Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The Walmart Saga: Empty Shelves, Full Exec Pockets

I've been debating about writing about Wal-Mart for a while now for one very good reason:  If I write as a knowledgeable shopper, people will know I shop at Wal-Mart.  Chicken of me, I know, but some of my best friends, relatives and acquaintances refuse to shop at Wal-Mart, and they don't like to be reminded that I'm not one of them.

I shop at Wal-Mart.  Not always, but often enough to be considered a Wal-Mart shopper. I will make no excuses for shopping there because I know that every one of my excuses can be shot down.  Sometimes when I'm walking into a Wal-Mart I think about all the storekeepers who will hate me for what I'm about to do and I beat them to it:  I hate me, too.  But I go in.

So when I write that I've seen empty shelves in many Wal-Mart stores, you should know that I know what I'm talking about.

Today Bloomberg News published an article about Wal-Mart's empty shelves and, while I wasn't completely shocked at the scope of it, I did feel vindicated, considering the lengths I've gone to to get the managers of the various Wal-marts to understand how irritating it is to go looking for a list of things and not find even one of them.

For example, my morning must-have to go along with my essential mug of coffee is a two-square slab of Nabisco Nutter Butter Patties.  Our particular Wal-Mart up north stopped stocking them and when I went looking for the person responsible I was told that not enough people were buying them, so out they went during the periodic product purge. They were kind enough to order a case just for me, and what I didn't want out of the case they would put on the shelves and leave them there until they were purchased, either by me or some other Nutter Butter nut.  Fine.  Solved.  (No other store around sold them.  Really.  I looked.)

Wal-Mart also makes an excellent blue cheese dressing, sold in the refrigerated section of the produce department.  It's like finding gold when we see them stocked, which isn't very often.  You would think they would at least pay attention to stocking their own brands.  But, no.

Empty shelves are a given at every Wal-Mart now and the reason, we've finally confirmed (but should have known), has more to do with a scaling down of employees than it does with incompetent managers.  Not every manager of every store could be that incompetent.  No, this is about greed.  The Walton Companies rake in so much money entire countries (including this one) are green with envy, yet when it comes to money and the Waltons, there's no such thing as sharing without a fight.

This from the Bloomberg piece (emphasis mine):
 Adding five full-time employees to Wal-Mart’s (WMT) U.S. supercenters and discount stores would add about a half- percentage point to selling, general and administrative expenses, according to an analysis by Poonam Goyal, a Bloomberg Industries senior analyst based in Skillman, New Jersey. Assuming the workers earned the federal minimum wage and industry standards for health benefits, the added costs would amount to about $448 million a year, she said. In the year ended Jan. 31, Wal-Mart generated $17 billion in profit on revenue of $469.2 billion.
I, an admitted Wal-Mart shopper, have long despised Wal-Mart's employee practices.  That's my dilemma and my shame.  In my little corner of the country there are no Targets, no Kohls, no Costcos, no Meijers.  I wish there were, but there aren't.  But there are smaller supermarkets, other stores that don't offer one-stop shopping.  And there is the internet.

So Sayonara Wal-Mart.  Raspberries to you.  And as a parting shot, here's how Costco does it and why it would be worth the $50 a year it costs to join if there was one in the neighborhood:
Costco CEO Craig Jelinek openly supports raising the minimum wage to $11.50 an hour, “At Costco, we know that paying employees good wages makes good sense for business. We pay a starting hourly wage of $11.50 in all states where we do business, and we are still able to keep our overhead costs low. An important reason for the success of Costco’s business model is the attraction and retention of great employees. Instead of minimizing wages, we know it’s a lot more profitable in the long term to minimize employee turnover and maximize employee productivity, commitment and loyalty. We support efforts to increase the federal minimum wage.”
 So, okay, most of Costco's goods come from China and other foreign countries, as do most if not all the goods in every other store, bulk or otherwise, but Costco gets it.  They understand that their success wouldn't be nearly as sweet if their employees weren't sharing in it, too.

