What’s It Like to Work at Walmart?

Walmart, Montreal
Walmart store in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. Photo credit: Bobby Hidy / Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Reading Time: 17 minutes

French Canadian journalist Hugo Meunier specializes in “immersion reporting.” He spent three months working at a Walmart store and offers an insider’s account of the plight of low-paid worker bees who stock the shelves and endure abuse from bargain-hunting shoppers.

In this WhoWhatWhy podcast interview, Meunier explains the training and indoctrination he received, as well as the company’s attempts to motivate workers with daily reports on store sales and repeated dangling of a $2,000 annual performance bonus. Employees are required to watch training videos and attend morning meetings that include a ritual Walmart cheer.

Meunier offers some amusing stories from his Walmart experience, and details the sinister side of the world’s biggest retailer. For instance, during the peak sales month of December, he and his fellow “associates” saw their hours cut in an effort to improve the corporate bottom line. The workers’ loss of income was especially painful during the holidays.

Hugo Meunier’s book, Walmart: Diary of an Associate (Fernwood Publishing), has just been released in English.


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Full Text Transcript:

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Peter B. Collins: Welcome to another Radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. In San Francisco, I’m Peter B. Collins. Now, I don’t happen to be a regular patron of Walmart, there isn’t one close to me, but I have darkened their doors on occasion, and I often wonder what it’s like to put on one of those vests and put in eight or ten hours on the floor, at your local Walmart.
Well, Hugo Meunier, who is a Quebec-based journalist, he wrote for 10 years at La Presse and was also director of digital content for Quebecor. His specialty is immersion journalism or infiltration, or going undercover, and he spent about 90 days working at a Walmart outside Montreal. Hugo, welcome to the podcast.
Hugo Meunier: Thanks for having me. Good.
Peter B. Collins: Well, it’s really great to talk with you, and your book, I think, is a first- person account of what it’s like to work for minimum wage, for the largest retailer in the world. Tell us what prompted you to try this. You’re kind of a serial infiltrator. One of your most famous was that you snuck into Justin Trudeau’s wedding.
Hugo Meunier: Yeah.
Peter B. Collins: And covered it. So, why did you choose Walmart as your next target?
Hugo Meunier: Mostly because Walmart was in Quebec for 20 years, the moment I decide to go inside Walmart, and because, basically, everything had been said about Walmart. At first, when the company come in Quebec, a lot of people demonize Walmart. They said they will eat all the small company around, which it does.
Peter B. Collins: Yes.
Hugo Meunier: It’s kind of the way for a lot of shops. The idea was, okay, now that we talk a lot about Walmart at first when they arrive, what’s more to say? The main idea was from … I have someone in my family, worked for Walmart for 15 years, and she was talking, complaining at the Christmas party about air-condition, about the amount of work that she has to do every day for a pitiful salary. And I decide why not go in there, because my reality was so far from that. We were planning the Christmas party at La Presse, which was indecent how many money we put in that party, and I was comparing with my relative, and she was saying, “Yeah, but we have nothing. They just gave us some chip from the store,” and all this stuff.
Then, I said, “Yeah, well, maybe there’s something to do about the job.” But the main idea was not to demonize Walmart. I think that that job already had been done before. The main idea was to put my shoe in the same as an employee who work at the minimum wage, which I did for three months full-time, which was a pretty intense experience. It feels strange to work that much for so less money.
Peter B. Collins: Yeah. Well, the psychology of all of it, I think is fascinating. You describe in the book how in the very beginning, the job application includes a kind of personality test, and they’re weeding out people who won’t buy into the Walmart dream. That by slaving away at minimum wage, there’s going to be the opportunity to rise to the top and become a Walmart manager or even an executive in Bentonville, Arkansas. And of course, the numbers don’t bear that out but that doesn’t prevent them from dangling the promise.
Hugo Meunier: No, I think it’s mostly the pure definition of the American dream because when we get there at first, for the interview, we were in the basement of the store, and so, we were a dozen candidates, and there were three managers who came with their tie and their nice shirt, and they were with their pad, and they were taking notes. It was really serious, and I underestimate how serious it was to get to Walmart. I thought it would be piece of cake, but they take the exercise so seriously. We were there for two hours and there’s a lot of personality test. They want to see if you are a good follower, they want yes man, they don’t want people who will ask too much question, I guess. And they talk to you about this impossible fact that one of the future CEO of Walmart could be in that room, which in reality, it’s not happening because I think everybody who work at the higher level in Walmart are people who have degrees and diploma in great university in the United State, MBA and all this stuff.
