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Computerized scheduling and on-demand consumerism

Wal-Mart dominates the retail sector because it perfected just-in-time logistics (only as much inventory as will be sold), minimizing overhead costs and allowing the company to charge lower prices. This in turn attracted more customers, which eventually gave Wal-Mart the enormous scale of operations that allows it to bully suppliers and dictate its own terms to them in order to hone its supply-chain logistics even further — a tidy little feedback loop. Now Wal-Mart hopes to improve its bottom line by treating workers, whom it has vigorized preventing from unionizing, in the same way it treats inventory, employing them on a just-in-time, as-needed basis. This WSJ article by Kris Maher, which is surprisingly sympathetic to the worker’s point of view, has the details:

Staffing is the latest arena in which companies are trying to wring costs and attain new efficiencies. The latest so-called scheduling-optimization systems can integrate data ranging from the number of in-store customers at certain hours to the average time it takes to sell a television or unload a truck, and help predict how many workers will be needed at any given hour….

But while the new systems are expected to benefit both retailers and customers, some experts say they can saddle workers with unpredictable schedules. In some cases, they may be asked to be “on call” to meet customer surges, or sent home because of a lull, resulting in less pay. The new systems also alert managers when a worker is approaching full-time status or overtime, which would require higher wages and benefits, so they can scale back that person’s schedule. That means workers may not know when or if they will need a babysitter or whether they will work enough hours to pay that month’s bills. Rather than work three eight-hour days, someone might now be plugged into six four-hour days, mornings one week and evenings the next.

In this post, Brad Plumer elaborates on the employee hardships Maher mentions: “Another problem, of course, is that 40 percent of Wal-Mart’s employees will soon be part-time workers. Many of them—and many of the full-time workers, too—need to find second or even third jobs to make ends meet. Of course, it becomes near-impossible to find another job when you have to sit around ‘on call’ and can’t predict your schedule from week to week. Ah, but at least the Bureau of Labor Statistics can record an uptick in ‘productivity,’ and economists can then sit around and wonder why median wages aren’t going up too. So it’s all good…”

Wal-Mart defends this by reminding everyone how great this will be for customers.

Wal-Mart spokeswoman Sarah Clark says the system isn’t intended to schedule fewer workers, and hasn’t where it has been implemented so far. The company says that in one test last year in 39 stores, 70% of customers said the checkout experience had improved. “The advantages are simple: We will benefit by improving the shopping experience by having the right number of associates to meet our customers’ needs when they shop our stores,” Ms. Clark said.

But what about workers, whose lives will be made much more insecure? “Some analysts say the new systems will result in more irregular part-time work. ‘The whole point is workers were a fixed cost, now they’re a variable cost. Is it good for workers? Probably not,’ says Kenneth Dalto, a management consultant in Farmington Hills, Mich.

Probably not? Of course it’s not good for workers. It only amplifies the chaos in the already often chaotic lives of the poor. As Jonathan Cobb argues in his afterword to The Hidden Injuries of Class, class is a matter of being reminded that your time is not valuable, not nearly as significant as other people’s time, other people who presumably do something much more useful with it. If you are poor, lower class, you can always be made to wait. If you are important, you can have things “on demand.” Wal-Mart is telling its employees that the time of every single person who comes into a Wal-Mart store is more valuable than that of those it entrusts to serve those customers. Of course, any of us can become one of those customers and suddenly feel important, but that is the deeper charade at work — that we will ever be able to buy dignity and self-respect by being a consumer rather than earn it by doing meaningful social work. This development makes it plain how improvements in serving the customer are typically translations of ways of screwing the worker (who is essentially the same person). On-demand consumerism, then, is compensation for how our time is routinely demanded of us; the more on-demand consumerism we expect, the more we accept unreasonable demands on our time from our employers.