Trader Joe's is heading that way, too.  (Though TJ gets demerits for holding out for years before finally relenting and agreeing to give Florida tomato workers a raise of a penny a pound, and supporting better working conditions for those poor, poor, desperately poor pickers.  I mean. . .really? Years?)

But, here. . .
Many employers believe that one of the best ways to raise their profit margin is to cut labor costs. But companies like QuikTrip, the grocery-store chain Trader Joe's, and Costco Wholesale are proving that the decision to offer low wages is a choice, not an economic necessity. All three are low-cost retailers, a sector that is traditionally known for relying on part-time, low-paid employees. Yet these companies have all found that the act of valuing workers can pay off in the form of increased sales and productivity.
"Retailers start with this philosophy of seeing employees as a cost to be minimized," says Zeynep Ton of MIT's Sloan School of Management. That can lead businesses into a vicious cycle. Underinvestment in workers can result in operational problems in stores, which decrease sales. And low sales often lead companies to slash labor costs even further. Middle-income jobs have declined recently as a share of total employment, as many employers have turned full-time jobs into part-time positions with no benefits and unpredictable schedules.
So way to go, Wal-Mart!  You've finally figured out a way to make yourselves Numero Zilch!  It took a while but take a bow.  A long bow.  Hold it.  Just a little longer. . .

Thursday, March 21, 2013

News from Michigan, the Nation's First Dictator State

It could be that with all that's going on in the world you might have missed what's happening closer to home, in the sovereign state of Michigan.  In just over two years, since businessman and venture capitalist Rick Snyder became governor, bringing along with him a Republican majority in the legislature and in most courts (including the Supreme one), with a push from the Tea Party, the Koch Brothers and the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, our beautiful state has suffered under the country's first duly elected dictatorship.

In March of 2011, two months after his inauguration, Snyder pushed through a draconian Emergency Financial Manager law, essentially giving him the authority to appoint one person to take over the governing of any municipality or school system deemed failing by Our Man Snyder.

In November, 2012 the voters, finally coming to their senses, soundly voted down that outrageously unconstitutional law.  A few weeks later Snyder's minions, ignoring the wishes of the voters, not only reinstated the law, they added wording that would keep the voters from ever voting it down again.

This slid by just days after the Republicans stuck it to the already bruised and bleeding unions by making Michigan, the home of the labor movement, a Right-to-Work state

Just last week, the Republican legislature was back working on a bill that would allow health care providers to refuse services to patients/customers for religious or moral reasons.  It's a transparent smackdown of abortion and contraception, but it could also affect anybody from gays to Muslims to blacks to liberal Democrats.

And two days ago, DemocracyTree reported this:
Today the Michigan House Higher Education Appropriations Subcommittee passed a bill that will punish any university that negotiates with its union for an extended contract prior to the Right-to-Work law going into effect on March 28th. If this bill becomes law, universities stand to lose 15 percent of their funding for any contract negotiated between the Dec. 10th lame-duck RTW law and the March 28th enactment.
The Associated Press reports that Wayne State University could lose $27 million if they follow through with renegotiating their contract. Among universities rumored to be in contract talks are Michigan State University, Lansing Community College, and Western Michigan University.  
And this dispatch from Eclectablog yesterday.  It appears the GOP is caving to Tea Party interests in Michigan again. Medicaid expansion and the state-run Obamacare health exchange will be dead in the water unless they either grow hearts or come to their senses. (I won't hold my breath.)

And it goes on.  Because that's how it works in Michigan now.  The goal is to stop all democratic processes, including governing, in order to allow private profiteers to take over and make bundles off of us.  Roads?  Bridges?  Schools?  Health?  Human services? Out of our hands and going to the highest bidder. (They'll still collect taxes, of course, because. . .why not?)

