-Mart bought Canadian Woolco stores (the video leaves out the fact that Wal-Mart didn’t buy any of the unionized stores) and opened its first Wal-Marts north of the border. In 1998, Canadian sales hit $5.1 billion and international sales $117 billion. There are more than 300 Wal-Marts in Canada. There is someone working in every store 24/7. The “greeters” have two functions: they say hello to customers and they are on Loss Prevention duty. “Aggressive hospitality” is Wal-Mart policy. Department managers are scheduled to come in and watch Wal-Mart television programming to help them sell specific products. Associates are encouraged to submit money-saving ideas: the latest one is the Paper Towel Program, which means I am to carry a brown swatch in my pouch to mop up spilled drinks or slush. Deferred profit sharing and a stock ownership plan offer incentives for permanent employees.

As we sign our temporary associate contracts in Wal-Mart Store 3636, I jot down phrases in my notebook. The Three Metre Attitude, the metric version of the nine-foot rule: greet everyone who comes within three metres of you. Barb asks me what I’m writing down. Notes, I say. Between activities, she and my co-trainee slam the defeat of the Sunday shopping vote in last week’s municipal election. Noticing my silence, she asks me how I voted. I say I voted against it because I think small businesses would lose money. Barb reiterates her point that Wal-Mart could have earned more. I ask Barb, “How many of us are there?”

She says the store has more than 300 employees, up to 340 during these eight weeks before Christmas. Asking me how many people I thought worked there, she seems to want me to be surprised. Then I start my CBLs—computer-based learning—on cleaning up toxic spills, accident-free lifting, tagging merchandise, dealing with sexual harassment. I decide I’m just interested in observing Wal-Mart. I give myself four weeks.

Written four years ago, Barbara Ehrenreich’s book Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America is, in part, the story of another middle-class white woman who gets a temporary job at Wal-Mart in order to write about what it’s like, but she’s writing for Harper’s and her Wal-Mart is in Minneapolis. “I have been discovering a great truth about low-wage work and probably a lot of medium-wage work, too,” she concludes at the end of her summer as a waitress, housecleaner and Wal-Mart associate. “hat nothing happens, or rather the same thing always happens, which amounts, day after day, to nothing.”

Ultimately, Ehrenreich packs it in after her Wal-Mart job, after she encounters many young and middle-aged women who have either not enough food or live in woefully inadequate places, like their cars. Like me, Ehrenreich grasps at the labour straw during her last days, but she plants a pro-union article in her breakroom. “This new role—bearer of really big news—makes me feel busy and important,” she writes. When her effort falls flat, Ehrenreich opines that the “working poor”—a term she derides for its approving tone—“are bound to tire of getting so little in return and to demand to be paid what they’re worth. There’ll be a lot of anger when that day comes and strikes and disruptions.”

Just how high can Wal-Mart’s star rise? Much criticism is being written and broadcast about Wal-Mart now. PBS’s Frontline aired a documentary called Is Wal-Mart Good for America? in November. (Its conclusion: Wal-mart is not good for US manufacturers and workers.) Nickel and Dimed is one of several sources cited by the New York Times Review of Books’ Simon Head in an anti-Wal-Mart piece on December 16, 2004. Another is Selling Women Short: The Landmark Battle for Workers’ Rights at Wal-Mart by Liza Featherstone, an ardent critic of Wal-Mart’s labour practices who’s had a series of articles on Wal-Mart in The Nation, most recently last week. In her book, Featherstone focuses on the Dukes case, the largest civil rights class-action lawsuit in history, brought in 2001 and named for Betty Dukes, a Wal-Mart greeter in Pittsburgh, California. She and five other female employees, on behalf of 1.5 million female employees, past and present, allege systematic discrimination by Wal-Mart both in pay and promotion. Last June, it was ruled that the case could proceed to trial but according to their website, no date has been set.

The Times Review also cites an academic conference on Wal-Mart held in April at the University of California and a report the same month by the US Democratic Staff of the House Committee on Education and Workforce called “Everyday Low Prices: The Hidden Price We All Pay for Wal-Mart”( walmartreport.pdf).

Featherstone points to the invention of the individual “consumer” identity as the main culprit in leading people to think it’s enough just to not shop at Wal-Mart: “Business elites wanted people to dream not of satisfying work and egalitarian societies—as many did —but of the beautiful things they could buy with their paychecks. Business was quite successful in this project, which influenced much early advertising.” She makes the connection between Wal-Mart and the Democrats, too—the Arkansas-based company prospered under Bill Clinton’s governorship and presidency, which brought in workfare that provided Wal-Mart with a workforce. Hillary Clinton, whose law firm represented Wal-Mart, was on the company’s board of directors.