So, they were starting to sell dream, which is not possible. And also, I have this image of how I get in Walmart. It’s somewhere in between of the army and Walt Disney, because they have all these funny approach like you might have heard about the cheering song every morning, which is true. So, every morning, we were clapping our hand and singing the Walmart song. So, they tried to put an-
Peter B. Collins: Can you give us a couple of phrases from the Walmart song, Hugo?
Hugo Meunier: Yeah, but-
Peter B. Collins: I’ve never heard it.
Hugo Meunier: Basically, you have to clap your hand and repeat all letter of Walmart. So, W-A-L, you clap your hand and you have to shout, “Walmart,” at the end, and where’s the best store, it’s in Montreal, Saint Leonard. You have to cheer for your own store. I think everybody and all the employee of the Walmart around the globe do the same thing, adapt to their local store.
Peter B. Collins: You mentioned a comparison to Disney.
Hugo Meunier: Yeah.
Peter B. Collins: And that reminds me of the Mickey Mouse Club theme song where they spell it out. M-I-C-K-E-Y.
Hugo Meunier: Yeah, probably, except nobody was Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears at my store so far.
Peter B. Collins: And Hugo, one of the things that really strikes me, that defines the wealth and income gap in the United States and in other countries as well, is that Walmart is so profitable. They earn billions of dollars every year, yet they pay their employees at the lowest possible rate, and they dangle small amounts of cash as an annual bonus to try to get people to just act like sheep, and follow all the instructions and take pride as if they … They kind of make the claim that employees are stakeholders, but they’re clearly not shareholders who actually benefit from the massive profits that are generated.
Hugo Meunier: Yeah, for sure. In that point of view, Walmart, it’s a perfect machine because the price are cheap for real. If you go to Walmart, you can do your shopping there, you can do your grocery there, and you will pay less than any place around because they have this power, because a supplier or a big company like Heinz, Kraft, they want to put Walmart on their list of customers who can-
Peter B. Collins: So, Hugo, what you’re mentioning, I think is really significant because Walmart really flipped the paradigm in terms of being able to force its suppliers to deliver merchandise at a certain price point, and in order to deliver the lowest retail price, Walmart grinds its suppliers and that, in turn, pushes the entire production and manufacturing processing chain to lower its cost.
Hugo Meunier: That’s it, I-
Peter B. Collins: And it becomes a whole race to the bottom.
Hugo Meunier: Yeah, that’s it, and I think the word enslave is not too far, because the Walmart have now the power to enslave those supplier, those company to them. Because if you are a company, and you have a contract with Walmart, it’s the jackpot for you, you want to be in Walmart. For every project now, even library. We have in the store I was working, there was a huge library department and if you are an author, and you release your book, you want to go in Walmart. If your book going in Walmart, you will become instantly a best-seller. Unfortunately, my book didn’t go at Walmart, which would have been a good thing.
Peter B. Collins: Yeah, somehow, I imagine-
Hugo Meunier: But, yeah.
Peter B. Collins: … they wouldn’t see it as a good product for their patrons.
Hugo Meunier: But seriously, because there’s really wise people in Walmart, and I thought these people, it’s money talk and maybe if they … I won’t be that surprised if they sold my book at Walmart. That would be proving that they are genius, they are not just stupid, and I don’t think I hurt their feeling with my book. Now that it’s translate in English, I don’t know, maybe somebody in Bentonville will heard about it. But I think in Montreal, it was cute, it was nice book, but the parking lot of every Walmart around your home, my home, are still busy today and there’s customer all along. But the model changed. Now, we form a generation of employee who are poor working class, so the employee in Walmart, now with this economic system, it’s poor employee that work in that system, compared to the mid ’50s with the car industry-
Peter B. Collins: Right.
Hugo Meunier: … who was producing middle class employee. So, it’s completely different. And one thing that is important, interesting, is every associate, so-called associate employee in Walmart are customer of Walmart because they don’t have enough money to go somewhere else, so a lot of … I was amazed to see that every day, after the shift, I saw my colleague, fellow colleague would take a caddy, and they just do their grocery, and they bought their Christmas present for their kid. So, all the money, the few money they get from this company are reinvested in the same company, which is mind-blowing.