Now they're working at making life even harder for old and disabled veterans.  The Grand Rapids Home for Veterans, one of two state vets homes, has been turned over to private contractors and, as predicted, it's a mess.  (I'm still trying to figure out how a state-run veteran's home, partially funded by the Feds, can just willy-nilly decide to privatize, but apparently it's one of those loopholes none of us ever has access to.)

From the Free Press this morning:
The contract employees are paid about half as much as the state employees, who made a little more than $20 an hour at the top of their pay rate.
The state workers, who belong to the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, say the lower wage results in inexperienced and inadequately trained workers and high turnover.
Tammy Porter, a licensed practical nurse who still works at the home, cited examples of inadequate and negligent care she said she had witnessed. She also read a letter from Andrea Rossman of Saginaw, who works as a nursing director at a health facility and whose father, Joe Vela, lives at the Grand Rapids Home.
On Saturday and Sunday, the home was understaffed and Vela wasn't given a chance to go to the restroom, eat breakfast, or take his medications in a timely manner, Rossman said in the letter. The delayed medication meant "my father's life was put in peril," she said.
There's more.  There's always more.  I can barely keep up, but thankfully there are others who do.

Chris Savage at Eclectablog works tirelessly to get this information out.

Democracy Tree keeps Michigan political news out there, too, as do many others.

Scroll down to the bottom of my "Michigan Under Siege" page for the growing list.

If you want to pass any of this on, we would appreciate it.  We need all the help we can get. (And, by the way, we're worth it.)

Lower Tahquamenon Falls - Upper Peninsula (Photo: Ramona Grigg)

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

CPAC 2013: Wingers Just Want to Have Fun

Every year around this time Republicans get to let their hair down and show the world that no matter what we've heard otherwise, they do have a silly side.

Doom and gloom and global warming is our problem, not theirs.  Enough about the poor, the pregnant, and the pressures put on them by the peons.  Get those party hats on!

Tomorrow the three-day celebration of hedonism, corporatism, and puritanism known as the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) begins.  This is the 40th such event and you have to hand it to them--each year they outdo themselves.  I mean, holy cow!  What a line-up!

But, wait. . .no Limbaugh?  No Beck? No Coulter?  No Eastwood?  It appears that way. They're not on the list.  Steven Crowder "Fox News's Brightest, Funniest Conservative Mind" will be there, and isn't afraid to call himself a comedian.  There are others who will be giving him a run for his money, however:  Donald Trump and Allen West will be there.  So will Sarah Palin and Rick Perry.  So will Newt Gingrich and Bobby Jindal.  And Rand Paul and Mitt Romney.  And Ted Cruz. (Dick Morris will be there,too, talking on "The Making of America: The Substance and Meaning of the Constitution", but apparently he doesn't photograph well.  They left him off the front page.)

For good measure, the NRA will be represented by both Wayne LaPierre and David Keene.

Theprogram for these three days (March 14-16) reads like a thriller, what with war and conspiracies and scary Obama and what-not.  Amazing what they can find to talk about.  And--no way!--Paul Begala and Tucker Carlson are scheduled to go mano-a-mano, Crossfire-style. (And you thought nobody cared anymore.)
"Fight Club 2013: A Liberal & A Conservative Duke it Out"
The Honorable [??] Paul Begala, Political Contributor, CNN 
Tucker Carlson, Editor in Chief, The Daily Caller 
Referee: Colin Hanna, President, Let Freedom Ring

It'll cost you, that CPAC.  And there's a dress code, so don't be trying to get in there in just any old thing:

Well, come on, you obviously can't wear strapless necklines during the daytime activities (We're talking to you, Paul Ryan), but Walmart wear?  Leggings or pants? ("If struggling with this decision, don't pack the items in question.  Neither jeans nor leggings are appropriate for the official conference.")

Lots of fun after-conference stuff, too.  Here's a can't miss:  "The Walking Dead, Obama Zombies on Parade" bash on Friday night.  (They're gonna dress up like zombies, and everything.  There's a message in there someplace, but I'm not one of them so I'm not privy to it.  Sorry.)

