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Do We Need To Fear Oligarchs? Part 3.

The first day I reported for work at Walmart I had to choose between what the HR manager told me was a ‘front-end job,’ or a ‘rear-end job,’ A front-end job meant running a cash register, a read-end meant bringing goods out of the warehouse and stacking them on the shelves.

Both jobs paid the same $16 an hour, which was $4 above the minimum wage. I chose to run a cash register and after watching a video which was a very strong and clear message about respecting racial and ethnic differences both among the customers and the store staff, I was given a Walmart t-shirt, a Walmart vest and told to start cashing out customers and get to work.

During the interview and orientation process I also took a test in reading and math which seemed to be about a fourth-grade level, if that high. The cash register was attached to a scanner which added up the cost of every item I scanned, and all I had to do was make sure that every item in the shopping cart was on the total bill.

Took the customer’s money, punched the amount into the keyboard, and if necessary, made change. Of if the customer gave me a credit card, an ATM card or a food-stamp card I scanned it into my machine and off they went with whatever they bought.

In other words, my only skill requirement was to be able to work a keyboard with about as much reading skill as I would have by finishing the fourth or fifth grade.

If I had decided to take a back-end job, this would have meant walking into the warehouse, being give a list of items which needed to be displayed out on the floor, load up a cart with those items, roll the cart to wherever those items were displayed to be sold and stacked the items up neatly on the display shelf. Then scan each item with my handy scanner, the same kind of scanner that I used at the cash register and go back to the warehouse to reload my cart.

My Walmart store was considered a ‘small’ store. There were probably 30 people working in the front and back ends, another 6 or 7 watching them, another 2 or 3 watching the watchers. There were also 5-6 people walking around pushing brooms and mops to keep the floors clean ad someone watching them. At the store’s entrance there was a customer service area with 2 people whose job it was to accept returns which required them to scan the returned items before they were put back on the shelves. In the back of the store was a HR office with 2 staff, another office for the store manager and her assistant.

Somewhere else I the building were the maintenance crews and the staff that drove around in the warehouse on their forklifts to take the merchandise from the trucks that delivered inventory all day long but arrived more frequently before the day of a big sale.

I never got an exact count, but a store with somewhere around some 30,000 square yards of retail space (I actually walked it off one day) employed somewhere between 50 and 60 people on a full-time basis and maybe another 10 or so part-timers just in case some full-timer called in sick and needed to be temporarily replaced.

How many of this workforce had high school diplomas? You were asked to tell Wal Mart your educational experience, but nobody checked. There was also a sign in the HR area which said something about the company requiring a drug test, but nobody ever tested me. I had to sign a form which gave the company permission to run a background check but the check, if it was actually performed, only covered the state where I lived, and the store was located. If I had done 20 years for murder in another state, the background check wouldn’t have picked it up.

At the end of 2021, Walmart was operating 4,756 stores in the United States. The company employs somewhere around 1,500,000 workers of which at least half perform the kids of jobs that were performed in the store where I worked. The company also operates nearly 7,000 trucks which haul some 65,000 trailers around the country, which means at least another 10,000 workers driving and maintaining this fleet. The company also operates 160 warehouses with each location employing more than 600 personnel who load as many as 200 trailers every day.

These jobs at the stores, on the road and in the company warehouses basically require one skill – show up to work. According to experts in the field of workplace literacy, someone has ‘functional literacy’ when they can perform reading and math at a ninth-grade level. I didn’t need anywhere near that level to run a Walmart cash register.

The reason I could work at Walmart and probably at every other big-box chain retailer was because the kinds of skills that were necessary for retailing when I first entered the workforce in 1973 are no longer required now. These skills - managing inventory, sales, revenue and everything else including how many hours I worked every day is now managed through a digital connection between the handheld device which every Walmart employee either carries or already owns, because much of the personnel management is handled by apps which each employee loads on his/her phone.

Walk into a store to start your shift, and the first thing you do is go into an app on your phone and tell the app that you have arrived. You also submit the time to this app when you leave. In between, you use a store device either to record how much stuff you’ve moved from the warehouse to the display shelves, or how much money you have collected at a register and which items you have sold.

Every time that a store employee anywhere in a Walmart store submits any information, this data is sent through the internet cloud to some server farm which collects data for the 4,756 stores as they operate every day. Somewhere there is a database which grows by thousands of entries every hour and gives the company management a daily view of everything going on in the entire Walmart world from end to end.

I have no idea how many people are employed by Walmart to manage their system which gathers all this information but for sure it’s not a couple of geeks sitting around on the couch occasionally checking the internet connections while playing a video game. I worked for a Fortune 100 insurance company, managing their data center which was connected to 104 sales offices and was fed daily sales data from roughly 10,000 laptops and handheld devices, in other words, a virtual network that was at best one-tenth as big as the network linking all those Walmart stores.

We employed some 60 techies in our data center who weren’t getting paid $16 an hour, but started at $60,000 a year, and this was in 1998. How much education did these individuals need to qualify for this data center job? Two years at the local community college and then pass a certification test in basic IT.

When Robert Reich extols the virtues of new, small companies being able to enter the market and laments how the big guys get together to keep those small, innovative outfits on the outs, he might want to think about the fact that it’s those big, oligarchical companies whose need for moving vast amounts of data around has created an entirely new job category which didn’t exist forty years ago.

The U.S. tech industry currently employs roughly 12.5 million, a number which is expected to grow as more companies decide that the post-Pandemic work environment will continue to favor remote working which means more use of computing and more data moving across the web. This number represents at least 10 percent of the total workforce and many of these workers are earning twice what they would earn in any other job.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not trying to be an apologist for mercenary companies that create monopolistic environments in which to operate and squeeze their competitors so that they can enrich only themselves.

What I’m simply saying is the idea that ‘big’ means ‘bad’ was a catch-phrase back in the trust-busting days of Progressives like Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, but we need to be a little more nuanced and sophisticated when we think about economic trends and conditions today.

The world, thank God, does change and we need to consider whether how we describe the world also needs to change.

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