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US Experts Split on Wal-Mart's Flexible Business Model


Experts disagreed Tuesday whether Wal-Mart is a good or bad employer in the United States. VOA's Barry Wood reports on a forum on Wal-Mart's economic impact at Washington's American Enterprise Institute.

It is not only low consumer prices that have made Wal-Mart the world's biggest and most profitable retailer. The company's business practices emphasize productivity, efficiency and computerization.

Political analyst Michael Barone says this flexible business model discourages unionization, which is part of the reason why American trade unions are fighting Wal-Mart.

He said, "They [Wal-Mart] want to call everybody associates [instead of employees]. They have a lot of part-time as well as full-time workers."

"They don't put everyone in the vice where everyone has to have the same schedule, the same time, and so-forth. It's a relatively non-adversarial system in which you don't have elaborate work rules worked out in adversarial bargaining," he added.

But Wal-Mart also has many critics who say its business model is not beneficial to employees.

Andrew Grossman heads Wal-Mart Watch, a nationwide organization whose goal is to reveal what it calls the harmful impact of Wal-Mart. Grossman says that flexible schedules are detrimental to employees.

He said, "Basically, you [as a part-time employee] have no control over your own schedule. You don't set in consultation with a manager."

"They set it based on a computerized system of traffic flow in and out of the store. One week you might work on Tuesdays from nine to twelve, the next week, based on historical data, you might have to work only nine to ten," he added.

Richard Vedder, author of a new book on Wal-Mart, is generally laudatory of the company's practices. He says high worker productivity is the reason Wal-Mart has also become America's biggest food retailer.

"The main reason Wal-Mart has taken over that business, or become a dominant factor in that business, is the labor productivity data that the Department of Labor reports," he said. "It shows that productivity is rising much more in the new Super-Center segment of the business than in the traditional grocery stores."

Most U.S. supermarket chains are unionized. Wal-Mart is not.

Wal-Mart is under considerable pressure. Trade unions want to organize the company's more than one million U.S. employees, saying they are poorly compensated. Dissident female employees, backed by organized labor, are suing Wal-Mart for discrimination in pay and advancement.

But analyst Barone says Wal-Mart is likely to eventually win the battle for the loyalty of the American public. Its business model, he says, is steadily gaining support.