I've written about previous CPAC conferences here, and here.  They're addicting, I admit.  I can't promise I won't be writing about it again this week, but for now I'm having enough fun just anticipating what's going to happen this year.  (Don't disappoint me, Republicans--I've looked forward to this for a whole year.  And you owe me, you rascally rascals.)

Friday, March 1, 2013

Will the Real Bob Woodward Please Sit Down?

 Once there was a young Washington Post reporter named Bob Woodward who became a celebrity almost overnight by joining with another reporter named Carl Bernstein (remember him?) to expose the inner workings of a penny ante break-in at the Democratic Headquarters at the Watergate office complex in Washington. D.C.

The Woodward/Bernstein team, aided by WP editor Ben Bradlee and publisher Katherine Graham (along with several unsung on-the-ground reporters), wrote a series of powerful exposes, thrilling and galvanizing an entire nation, opening our eyes to the widespread corruption, collusion and obstruction in the Nixon Administration.  That seemingly inconsequential 1972 burglary grew into a major scandal involving and eventually bringing down a sitting president of the United States.  (Nixon resigned the office of the presidency on August 9, 1974.)

Woodward and Bernstein won a Pulitzer Prize for their reporting and then went on to write the first of two books about their experiences. The book was entitled, "All the President's Men"  and it became an instant bestseller. (Their second book together, "The Final Days", recounted Nixon's last months in office.)

As if those accolades weren't heady enough for a young reporter like Woodward, the crowning glory came in the form of a gorgeous famous actor named Robert Redford, who portrayed him in the highly acclaimed Academy Award-winning movie based on their book.

That was Bob Woodward way back then.  Shift to this week, when the real Bob Woodward is busy trying to disentangle himself from a claim he made that the White House threatened him!  Threatened Bob Woodward!  When all Bob Woodward was doing was attempting to expose President Obama's "lies about the sequester". (Was the sequester the president's idea, or not?  Bob says it wasHuge.)

When Woodward discussed his upcoming column with a "very senior White House aide" (no secret any more, it was National Economic Council Director Gene Sperling) both on the phone and through subsequent emails (where Sperling actually apologized to Woodward for coming on too strong), the seasoned reporter came away from them believing, he said, that he had been threatened.

As much as the real Bob Woodward wanted to convince the rest of us that he's so important he's still getting threats from the White House, he couldn't get around the fact that the emails are out there and we've seen them.

This is what Woodward told Jonathan Karl at ABC News:

Feb 28, 2013 9:31am
gty bob woodward dm 130228 wblog Woodward vs. Obama: Woodward Reveals Emails
 Kris Connor/Getty Images

Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward has shared with ABC News his email exchange with the White House official who told him he would “regret” his reporting on the sequester.  That official was Gene Sperling, the director of President Obama’s National Economic Council.

Woodward tells me that Sperling’s words – “as a friend, I think you will regret staking out that claim” – was an implied threat because, Woodward says, the White House was not really disputing the facts.

“It’s just not the way to operate,” Woodward told me, saying Sperling’s implied message was, “You challenge us, you will regret it.”

Why did he respond to Sperling’s email so politely?  He was trying to keep open the lines of communication.

“They don’t have to talk to anybody,” Woodward said.

That was yesterday.  Today, Woodward says he never said he was threatened. (That's all, folks.  Nothing to see here.  Move along.)

But we're talking about Bob Woodward here.  Attention must be paid.

Rush Limbaugh starts a program this way and then moves on from there:
I don't know, folks.  I don't know.  I'm just not sure that what we're dealing with here is a "you're gonna have a dead horse in your bed tomorrow morning" kind of threat.  I don't think that's what we're dealing with.  I do think the White House is gonna take care of Woodward with a death panel down the road.  That's how they're gonna deal with this.  We'll never know.  Woodward's gonna get sick and the death panel will come in there and that will be that.
 Fox News and the Right Wing media have a field day.  Because he's Bob Woodward and. . .attention must be paid.

