The New York Times Does PR for Walmart

Are champagne bottles popping in Walmart’s public relations office? They should be, after the New York Times published a piece that so nakedly trumpets the company’s line on its “compassionate” managers that it reads like a Walmart press release.

A Walmart store on February 19, 2024, in Secaucus, New Jersey. (VIEWpress / Getty Images)

If you were a New York Times reporter writing a piece about whether the company’s management practices can accurately be called “compassionate,” you have a lot of recent examples to weigh. Last week, Walmart agreed to pay $70,000 to settle a disability discrimination lawsuit filed by the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The case concerns Luis Quiñones, an employee in South Carolina who has a prosthetic leg. According to the EEOC, the company violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) by revoking Quiñones’s right to use one of the store’s electric carts to perform some of his job duties, which he had been doing for seven months. Instead of finding reasonable accommodation for Quiñones, the company placed him on an indefinite unpaid leave. The big-box retailer has also agreed to offer Quiñones a position at one of its stores in the state.

The discrimination against Quiñones is just one of many alleged labor violations by the anti-worker megacorporation. Late last month, Region 10 of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) amended a consolidated complaint against a Walmart in Central, South Carolina, alleging that the company violated the National Labor Relations Act. The complaint alleges that Walmart maintained an unlawful policy limiting what a worker can record or photograph while in the workplace, instructed workers not to raise their safety concerns regarding its COVID mask policy in front of other employees, issued “warnings” and sent a worker home for engaging in protected concerted activities with other workers by photographing safety concerns related to Walmart’s COVID mask policy, and refused to remove “occurrences” (attendance points) from a worker’s file because said worker filed charges with the NLRB.

That’s just one of the company’s forty-seven hundred stores in the United States, an empire that makes it the country’s largest private employer, with a US workforce of 1.6 million. Elsewhere, Region 20 of the NLRB has issued a complaint against the company after alleged union busting at a Eureka, California, store. That complaint alleges that Walmart interrogated workers about their union activities in the break room, threatened workers if they continued to place pro-union flyers in the break room, and selectively and disparately removed the pro-union flyers from the break room table and tore them up in the presence of employees.

This is a continuation of complaints about Walmart going back decades, with the company prone to closing stores that become hot spots of organizing activity. The antipathy to worker organizing runs deep: as Walmart founder Sam Walton wrote in his autobiography, “I have always felt strongly that we don’t need unions at Wal-Mart.”

Walton engaged pioneering union-avoidance lawyer John Tate to codify this policy. “I hate unions with a passion,” Tate once said.

The company has a hotline for managers to call at the first sign of union activity and the inclusion of anti-union propaganda videos as part of employee orientation. As Martin Levitt, the coauthor of Confessions of a Union Buster who once consulted with Walmart, said, “I’ve never seen a company that will go to the lengths that Walmart goes to, to avoid a union.”

As Rick Wartzman recounts in Still Broke: Walmart’s Remarkable Transformation and the Limits of Socially Conscious Capitalism, in September 2004, a retired Tate told a crowd of Walmart executives, “Labor unions are nothing but blood-sucking parasites living off the productive labor of people who work for a living!” “The Walmart faithful rose to their feet, hooting and shouting their approval,” Wartzman wrote.

Walmart’s supply chain spans the globe, encompassing some hundred thousand suppliers. Abroad, the anti-worker allegations are worse. As one Bangladeshi union organizer told the New York Times in 2021, suppliers in that country do not pay a living wage, and management coaches workers on how to lie to the company’s auditors when they are asked about their working conditions. Bangladesh was the site of the worst disaster linked to the corporation: the April 2013 collapse of the Rana Plaza building that housed several garment factories, which killed more than one thousand people and injured many more. Victims and their families sued Walmart and several other retailers that sourced from those factories.

A 2015 report from the Asia Floor Wage Alliance, a coalition of unions and human rights organizations, found rampant abuses at the company’s suppliers in Cambodia, India, and Indonesia. Those abuses range from sexual harassment to wage theft to retaliation against worker organizing to unsafe working conditions.

The company’s anti-worker track record is long and serious, indicative of a corporate culture of ruthless repression of its workforce — and the polar opposite of anything you might call “compassionate.” Oddly, you wouldn’t know any of that if you read an article published Tuesday in the New York Times about the company’s new management training program, which reads as a barely massaged reprint of a Walmart press release. Headlined “Walmart Wants to Teach Store Managers Compassion,” the article looks at the company’s “Manager Academy,” a leadership-training program that began in July 2022.

Each week, the company flies groups of fifty managers from across the country to attend the training. About eighteen hundred managers participated last year, and twenty-two hundred are expected to participate this year. Upon arrival at Walmart headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas, the attendees learn that “Walmart’s success is possible only if the store managers take care of their workers and the customers and community where they operate.”

We are told that attendees “receive an hourlong tour around headquarters where passing executives stop and chat” — how generous of them, what a great company! — and that they take part in sessions about “how to make all of their workers, from the mechanics in the car repair department to the overnight shift workers mopping the floors and those restocking apples in the grocery department, feel as if they’re contributing to the bigger corporate mission.” We see portraits of Manager Academy attendees and hear from some of them thanks to “interviews arranged by Walmart.”

The program is a response to the labor turmoil of the pandemic, in which many workers came to understand that their employers care more about the bottom line than their employees’ health and well-being. The company has bumped pay to ensure retention: managers’ average base pay is now $128,000, plus stock options, while frontline workers make an average of $18 an hour. And Walmart is shoring up support and managerial unity through the training program.

But what of the workers that these managers are managing — the ones who will be the beneficiaries of their bosses’ newfound compassion? Business reporter Jordyn Holman gives a scant two paragraphs to allegations concerning Walmart’s exploitative labor practices, but the details we do briefly get are horrifying. We learn that a worker died during a shift in 2022 after her store manager told her to “pull herself together” when she asked to go home because the location was short-staffed. We do not learn her name, but it was Janikka Perry.

Donna Morris, Walmart Inc.’s “chief people officer,” declines to comment on the case but tells the reporter that “we always have a focus on making sure that our people are the first line of what a manager should think about.”

The reporter accepts that statement at face value and quickly moves on, writing that “Walmart isn’t the only company focused on getting its managers to think that way” before transitioning to a broader look at corporate America’s apparently growing “focus on compassionate leadership.” We receive no proof that this focus is more than mere talk, no consideration of whether Perry’s fate — which was, just to reiterate, dying while working at Walmart — is indicative of a pattern of corporate malfeasance or negligence rather than an isolated accident. We hear nothing of the NLRB cases, the alleged international supply chain abuses, or that Walmart agreed to reinstate a worker and pay him $70,000 for violating the ADA a mere five days before the New York Times published the article.

This is not journalism — it’s free advertising and corporate stenography for one of the country’s most notoriously anti-worker corporations, written and published by the most influential newspaper in the world that claims to hold itself to the highest standards in journalism.

There are two possibilities here: either the Times’ reporter is well-versed in Walmart’s laundry list of abuses (abuses that have become commonly known among millions of average Americans and covered repeatedly and in-depth by the Times itself) and simply chose not to evaluate whether the company’s empathy training does anything to ameliorate them, or she and her editors at the paper of record were blissfully ignorant of these abuses. It’s hard to know which would be more disturbing.