Peter B. Collins: Yeah. Yeah. Now, Hugo, because your resume included some experience working at a supermarket when you were a young man, you got a signing bonus when you started working at Walmart. Explain the mechanics of the pay scale.
Hugo Meunier: Yeah, it’s funny because the pay scale, it’s … Nobody has the same salary, and I think they don’t encourage us to talk to each other because … to not discover that everybody have different salary, and me, I have five years in a grocery store when I was a teenager, it was a student job. So, they calculate that each year is 20 cents experience that they can put on my new salary.
Peter B. Collins: Yeah.
Hugo Meunier: So, with five years, I have $1 more, but I make a friend there in three month, which is a good thing. And she was a mother, she never worked. It was her first job, and she was the mother of a girl of five, and they calculate, which is cute, they calculate that each year of maternity, it’s 20 cents. So, she had $1 bonus too because of their motherhood experience.
Peter B. Collins: And in general, you’re not supposed to be talking to the other employees, the so-called associates, except about where’s the peanut butter. Right?
Hugo Meunier: Yeah. They don’t encourage to talk about our condition, and of course, my job as an infiltrator was to be low profile as possible, so my boss, [Klap Geiz 00:13:10], warned me to not talk about union, to not be the local cheergiver of the store, so to be the more low profile possible. But I was there three month, and we never speak of a salary, we never speak of union, but of course, a lot of people complaining about their job because it’s a shitty job. It’s a hard job. You deserve every cent of your minimum wage, and I think I consider myself as somebody who worked a lot. I mean, I’m not afraid of working but I never see that amount of job in a job so far, and I work to a lot of job before, but it was the first time I saw a job that they put me new responsibility every week. After three month in my dairy … I was in the dairy and frozen department, I was the more ancient employee, and I have all the responsibility.
I was in charge of the forklift, I was in charge of the youth, the teenager, the students because I was older. I was in charge of supervising them, and I was, of course, taking care of the customer, which is the worst part.
Peter B. Collins: And Hugo, you mentioned unions and that you’re forbidden to talk about that. You explain in the book that they put you through a series of training modules that are boring and repetitious, but one of them that was about unions included these very strong, pro-management messages. “Unions cannot guarantee higher wages or better benefits, or your employment, or the number of hours worked, or prevent terminations, or set job standards. They can only collect fees, fines and assessments, negotiate and strike.”
Now, that isn’t fair to unions but that is the management perspective, and they really cram it down your throat when you work at Walmart.
Hugo Meunier: Yeah, and they don’t talk about union. The few time that you heard about it, it’s pure evil for them. It’s the demon entirely. The line of Walmart always been the same, it’s union, they don’t work for the employee, they work for themself, they are a business, which, some of those idea might be a little bit true to some field in our era. The union don’t do the same job that they were doing in the mid ’50 or mid ’60, but still, they were prevent …
Because it was pretty easy to figure what would be the worst case scenario with union in Quebec, especially in Quebec because the only union attempt so far was in Jonquiere, which is a city in Quebec, and Walmart closed the store because when they get the union accreditation, which was the first one ever, so, it was always … This threat was there, so you don’t talk about union because everybody knew that if you unionize, they will close the store, which they already have done. So, I think they are not bullshitting with this.
Peter B. Collins: And Hugo, how did they use corporate headquarters to mess with your head? For example, do they repeatedly say, “Well, Bentonville won’t like this. Well, in Bentonville, we couldn’t even talk about this?” Do they use the remote executives and company brass in this kind of mythical way to browbeat the employees?
Hugo Meunier: Yeah. You understand after one or two weeks, that the manager on the store, on the floor, they are not controlling nothing. At first, when you arrive there, there’s manager in every department and there’s the director of the store but after a while, you understand that they are just puppet for people up there in Bentonville, and at our first … For us, they have this head office in Canada, so it was always the Toronto people. People from Toronto, they come to visit the store, so we have to clean all the store, we have to prepare for their visit. Sometime it was a surprise visit, so we have to working fast. I have an example, sometime one day, we have this big place right in front of the entrance, there were chocolate bars. Kit Kat and [Winury 00:18:12], and they ask me to replace those chocolate with better chocolate like Ferrero Rocher, more quality chocolate because the people from Toronto, they were coming and they want to see something cute, a good chocolate.