The real Bob Woodward, it turns out, is not the stuff of Hollywood.  That Bob Woodward, if he ever existed, is long gone.  Someone needs to tell that to the real Bob Woodward.  And then someone needs to tell that to people like Politico's Ron Allen, who appeared on Morning Joe today defending Bob Woodward by reminding everyone that (guess what?)  "Attention must be paid to Bob Woodward."

This isn't the first time that Woodward has either outright lied or exaggerated in order to make himself more important.  The stories about his inaccuracies are out there in great enough numbers to show that, in fact, attention has been paid. And then forgotten.

Perhaps the most egregious (and easily disproved) outright self-aggrandizing lie was the one he told about the supposed deathbed confession of former CIA director William Casey, as told to Woodward and spelled out in great detail in his 1987 book, "Veil".

Six years ago, Jack Kelly brought it up again in an article for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:
Skeptics noted:
That Mr. Casey had suffered a stroke which deprived him of the power of speech.

That Mr. Casey's room at Georgetown University hospital was guarded 24/7 by CIA security personnel, who likely would have noticed if Mr. Woodward had attempted to sneak in.

That Mr. Casey's wife, Sophia, said that either she or their daughter, Bernadette Smith, were constantly at Mr. Casey's bedside, and likely would have noticed Mr. Woodward if he had been there. "We had our food brought up there," Mrs. Casey told Time magazine. "There was a lavatory there. We never had to go out of the room."

That intimates said Mr. Casey despised Bob Woodward, and that he would be the last person on earth to whom Mr. Casey would grant a deathbed interview.

One of the skeptics, Michael Ledeen, was contacted by Ted Koppel, who was going to have Mr. Woodward on ABC's "Nightline" program, and was soliciting suggestions for questions he should ask.
"Ask him to describe the room," Mr. Ledeen said he told Mr. Koppel. "What was Casey wearing? Were there lots of flowers? What color were his pajamas?"

Mr. Koppel did ask those questions, and, Mr. Ledeen said, "Woodward froze, deer-in-headlights. Then he said he couldn't discuss it because it would 'reveal sources.' "
That was over a quarter of a century ago, and still life goes on for Bob Woodward--as if it's All Watergate All the Time and nothing he has done to blacken his name since then has caused even a smudge.

Jonathan Cohn over at the Atlantic, while making light fun of Woodward's "I was threatened" claim, along with showing us how wrong Woodward got the whole "sequester" thing, still says, "Woodward remains one of the best fact-gatherers in the business."

Anybody who has watched Woodward in action over the years can't possibly still believe he walks on water, but what he has going for him, what keeps him up there on top, is that magical name.  Bob Woodward.  It's like a cloak of invisibility for him.  It renders him omnipotent, even in the face of so much evidence to the contrary.
He basks in his Watergate glory because the truth is, we really hate to see our idols fall. We have so few journalistic idols anymore, we especially can't stand the thought of a protector of the people turning into a pompous prick. 

So once again Bob Woodward not only makes the story, he is the story.  And as much as I hate that kind of stuff,  I'm doing it, too.  I'm giving Woodward what he wants.  Attention.  Attention.  Everlasting attention.


3/13/13 - I've been trying to quit this thing but more and more about BW keeps coming out.  Tanner Colbey, co-author of the 2004 book, Belushi, a Biography, (under Judy Belushi's byline) writes in Slate about the inconsistencies he found while going over Woodward's 1984 book on Belushi (Wired) as part of his research.
The bottom line:  The humorless Bob Woodward wrote a humorless dissertation concentrating on John Belushi's drug habit and eccentricities without ever considering his genius as a comedian or his history as a human being.  He made up and/or altered conversations, forgetting that the people involved are still living and still sentient.  They protested after his book came out, but it became a bestseller anyway.  (Why am I not surprised?)

(Cross-posted, as always, at dagblog)