New York Times Sunday Review • Dec. 18, 2016
Seven years ago, I joined the night shift at a Walmart in rural Michigan. For $8.10 an hour, I spent four or five nights a week filling shelves with the flour and sugar and marshmallow fluff that residents of the local county, which in 2008 voted for Barack Obama, needed to get through the holidays. Four years ago, the county went with President Obama a second time, though by a thinner margin. But this past November, the county, like the state, turned red.
A few shifts into my time on Walmart’s sales floor, I spent a smoke break outside in the damp November air with a co-worker, a white single mother of four. We squatted on a concrete curb in the gray cast of parking-lot lights and surveyed what lay before us. Walmart’s expanse of asphalt, dotted with worn-out pickups and domestic sedans, gave way to a road lined with strip malls and dollar stores. Beyond it, a sign for Meijer, a regional competitor to Walmart, glowed red against a black sky.
I know people talk about working over there and they say it’s better because it’s got a union, I remember my co-worker telling me as she gestured at Meijer. But I’d rather have those dues in my paycheck. Besides, she told me, Walmart wasn’t as bad as everyone said. The night shift came with a 50-cents-per-hour premium, she got raises and after seven years, she said, she was up to $11 an hour.
If she made it to 15 years at Walmart, which was common among workers on our shift, she said she’d even get to keep her employee discount card — which offered 10 percent off produce and other items — for life. As I talked to other co-workers, nearly all of whom were white, I got the impression that Walmart wasn’t necessarily considered a good job, but it was one of the best jobs in town. At least it wasn’t going to up and move to Mexico, the way factories had.
I was on that night shift at Walmart for a couple months undercover, chronicling my work for a book on America’s food system. But while I was there I also got a good look at how things had changed for folks in Michigan. I don’t remember my single-mom co-worker saying anything about that directly, but the way she talked about that discount card made me think about it a lot.
I’d grown up in Michigan, in a town of 10,000 people sprawled out on dirt roads and two-lane highways, attending a public school with the children of factory workers and farmers, and plenty of kids who were just plain poor. My dad sold lawn mowers, and my grandfather had worked at Ford for decades. That union job had helped put two kids through college and given my grandparents a decent enough retirement. They’d had, as much as anyone else, the American dream. It was hard to see how my co-workers would get there.
From my reporter’s perspective, I could see similarities between the lives of the people I spent the night shift with and those of folks I’d met covering poverty in New York City: Unpredictable work schedules damaging health and home life; no dependable child care wreaking havoc on work; transportation and health care so tenuous that basic household functions like grocery shopping and doctor’s appointments fell by the wayside; wages that almost never matched expenses.