So, it was like this, and when you complain a little bit about how hard is the job, which everybody was doing all the time, they were putting the responsibility on people in Toronto, on the pressure that they have, from the people in Toronto, from the people in Bentonville, which was real pressure, I’m sure, 100%. I think that manager in my store were scared to death of people in Toronto, and those people in Toronto, I’m sure they were scared from people in Bentonville because the money that Bentonville have for their budget to work this big system, it’s crazy. I think I’ve read and I think I put it in my book that it was something equal with the budget of the NASA.
Peter B. Collins: Yeah.
Hugo Meunier: And it’s crazy, if you have a freezer broke and the temperature is going below, you have to call Bentonville. Everything is paid up by Bentonville.
Peter B. Collins: Now, tell us a little bit more about this. So, is there some sort of massive control room in Bentonville where they-
Hugo Meunier: Yeah.
Peter B. Collins: … have alarms that go off if the diary freezer at your store, outside Montreal, the temperature rises too high?
Hugo Meunier: That’s correct. If there’s a freezer broke, you have to call Bentonville, so, it’s the first time … Before I heard about Bentonville, in Arkansas, I was told, the first time they were mentioned that name is because there was a freezer who was broken. They said, “Okay, we’ll need to call Bentonville on that.” And that Bentonville, I already knew it and they will manage it by distance. Because I was serious in my investigation, so I visit Bentonville to see … I want to go in the nest.
Peter B. Collins: Right.
Hugo Meunier: And when you arrive there in Arkansas, it’s pretty strange because you talk about a evil company like the Mordor in Lord of the Ring or something. But when you arrive there, it’s beautiful. It’s a peaceful community. The main office in Bentonville, it’s not a huge building with several floor. It just one flat building and there’s a cow in the field around. It’s a beautiful place. I talked to a lot of people there and they’re so proud of Walmart. They’re proud about it. It’s the American dream. A lot of people living there see the Walton family a lot, they were there to witness Sam Walton who’s cutting his hair at the same place, even when he was super rich. They see Sam Walton driving with his old truck, with the dogs in the truck.
So, this community, the sentiment was, I think pretty real. People were happy, were proud about the company, but the moment you go further from the company like in Montreal, you don’t feel this community sense. You lost it completely. But I can believe and I can understand that when you are two foot in Bentonville, yeah, it’s quite a success story for them.
Peter B. Collins: Is there any acknowledgement? I don’t expect there is but I got to ask you this anyway, because the original mission of Walmart was to provide low prices on American made goods, and that was the original premise. And at some point, it was in the 1980s, after they’d had this explosive expansion, they decided to start importing products from China, and it really led to a decline in the quality of consumer goods in the United States, but most people are more interested in low prices than better quality.
Hugo Meunier: It’s interesting, the point you bring, because I think that their primary mission is made because, for sure, it’s cheaper than everywhere else, and if you go to the nearest Walmart after this interview, the parking lot will be full and people will be there, and they … Yeah, I saw the difference on my bill of the grocery and all this stuff, but I was lucky enough in life that I never need to go to Walmart, and by principle now, I won’t go to Walmart. But I cannot condemn people who go there, but I think the main problem, it’s a vicious circle because you need to go to Walmart but by doing that, you’re keeping this poor class of employee. So, it’s more a moral question to go there, or not for me but for a lot of people, they go to Walmart because it’s cheaper and they have no other place to go if they want to spend their money.
Peter B. Collins: So, Hugo, you spent 90 days, roughly, working at Walmart, and your final day was the day after Christmas, Boxing Day, which is one of those incidents where the consumers often get out of control. They line up early, they act like a herd of cattle, stampeding into the store when the doors are opened, and the kind of humiliation that you experience as a Walmart associate, can you give us a quick description of that?
Hugo Meunier: Yeah. Imagine you might have worked to some shitty job when you were young, imagine the worst customers and they all go to Walmart. It’s the worst I ever seen because that was Sam Walton wish, he said that the real owner of Walmart are the customers. So, I have this quote to say that the customers, they are our real owner, employer, and they can fire us by not coming to our store. So, this is the reason why the manager always talk to us about … to be so polite and gentle with the customer. And when they say something, you have to agree with the customer, even when they stole. Because I saw a lot of customer who go there, and they just open boxes, and try the new crackers because it’s okay. And when you ask him to stop doing that, he said, “Come on, you make so much money here. It’s just one box.”
