When one of 2.3 million rank-and-file workers quits the company, there’s generally not going to be much of a ripple.
But when Beth McGrath bid goodbye to her Walmart gig last month, her departure from the world’s largest retailer resonated far beyond the Carencro, Louisiana, “Supercenter” where she had been working.
'Doesn't Deserve Y'all'
Speaking in front of a display of Canada goose hunting decoys, the sleeves of her black Walmart sweatshirt rolled up, Ms. McGrath picked up an intercom telephone and directed a healthy diatribe at store managers and, more generally, to the Bentonville, Arkansas-based company, which is worth just south of $400 billion.
“Attention, Walmart shoppers and associates, my name is Beth from electronics and I’ve been working at Walmart for almost five years, and I can say that everyone here is overworked and underpaid,” she is heard saying on the video, which she posted on her Facebook page Sept. 14.
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Ms. McGrath, who appears to be in her mid-20s, went on to say that the store’s policies are “bull---t” and that employees are treated “poorly every day.” Management, she continued, responds to employee complaints by telling them that they are “replaceable.” “I’m tired of the constant gas-lighting,” she said, adding that the company treats older workers “like s--t.”
It’s unclear how many customers were in the store when Ms. McGrath broadcast her 50-second message, but whoever was in earshot would have heard her call the store manager “a pervert” and tell two others, both women, that they should be ashamed of how they treat their colleagues. “I hope you don’t speak to your families the way you speak to us,” she said. She then gave “shout-outs” to three coworkers by name “and so many more.”
“Walmart doesn’t deserve y’all,” she said, and then concluded emphatically: “F--- management and f--- this job—I quit.”
As of Oct. 3, the video, which she titled “On to better things,” had been watched 439,000 times and drawn 6,500 comments.
Walmart representatives did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
Samir Sonti, an Assistant Professor of Urban Studies at the CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies, said that Ms. McGrath’s angry exit likely was reflective of exasperation felt by employees, particularly those on the lower end of the wage scale.
“The video, McGrath’s statement, really reveals the frustration that a lot of workers have today after several decades of wage stagnation,” he said, adding that Walmart was “a pioneer” in how it profits massively from “low-wage service work” that has been a cornerstone of the economy since the mid-1970s.
Those trends, Professor Sonti said, “have a real personal toll,” with the cost living for working-class families increasing in various ways since then. “And that bubbles up in ways like we saw with Beth McGrath."
'Reaching the Limits'
Her message and similar ones could be suggesting that “we’re reaching the limits of the low-wage and high-pressure service and logistics” model that has been in place for the last few decades, he said.
While Walmart, as the country's largest private employer, can have an outsize influence on retail employees' working conditions and wages, Ms. McGrath’s message was nevertheless consequential, said Jonathan Malesic, the author of the forthcoming “The End of Burnout: Why Work Drains Us and How to Build Better Lives."
"She is saying they can demand better conditions for themselves and each other,” he said in an email.
In a subsequent interview, Mr. Malesic said “the great resignation idea”—typified by the former Walmart worker’s public dispatch—could indicate that renewed sense of self-respect among workers is percolating. “I hope that’s a signal that people are recognizing their dignity, and that what that dignity means is that they deserve conditions that are commensurate to that dignity,” he said.
But any significant and lasting improvement in pay and job conditions for line employees at Walmart, Amazon and other large retailers will require pressure “from multiple directions,” Mr. Malesic said. “It has to come from workers, it has to come from customers. It would be nice if it came from shareholders too,” he said.
$559 Billion in Sales
Walmart, which had sales of $559 billion in the fiscal year ending Jan. 31, has nearly 11,000 retail locations operating in 24 countries, according to the company.
Of its 4,740 retail outlets in the United States, 137 are in Louisiana, where its 35,954 “field associates”—that figure is perhaps now 35,953—were paid an average of $14.96 an hour as of July 31 (its New York State "associates" were earning an average of $17.82).
The corporation, founded in 1962 by Sam Walton, of 599-store Sam’s Club fame, has long pushed back against a reputation that it pays poorly, offers substandard benefits and generally cares little for its rank-and-file workers.
Its website says employees enjoy opportunities for growth, promotions and "a better life." The company's public-relations campaigns feature its “Walmart Academies," its corporate philanthropy and its support of American manufacturing.
Some Added Leverage?
Ms. McGrath, who did not reply to a request for an interview, recorded a follow-up video message in which she said she was “overwhelmed” by the support that came her way in the 24 hours after she put up her quit message.
“It’s been an emotional roller coaster for me and I’m just at a loss for words,” she said. “I didn't record the video for clout; I recorded the video for my fellow coworkers to let them know that I do love them and I do want what’s best for them. I wanted it to be their voice, I wanted it to be my voice.”
Whether her message contributes to a lasting shift in worker-employer relations will depend on a number of factors, Professor Sonti said. But given the labor shortages that are one byproduct of the pandemic, he noted that workers like Ms. McGrath have some leverage.
“It’s a really beautiful thing to see workers stand up to bosses that have treated them poorly for a very long time,” he said. “Beth and others right now, and it’s an important thing to note, for the first time in a long time have a bit of bargaining power. But whether that’s going to remain is an open question, and that’s going to depend on larger political fights.”