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How America’s biggest company began taking better care of its workers--and why such efforts will never be enough.
Fifteen years ago, Walmart was the most controversial company in America. By offering incredibly low prices, it had come to dominate the retail landscape. But with this dominance came a suite of ethical concerns. Walmart was accused of wiping out mom-and-pop businesses across the country; ruthlessly pressuring suppliers to cut costs, even if it meant closing up U.S. factories and moving production overseas; and, above all, not taking adequate care of its own employees, who were paid so little that many wound up on public assistance.
Today, while Walmart remains America's largest employer, the picture is very different. It has become an environmental leader among businesses, and has taken many other steps to use its immense scale to have a positive social impact. Most notably, its starting wage has risen from $7.25 to $12, and employee benefits have improved. With internal and external threats to its business looming, the company began to change directions in 2005—a transformation that accelerated in 2014, with the arrival of CEO Doug McMillon. By undertaking such large-scale change without a legal mandate to do so, Walmart has joined a number of major corporations that say they are dedicated to practicing a new, socially conscious form of capitalism.
In Still Broke, award-winning author Rick Wartzman goes inside the company's transformation, showing in novelistic detail how the company has gotten to where it is. Yet he also asks a critical question: is it enough? With a still-simmering public debate around the minimum wage and widespread movements by workers demanding better treatment, how far will $12 an hour go in today's economy? Or even $15? Or Walmart’s average wage, which now hovers above $17—but, even so, doesn’t pencil out to so much as $32,000 a year for a fulltime worker?
In the richest nation on earth, how did the bar get set so low? How did America find itself relying on an army of low-wage workers without ever acknowledging their most basic needs? And if Walmart's brand of change is the best we have, how can we ever expect to build a healthy society?
With unparalleled access to the key executives and change-makers at Walmart, Still Broke does more than document a remarkable business makeover. It interrogates the role of business in American life, and asks what the future of our economy and country can be—and whose job it is to make it.
About the Author
Rick Wartzman is head of the KH Moon Center for a Functioning Society at the Drucker Institute, a part of Claremont Graduate University. His commentary for Fast Company was recognized by the Society for Advancing Business Editing and Writing with its Best in Business award for 2018. He has also written for Fortune, Time, Businessweek, and many other publications. His books include The End of Loyalty: The Rise and Fall of Good Jobs in America, which was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in Current Interest and named one of the best books of 2017 by strategy+business; Obscene in the Extreme: The Burning and Banning of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, which was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in History and a PEN USA Literary Award; and The King of California: J.G. Boswell and the Making of a Secret American Empire (with Mark Arax), which won a California Book Award and the William Saroyan International Prize for Writing.
“Rick Wartzman proves, once again, why he is America’s most compelling historian of corporate culture. Still Broke is fair-minded, exacting, and brutally clear that achieving humane wages for frontline workers will take more than good intentions. This should be required reading for every CEO, union leader, and politician in America.”—Evan Osnos, staff writer, New Yorker, and author of Wildland
“Still Broke is an important, comprehensive, supremely balanced study of how Walmart treats its workers. Despite a close and cooperative relationship with Walmart, Wartzman pulls no punches in his efforts to pass judgment on his corporate subject’s incomplete efforts to do right by its employees. It’s totally absorbing.”—Adam Lashinsky, author of Wild Ride
“With nuance and unparalleled access, Wartzman thoughtfully dissects the ‘corporate Rashomon’ that is Walmart. Still Broke is a fast-paced narrative that offers essential and sobering insights at a pivotal moment for industrial relations.”—Miriam Pawel, author of The Crusades of Cesar Chavez and The Union of Their Dreams
“Still Broke is a 360-degree portrait of Walmart, a company that has for years been a synonym for ‘greed.’ Wartzman’s reporting on the corporation and its history is balanced and thorough. He concludes with well-reasoned solutions that might improve this case study in extreme capitalism, including raising the minimum wage higher than you might expect. The book is that rare title that is for corporate consultants and community organizers.”—Alissa Quart, executive director, the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, and author of Squeezed
“Still Broke is a look behind the curtain at the inner workings of one of the world’s most controversial corporations. With thorough and excellent reporting and research, Wartzman delivers a portrait of Walmart that contains a number of surprises. Still, anyone who reads through to the book’s stunning final chapter will know that Wartzman doesn’t hold back. He understands exactly what’s ailing this country.”—Michael Tomasky, editor, the New Republic, and author of The Middle Out
“Walmart, in Wartzman’s fascinating account, is not the caricature of evildoing popular on the left side of Twitter. Yet Still Broke returns us to the most fundamental question about America’s value proposition, built around the value of a good hour’s work. If even corporations like Walmart, which seems to have bought into its broader responsibilities toward society, cannot find it in their interest to provide a decent living to the workers who toil for them, should they be left to set the rules?”—Eduardo Porter, columnist, Bloomberg Opinion, and former Economic Scene columnist, the New York Times
“Wartzman’s investigation of the company in all its complexity is thoroughly researched, and he deftly and meaningfully connects the issue of chronically low wages at Walmart to a larger undervaluation of the labor of millions of Americans…A well-written account of a corporate American juggernaut and its implications for society as a whole.”—Kirkus
“[A] thought-provoking treatise… This smart survey offers much to consider.”—Publishers Weekly
“[N]uanced… [Wartzman] does a good job summarising the company’s evolutions and tensions.”—Financial Times
“Will deepen readers’ understanding of the negative effects of low-cost retail goods and of the need for both corporations and the government to do more to make the promise of a living wage into a reality...Interesting and evenhanded.”—Library Journal
“[C]areful, exhaustive research and engrossing storytelling.”—Airmail
“Still Broke provides readers with an understanding of how Walmart and many other big US companies have resisted paying humane compensation, making a clear case for a dramatic increase in the federal minimum wage. It’s also a well-told behind-the-scenes narrative of how change does—and doesn’t—happen at a big corporation, and how such businesses can go significantly astray.”—TIME
“Wartzman is a relentless reporter of fact, and has the writerly skill to tell an engaging, as opposed to enraging, story.”—Narrative Species
“One of the best business books I’ve read lately.”—Binyamin Appelbaum