Other reading: the Pulitzer prize-winning series by Los Angeles Times staff writers, published in November 2003 and available online. And going back earlier, In Sam We Trust: the Untold Story of Sam Walton and How Wal-Mart is Devouring America by Bob Ortega of the Wall Street Journal in 1998.

As little as Wal-Mart workers get paid, no one makes less than those (again, usually women) who make the products Wal-Mart sells for less. Transnationale Corporations Observatory, a French not-for-profit, posts manufacturing information on its website. Its Wal-Mart information hasn’t been updated since 2000, but it says that Wal-Mart has used sweatshop labour in Bangladesh, Honduras, China and Burma.

October 31 It’s Sunday; the store is closed. I am stacking shampoo, conditioner, razors, toothpaste, toothbrushes, body wash, tampons, maxi-pads, hair dye and lotion onto the HBA shelves. Using a ladder, I pull down products from the top shelves, called “risers.” A woman in her early-40s is training me to “zone” the shelves. She tells me to be careful; our store has the worst safety record of all the stores in Halifax: six accident-free days in a row. She used to work in HBA, but now she works in “Comp. Control,” which means she drives around to stores like Sobeys making sure that Wal-Mart has EDLP. Every hour, the store’s PA system plays product advertisements and child safety warnings, even though employees are the only people in the store. At the end of the day, the manager on duty wants to check my bag, which genuinely surprises me. “Unless it’s a purse,” he says, waving me out. “We don’t check purses.”

November 1 I work alone. I perform a version of what I did yesterday: work the risers. The women who work in Pantry, Stationery and Jewellery are like my neighbours in this Wal-Mart suburb. All about in their 40s, mostly married, they let me flail through my day. When customers ask for help, I tell them this is my first day. My assistant manager pops by to ask how I am doing. I spend breaks with the non-smokers in a windowless breakroom at the back of the store. There are six folding tables plus dozens of chairs, a bank of vending machines along one wall and a counter, sink, water cooler and coffeemaker along another.

A poster lists benefits for Nova Scotia Wal-Mart associates. Two bulletin boards, one with job openings and one with policy, profit-sharing and bi-weekly benefit fees, run the length of the room. Men sit with men, women with women. Mostly we are women. Our small, shared lockers are in a stark, concrete anteroom you access by walking through the breakroom. I wear what I think are good shoes, but at the end of the day my feet hurt a lot.

According to the Nova Scotia Wal-Mart benefits poster, a full-time employee who works for $9.15/hour allegedly earns an additional third of her wage, or almost $24,000, after Wal-Mart weighs in with its benefits. Although Wal-Mart defines “full-time” as more than 28 hours, that questionable figure is based on a 35-hour workweek and it does not really include benefits at all. Instead, it’s derived by tabulating company contributions, like a 10 percent Wal-Mart discount on an annual average purchase of $3,000 in merchandise, company health benefits, EI, CPP, workers’ compensation contributions, vacation pay, six days of illness protection, profit-sharing and the stakeholder bonus. In other words, the employee would have to spend at least as much money as Wal-Mart invests—nine times as much as Wal-Mart’s 10-percent discount—to reap these so-called benefits.

November 2 The questions are getting harder: people ask me for things I can’t find. A men’s deodorant called XXX. Replacement heads for a 3000-series electric razor. I spend most of my day pulling shampoo, hair gel, dye, toothpaste to the front of the shelves. I pull forward at least three items so the shelf looks full. My mind is dulling. Around 11am, I notice an influx of shoppers. At lunch, I stand outside and count cars in the parking lot. Easily 150 cars are parked near the store. Like me, my assistant manager parks in the middle of the parking lot, leaving the convenient spaces for customers. I kill my last few minutes inside, my feet on a chair in the breakroom.

November 3 A friend agrees vehemently when I say I work in America. The sensation feels stronger since George W. Bush won this week’s US presidential election. America is a place that votes for a president who stands up for the outsourcing of US jobs to India. During training, Barb said that Wal-Mart tries to buy Canadian-made products, but there aren’t any in HBA. I think the electric razors are made in Pakistan.

November 4 I ask Barb for a copy of my contract. All it said is that I have been hired, and that they can fire me or I can quit without giving notice. When she asks why, I say, “For my records.” She tells me it’s Wal-Mart property and not supposed to leave Wal-Mart. I meet a woman who’s been in Housewares since this store opened three years ago, and whose name is mostly worn off her nametag. Says she’s happy she was never trained on cash. Like most people here, she seems apathetic about working at Wal-Mart.

The number of people shopping inside staggers me. At lunch, I count more than 200 parked cars. If each car represents a customer who stays for an hour and spends $100, that’s $2,000 in sales per hour. Not an unrealistic figure. I try to use my 10 percent associate discount after work, but I can’t bear to buy anything. I feel like a pastry chef shopping for cake.

November 5 The department manager in Pantry, an elfish woman who looks even more like an elf because of the promotional Shrek cap she’s wearing, is like my sponsor in this new country. She shows me the ropes—the HBA page in this week’s flyer—and helps me tag my shelves with Advertised signs. She assures me that I will be asked to stay past Christmas. The former HBA manager, the woman who trained me back on Day One, also stops by and makes the point of telling me “Good job!” Her eyes flash to a woman pawing through the expensive straight razors and whispers to me, suspiciously, “Isn’t that funny?” She’s warning me about theft, I slowly realize. Mostly, I try not to think about Loss Prevention; I feel strongly like I am being watched—a black globe camera hangs over every department, including this one. “Fake” customers—frequently, young men wearing hip-hop clothing and sunglasses—walk by often.

I task and absorb the Wal-Mart lingo: using Jewellery’s equipment, I “gator-tag” the $100 electric razors with white tags and extremely sharp tacks; I place toppers and backers—large signs, visible from both the front and back, that say things like “As Advertised” or “Holiday Savings”—on the end displays; I fill and then re-fill the Four-Ways—they have shelves that face in each direction—and the PDQs (as in, pretty darn quick) in the main aisles. I ask my assistant manager for a day off next week, which is no problem. A woman I meet in the breakroom tells me she has 20 years experience in retail and six months at Wal-Mart, but she’s only part-time because they start everyone that way. After work, I try again to shop. A woman giving out pop samples in the aisle asks customers to sign a giant birthday card for Wal-Mart. I leave. I come home tired and cranky, confused.

Wal-mart has big things to celebrate. The retail giant was number one on the Fortune 500 list this year, with 2004 sales of more than $288 billion, about 11 percent higher than the previous year. Four years ago, Wal-Mart bumped out ExxonMobil for the position. Never before had the retail sector produced America’s most powerful company. With 1.4 million employees worldwide, Wal-Mart now has a workforce that exceeds that of four other American empires combined: GE; IBM; the leading car manufacturer, GM, which, like Wal-Mart, outsources manufacturing; and its chief rival, Ford. But each of those four employs a unionized workforce.

What stops Wal-Mart workers from unionizing? Do unions for the retail sector have an image problem? Not so, says Atlantic rep Tim Hosford, who points the finger at Wal-Mart: “They more or less say, ‘If you don’t like it you can always leave,’ which collectively speaks volumes. Intentionally, it creates high turnover, an unbalanced workplace.” Hosford says employees feel powerless because as an employer, “Wal-Mart can do what wants to whom. I talk to women all the time who say, ‘But now I’m in sports—what the hell do I know about sports? Hard-working people want to do a good job; they want to be satisfied.”

How many people does UFCW hear from? In December, Hosford said they’d got about 100 calls back from their flier distribution campaign. At the protest earlier this month, he said the number had climbed—he says his office now gets calls daily from Wal-Mart associates in Atlantic Canada. Neither he nor MacKenzie has any national figures.

November 9 Week two. My sponsor asks me why I wasn’t at work yesterday. I say I took the day off for another job. She said things were crazy yesterday. There’s a cake in the lunchroom. No one I ask knows what it is for. A cashier says they usually have two— one for morning, one for evening staff—when someone leaves. There are fruit flies on it. A chipper male associate notices this. When the four of us don’t respond, he calls us depressing. I don’t think anyone will give me a cake when I leave. I try but I realize I can’t count the number of people I talk to in a day. A male associate who works in Pantry tells me he often doesn’t take his breaks or he comes back early. I gather that’s his way of exerting some control over his time. I come home and listen to Patti Smith’s Piss Factory. Loud.

November 10 I start eating lunch in Halifax Shopping Centre, where I meet a retired woman from St. John’s, Newfoundland, which she says has a new Wal-Mart off a new circumferential highway in a new big-box store area.

November 11 I earn time-and-a-half because I am working the holiday. I don’t really feel like I work here and I wouldn’t care if I was fired, but I don’t want to let down my assistant manager. The duty manager opens our day with the closest thing to a Wal-Mart cheer I have witnessed yet: “We had a poor day yesterday. Projected figures were 196,000 and what we had was 144,000.” Units or dollars, profits or revenue, I’m not sure which and I never ask. He says yesterday’s tax-free day at Mic Mac Mall “really hurt us.” In the breakroom, I see a cashier with nose, lip and eyebrow rings who caught my eye the day I dropped off my application. She seems not to fit in either. Mostly she is alone, quiet, watching. Maybe one day she will write about this year as the worst of her life, I think, watching her head toward the Tim Hortons across the empty parking lot after work.

November 12 Easily more than 250 cars in the parking lot at noon. The CBC business digest says consumer confidence is down this Christmas. Shopping should take a hit. Frequently, disoriented customers ask for directions, but a stranger in a blue vest stops me while I’m pushing a cart full of empty boxes to the compacter and grabs my arm: “I’m lost,” he exclaims. “Can you tell me where my coat is? Where is Layaway??” Maybe he's been lost for years?

in her study of the class-action lawsuit by Wal-Mart workers, Liza Featherstone points out one likely, but also ironic, key to Wal-Mart’s success: poor Wal-Mart workers feel solidarity with the Wal-Mart customers, the aspect of the job they enjoy the most.

November 15 Week three. I have my most difficult customer today, the kind who makes me want to cry. “I’m looking for ALCOHOL-FREE mousse for dry hair,” she fumes, angrily tugging at her bleached white hair under a Russian muff. I have felt the powerful urge to cry after work, but no customer before her has ever made me cry. Why would anyone expect someone working at Wal-Mart to know anything? I spend an inordinate amount of time searching for her approval. Other Wal-Mart employees would refuse, or they answer customers quickly. Maybe I would become brusquer given time.

I wonder if anyone is going to pull me on to the carpet because I am always late. Today I am late by less than five minutes; Friday I was very late. But it registers that I really have been trained: for the first time, I anticipate initialing a safety book hanging off a carpeted column before 11am. I ask to leave early today. The duty manager I call says: “Just don’t make a habit of it.” Lunch: about 150 cars and a large pile of snow in the parking lot following this weekend’s storm. A woman in Layaway lets me in on a secret: because the profit margin in HBA is low, the store won’t hire a second employee.

The store manager, who tours the store every morning trailed by a dog-pack of assistant managers—who wear suits, and therefore seem to have more rewarding jobs than mine—asks me to report back to him today about the hair-dye stock. I don’t. No one mentions it. The assistant managers, two women and two men. Someone fixes the PA music today. Top 40 songs from the ’80s play very loud. I have a headache when I leave.

November 16 Exactly the same songs on the PA as yesterday, played at exactly the same times. The former HBA manager teaches me the word “plug”: I didn’t properly “zone” the hair-dye yesterday. I just “plugged” all the holes, or empty shelf spaces, willy-nilly with product I took off the risers. I say I will fix things tomorrow. She asks me to tell her I am happy with my job because she really wants me to stay. I balk. She says Wal-Mart is really important to her because “If it does well, I do well.” She’s referring to the stock investment program. Is it a good thing that Wal-Mart has that? People like Barb get enough money to pay their auto insurance in February, but aren’t these programs a little like miners being forced to buy from the company store? Or at least, aren’t they an illusory reason to stick around?

I lie to the MBA grad from India today when he asks me how I like the job. “I will be honest,” he says. “I am unhappy.” In addition to his part-time job in Electronics, he’s working nights at Dal as a research engineer, and he plans to quit here next week. I feel badly that he thinks I like numbers and Wal-Mart.

“Four weeks,” Barb repeats when I fill out an exception sheet to get tomorrow and Friday off. I need to give four weeks notice although I’ve been here less than three. My assistant manager wants to know if this is a regular thing. I explain I have other work, and that I would understand if he made me choose. Perhaps sensing my choice, he tells me I can have Wednesdays off and asks me if I want to make it up on the weekend. I can’t. I share my second break with the box office cashier, who is cold from standing at the register closest to the front door. She says she has arthritis in her hips and shouldn’t stand all day, not even on the rubber mat at every register. It hit me yesterday, too, that it’s harder to stand on concrete than it is to walk on it. A customer was educating me on rechargeable versus electric razors; I wanted to scream in pain. I feel like I’m a character in 1984 or The Handmaid’s Tale, trapped in a dystopia where people call one another “associates.”

November 17 It’s easier to talk to strangers than to run into people I know here. An elderly shopper from Bridgewater tells me there’s a Wal-Mart opening on highway 103. He shows me the two cans of Adorn hairspray I helped him find, explaining that in downtown Bridgewater they would cost his wife an extra $3. He says he’s looking forward to Wal-Mart opening because it will re-route traffic away from his home. He says more than 1,000 people applied for those jobs. His innocence staggers me. I still meet new associates: today, a Filipino man who borrows my ladder and shows me pictures of his children he carries around his neck. My first paycheque: $419.32. I pay for my lateness. I worked 63.32 hours, or 0.18 hours less than I thought.

November 22 Week four. A new HBA department manager has been hired. She drops by to introduce herself, says she’s heard a lot of good things about me. She’s not working today, but Wal-Mart employees get 20 percent off today. In the breakroom, I overhear another woman say she’s using her vacation pay to cover Christmas shopping expenses.

November 23 I hear a bonafide Wal-Mart cheer for the first time because I’ve waded through the customers hovering outside at five to eight. “Give me an A!...A!” The sound is coming from the McDonalds restaurant. “Give me an R!... R! Give me a T!...T! What’s that spell?... Wal-Mart!” An older woman shakes her head. “Who’s that?” I ask, laughing. “Oh, fools,” she tells me. Department managers and the keeners? My department manager, an attractive, 20-something, cheerful woman, is hard-working. She’s absorbing the read-outs on her inventory gun and checking in with me often. It’s her first day in the position, and she seems to really want to do well at her job. I want to tell her I’m quitting. I should tell her boss first, but I can’t find him. Barb tells me he is off today. I ask her whom I should tell that I am making this week my last. She is sorry to hear this and says I can talk to any other assistant manager. I can’t find one when I leave the store at 4pm, but I feel like I have given my notice.

November 25 My assistant manager already knows I quit when I see him, and he says he understands. A loud woman in the breakroom moans that she hates Cheque Day. “The store floods with welfare cases,” she says. I hate it, but this comment makes me look differently at two young women pushing strollers through the store.

November 26 I imagined spending my last day fighting my way across a line of Buy Nothing Day protestors, except there are none. The female associates in Pantry and Jewellery say they heard I am leaving and they ask why. I repeat the same true line: “I have too much on my plate right now.” At the end of the day, no one says good-bye.

The day after I quit, I read that Wal-Mart will permit its Chinese stores to unionize. A Wal-Mart spokesperson denies that the company has an anti-union policy: “Our global policy is to work within the laws of individual countries.” Three days later, just over half of the 17 of Wal-Mart employees in the Tire and Lube Express department in Loveland, Colorado, sign union cards, becoming the first American employees to do so since Wal-Mart quashed the efforts of a meat-packaging department in a Texas store. It employs 25 percent more people than my Wal-Mart.

The Advertiser in Kentville reports that the Raging Grannies peace activist group demonstrated in front of the New Minas Wal-Mart, taking aim at the corporation’s internal labour practices, use of sweatshop manufacturing labour, low wages and effect on local competition.

In January, Report on Business Magazine expresses a different point of view: it names Wal-Mart the best retail employer in Canada for the fourth year, crediting Wal-Mart’s shareholder program, internal promotion, ability to attract more than 10 applications for every position in a new store and “world-renowned program of open communication.” That’s the kind of ammunition that Wal-Mart goes looking for in January when it kicks off a two-week advertising campaign “to set the record straight” by buying full-page ads in 100 US newspapers. Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott issues a vague statement—“There are a lot of ‘urban legends’ going around these days about Wal-Mart, but facts are facts”—pointing to Wal-Mart’s community involvement, domestic products and hiring practices. Two months later, Wal-Mart invites a press junket that includes reporters from papers like the Washington Post to tour its inner sanctum in Bentonville, Arkansas. In two days, reporters—without microphones or television cameras—are schooled in the Wal-Mart perspective on, among other things, unionization.

Wal-Mart critics agree that until governments put the teeth back in labour legislation, Wal-Mart employees probably won’t get unionized. But so far, the will to be unionized is coming more from the unions than it is from the employees. Like Ehrenreich, I think workers are too bored to care. Perhaps the Dukes case will mobilize them after it goes to trial in the United States. And if Wal-Mart employees in Quebec and BC get certified, their resolve might spill over to Atlantic Canada. But until then, whatever else happens is only public education.

January 14 I dream that I started work again at Wal-Mart. Barb is surprised, but I explain that I never meant to leave forever. “We Work for You. Always.” The slogan seems to have stuck.

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