And he’s right, we make money and it’s just one box. But they are rude and it’s pretty intense, and I think I underestimate a lot the customer experience, which is in one day, you can talk to 200 people in the same day, and more than half them are pissed at you, pissed about everything because they don’t find their product and because they … I don’t know, they have their life and they go there, and I think the associate of Walmart, it’s at the bottom of the chain for them, and I don’t know, they pass their frustration on them. But yeah, I was working at the Boxing Day, which was the worst. I don’t know if you ever seen The Walking Dead, the TV show but-
Peter B. Collins: Sure.
Hugo Meunier: They were there outside, before we opened the door at one o’clock in the afternoon, for Boxing Day, and there were hundreds of people waiting and we can see them through the door, and it was frightening. When they go inside, they rush to the electronic, and they just rush, and you can see on YouTube, some riot video of the Boxing Day in Walmart. It’s pretty frightening. You have a glimpse of what will happen if the Apocalypse start, but-
Peter B. Collins: Well, it makes the Run of the Bulls in Pamplona, Spain, seem safe, compared to a stampede at a Walmart on a sale day.
Hugo Meunier: Yeah, it’s something like that.
Peter B. Collins: And Hugo, one of the things that really struck me in the final pages of your book, as you’re describing what happens during the Christmas holidays, this is when retail makes its nut for the year. And yet, you describe how these minimum wage employees see their hours cut during the holidays when they need more money to buy gifts for their family, and enjoy something of a break, and yet, Walmart, ruthlessly, will cut the hours of many people, and that seems counter-productive. I mean, it’s the time of year when they’re making massive profits, why do they put that squeeze on the workforce?
Hugo Meunier: Yeah. I never seen that before and I was surprised, because I thought it was something that happening only this year, and that was a special moment or something. But a older employee told me that, no, it’s like that every year because they want to fit in their budget. So, they’re starting to cut just before Christmas, and I was looking for a reason to drop this job because after three month, my boss at La Presse, she said, “Okay, it’s enough. Come back.”
So, I have to put my resignation, but it was easy to … I thought it will be hard to get out of there but I just have to talk about the fact that they cut half of my hour, and they know that I have two children, and it was a real reason to quit, even if I was not a journalist infiltrate. I could not stay there if I was there for real. I cannot work 20 hours at $11 per hours, to make a living for my family. But they’re doing that all the time, and a lot of employee, they were telling me, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, you just have to … It’s a rough period but after Christmas, they will get their budget and we’ll be fine, we’ll get the maximum hours.”
Peter B. Collins: Now, I understand that after your 90-day stint there at Walmart, and just to be clear to our listeners, you were still being paid as a journalist.
Hugo Meunier: Yeah.
Peter B. Collins: You actually donated your Walmart earnings to charity.
Hugo Meunier: Yeah. Ethically, I cannot have the two salary, so I gave it all, which was nothing. It was $4,136 for three months but full-time work, which I lucky enough to have more than that at my job at La Presse. But yeah, ethically, we cannot keep it, so I donated to a charity organization in Montreal.
Peter B. Collins: Not the Walmart Foundation?
Hugo Meunier: They don’t need my help. They’re good.
Peter B. Collins: Well, Hugo, I have enjoyed talking with you. Thanks for sharing your experience, and I want to recommend your book. It’s a short read and the voice of the book is fun. You have a kind of lighthearted approach to this very sinister work environment, and I think that makes for a very interesting read.
Hugo Meunier: Yeah, thank you so much. I’ll try to be as naïve as possible, when I was writing it, and the main idea was not to demonize Walmart. It was just to talk about the employee that work in Walmart, which we should be grateful to have them, and we should be gentle when we go there because they are not earning enough to get the fussy client and rude client.
Peter B. Collins: The book is Walmart, Diary of an Associate, and we’ve been talking with Hugo Meunier. Thank you, Hugo.
Hugo Meunier: Thank you very much.
Peter B. Collins: Thanks for listening to this radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. Send your comments to Peter at peterbcollins.com. And if you’re in a position to support WhoWhatWhy, consider making a contribution to support the investigative journalism here.

Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Fernwood Publishing and JJBers / Flickr  (CC BY 2.0).

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