Like many booksellers, I had mixed feelings about Nickel and Dimed, Barbara Ehrenreich's bestselling autobiographical exploration of what it's like to subsist on the minimum wage. On the one hand, it was wonderful that people were finally reading about the plight of the working poor. On the other hand, Ehrenreich's disaster-porn exploration of poverty — she tried to live like a poor person, but she could pull the ripcord of an upper-middle-class life any time she wanted — felt insulting to people who had no choice.
And booksellers — not the best-paid profession, remember — were on the front lines of this discussion. We had to grit our teeth and try to smile as customers told us how much empathy they had developed for poor people after reading Nickel and Dimed. Often, those same customers would then demonstrate a lack of appreciation for our own personhood as low-wage workers: they'd throw their money on the counter rather than hand it to us, say, or they'd tell us they were going to buy the book online because it was cheaper there.
Most journalism about poverty and the working poor carries an air of condescension with it, and that condescension is at its highest when the journalist engages in stunt journalism. Quebecois journalist Hugo Meunier's new book, Walmart: Diary of an Associate, falls squarely into that stunt category. Meunier applied at a local Walmart and worked there for three months, helping the store expand into a SuperCenter location.
In the beginning chapters, Diary of an Associate, which was translated from the original French into English by Mary Foster, suffers from a jokey tone that hurts Meunier's reportage.
Caroline then embarked on a long pep talk, almost as impassioned as Mel Gibson's in *Braveheart*, but at least she didn't have half her face painted blue.
"You will not be working in the bedding, spice or electronics departments. You will be working for Walmart!"
It is true that working in the service of bedding or turnips is unlikely to give rise to vocational fervour. Working for Walmart is more inspiring, I guess. The message was clear: you will find joy in the whole! Future "associates" must contribute to the success of the company, Caroline continued
Perhaps something has been beaten out of shape in translation, but none of Meunier's jokes land. They all seem out-of-date and more than a little forced, like a dad giving color commentary to his exhausted kids on a long road trip.
The first few chapters of Diary of an Associate read like that: a series of bad jokes about the awkward and undignified process of onboarding as a new employee at a Walmart. The narrative suffers. Is Meunier a natural wiseass? Or does he find the process amusing because he has a comfortable life that he can return to at any moment? Maybe both things are true?
Meunier seems bemused by all the dumb training videos and terrible customer interactions he endures in the opening of Diary of an Associate. But gradually, something changes. Around page 50, he starts to get bitter, wondering about his bosses: "do they have to treat us like doormats?"
At a morning employee meeting to kick off a workday, employees are told that sales "figures for the previous day were only $129,000 — much less than the same day one year ago." But management gives the staff a pep talk: "Very bad news, but not insurmountable. Go, roll up our sleeves, gang! We will do better today!"
After the cheerful assault from management, Meunier concludes that "there is no way I am going to feel guilty for yesterday's 'meager' profits. Yesterday I made $88. Gross."
That "Gross" is doing a lot of work there, signifying both the economic and the descriptive sense of the word. Meunier is getting fed up. The bad jokes stop flying, and a series of bitter asides take their place. As Diary of an Associate continue, Meunier starts to take it all very seriously. "Walmart requires little brain but lots of body," he remarks before listing all the physical ailments his retail work has delivered to his body.
Finally, by the end of the book, Meunier is discussing Walmart's long and sordid history with labor unions. He argues that the mega-retailer describes labor organizers as "a parasite worse than scabies," and he describes Walmart's many attempts to quash unionization, up to and including shuttering stores seemingly out of spite.
Meunier, who has slowly seen his dignity and humanity stripped of him in a series of experiences that will come as no surprise to current or former retail employees, begins to focus deeply on unions as a solution to Walmart's problems. It's a good impulse, of course: unions are the only way that working conditions at Walmart will ever improve. Individually, no worker is going to convince the employer to treat workers like humans. Only by clasping hands and engaging in collective bargaining can conditions improve.
In 116 pages, Meunier leaps over the gap between elites and the working class. His meta-transformation — from wise-cracking journalist to outraged Walmart staffer — is remarkable. Meunier had likely always understood intellectually what workers at Walmart, but knowing and experiencing are two very different ways of being. By the end of Diary of an Associate, he's a true believer in advocating for yourself and your coworkers in the workplace. Hopefully, readers will follow him down that path.
Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the Los Angeles Times, the Seattle Times, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston’s grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle’s own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.
Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant