Protesters outside a Wal-Mart in Florida. (Joe Raedle / Getty Image )
New York —
Wal-Mart has been coming under a lot of fire lately. Two of its suppliers were found to have been making goods in a factory where 112 people died in Bangladesh, and employees throughout the country walked out of the store on one of the busiest retail days of the year to protest bad working conditions.
But the company, never a crowd favorite at worker-solidarity gatherings, may be trying to improve its image. In a speech to the National Retail Federation in New York on Tuesday, Chief Executive Bill Simon said the company would hire any returning veteran who wanted a job. He also said the company would buy more products from the U.S. and help more employees become full time.
It was the 2012 election and the gridlock in Congress that motivated Simon to introduce these initiatives, he said.
“The election clarified for me that it’s time for those of us outside politics to get to work,” he said. “I find it fascinating that during the campaign we all waited with bated breath each month for the government to tell us how many private-sector jobs were created. After all, it’s the private sector that creates jobs.”
Wal-Mart said it plans to hire more than 100,000 veterans over the next five years as part of a program to offer a job to “any honorably discharged veteran in his or her first 12 months off active duty.” Simon said veterans are often good employees, and that his company plans to begin hiring them after Memorial Day.
“Not every returning veterans wants to work in retail,” he said. “But every veteran who does will have a place to go.”
Veterans will be placed in jobs in stores, clubs, distribution centers and in the corporate office, he said.
"Hiring a veteran can be one of the best decisions any of us can make," he said. "Veterans have a record of performance under pressure. They're quick leaders and they're team players."
Some retail workers questioned whether veterans would want to work for Wal-Mart. They include Edgar Lucas, 38, a U.S. Army veteran who has worked for Wal-Mart and other retailers in New York.
"If you are looking out for the veterans, they need something that’s guaranteed 40 hours a week," he said. "They need to know their schedules."
"Everybody knows that Wal-Mart, they’ll work you 28 hours, make sure that you don’t get 40," he said.
Lucas, who lives in the Bronx, said most retail jobs are the same. He's been stringing together various such jobs, trying to get enough hours, knowing that he won't get benefits unless he gets to full time.
During Simon's speech, a group of protesters in the hall unveiled a banner that read, "NRF: Stop Clocking Out Workers, It's Time for Good Jobs and Just Hours." They chanted in the hall until they were escorted out. About 100 workers from various New York groups also protested outside.
"Workers are going to make sure that the kind of jobs that they’ve announced for veterans are the kind of jobs that workers need," said Yana Walton, a spokeswoman for Retail Action Project. "That means enough hours and living wages and jobs with benefits."
Simon defended Wal-Mart jobs during his speech.
“We’re all tired of retail jobs being put down, as if retail workers can’t judge for themselves what a good job is,” he said. “Some people say we don’t offer good jobs. I say this industry is the greatest engine of opportunity in the United States of America.”
Simon pledged to bring more transparency to the store’s scheduling system to allow part-time workers to choose their own hours, and said Wal-Mart would make internal changes to help part-timers become full time. He didn’t provide details about how the company would do that. He did say, however, that 75% of Wal-Mart’s store management started as hourly associates.
Simon concluded his speech by announcing that Wal-Mart and Sam’s Clubs will also increase what the companies buy in the United States, including sporting goods, games and paper products, which he said would help boost American manufacturing. The company plans to buy an additional $50 billion in U.S. products over the next 10 years, he said.
“I know according to urban legend Wal-Mart’s shelves are filled with foreign products,” he said. "But the truth may surprise you.”
About two-thirds of the company’s goods are made, grown or sourced in the United States, he said. By buying products made in the U.S., Simon said he hoped to nudge manufacturers to the “tipping point” where it no longer made sense to make products in Asia. Some manufacturers have told him privately, he said, that rising labor costs in Asia and increasing costs of oil and transportation have made manufacturing more expensive overseas than it once was.