In 2003, Rick Wartzman was overseeing the business section of the Los Angeles Times when his team produced a Pulitzer Prize-winning series of stories detailing how Walmart became the largest company in the world — and how its rise relied on low wages for its workers and those of its suppliers. Those stories helped to solidify a widespread perception of Walmart as an exploitative force in the global economy.
In 2015, Walmart — the largest private employer in the United States — announced a series of labor policies that raised worker pay. More recently, it has converted many of its part-time workers to full-time employees. Wartzman, who had moved on to become executive director of the Drucker Institute at Claremont Graduate University (where he is now head of the KH Moon Center for a Functioning Society), decided to commit himself to studying how and why Walmart transformed its relationship with its lowest-paid workers. He was granted an unusual amount of access by the company to its top executives, board members and employees.
His new book, Still Broke: Walmart’s Remarkable Transformation and the Limits of Socially Conscious Capitalism, chronicles the external pressures and internal self-examination that compelled the company to raise pay and provide greater opportunities for its front-line workers. He concludes that good intentions, even when followed by substantial actions, are not enough to ensure that hourly workers earn a living wage.
In an interview with Capital & Main, Wartzman (who serves on Capital & Main’s board of directors) discusses what he learned about Walmart as a global standard-bearer, and why he believes that government action is needed to create a fairly compensated workforce at the retail giant and beyond.