business news in context, analysis with attitude

Last week, MNB took note of a Bloomberg Businessweek cover story about how Walmart in 2012 responded to organized labor protests during Black Friday sales events with what some might call a heavy hand: "it hired an intelligence-gathering service from Lockheed Martin, contacted the FBI, staffed up its labor hotline, ranked stores by labor activity, and kept eyes on employees (and activists) prominent in the group. During that time, about 100 workers were actively involved in recruiting for OUR Walmart, but employees (or associates, as they’re called at Walmart) across the company were watched; the briefest conversations were reported to the 'home office,' as Walmart calls its headquarters in Bentonville, Ark."

The entire MNB story can be read here.

My comment:

I cannot help but feel like this is overkill on Walmart's part, and perhaps indicative of a broader lack of faith in its people, no matter what they say. I'm also sure that Walmart is not alone in such efforts ... I'm not a conspiracy theorist, but it seems to me that the combination of technology and corporate entitlement almost certainly means a lot of big companies conduct this kind of surveillance.

Doesn't make me feel any better. Or any safer. And I think the "safety and security" argument is a little specious ... it really is about protecting the bottom line.

MNB reader Tom Robbins responded:

Having been in the same "squeeze" at a small company (20 stores) and quite large (1000+stores), it's not just the bottom line you are trying to protect but the very fabric, culture and public persona that have taken years to hone.

My vote is with Walmart on this one.

MNB reader Frederic Van Roie chimed in:

It is easy for you to play Monday morning quarter back, like the unions have always been known for their professionalism.... and what is wrong with protecting the bottom line?

And, from another reader:

One more reason for bright minds not to work there...they are oblivious to the dangers of exposing their real feelings and regard for employees.

First of all, let's be clear ... it is very easy for me to play Monday morning quarterback. But that is kind of what I do for a living, isn't it? Criticizing me for playing Monday morning quarterback is like criticizing the sky for being blue.

Second ... I don't think there is anything wrong with protecting the bottom line. I also think that there's nothing wrong with protecting a company's culture. And I would never suggest that Walmart's opponents always play the game according to Hoyle. (I have my own suspicions about the bomb threats called into various Walmart stores over the weekend.)

But ... I think it is perfectly reasonable to suggest that companies that spy on their own employees betray a broader lack of faith in those people. I wouldn't want to work for a company like that. (Though, to be fair, I wouldn't want to work for many companies. To quote Raymond Chandler, "I test very high on insubordination…")

I also think it is possible that the next generation of employees, people far younger than I am, will look askance at companies that engage in such activities. Which could put such companies at a disadvantage when trying to hire the best and the brightest.

Got the following email from MNB reader Rich Heiland, responding to Michael Sansolo's recent column about the efficacy of Waze, Uber, and the lessons they teach us:

We are in Mexico City, where my daughter is on the US Embassy staff.

My WAZE, much to my delight, works on my phone here and I can use it fairly well for walking.

As for riding, Uber all the way. My daughter has been using it exclusively on days she can't bike to the Embassy. We have used it a half-dozen times so far around the city. My take - never had a wait more then 10 minutes. Spotless vehicles with water and munchies. Clean, courteous drivers - all men so far - who speak enough English to go with what Spanish we speak. On very crowded streets, stop and  hop out - not having to pay on the spot helps. And, it's much cheaper than the licensed cabs here.

I am not sure how the cabs here react to Uber but my take is that for Americans overseas, it certainly should be a top option.

Along the same lines, from a reader, regarding Airbnb:

First experience a couple of weeks ago with Airbnb.  Excellent first impression!  Two bedroom / Two bath condo in Toronto in an upscale neighborhood on the water with indoor parking, at a very reasonable rate.  Couldn’t be more impressed.  And, used Uber extensively to get around.  Technology is changing everything.


Here's an email about the drone revolution, written before the Amazon video that we highlight above:

This is absolutely hysterical and for people to think using drones in a freight delivery capacity in any form is good....I would like to find out exactly what they are smoking. I can see it now...the sky is littered with bug looking objects buzzing through the air carrying packages and whatnot. Am I the only one who sees the absurdity in that picture...not to mention the jobs lost, the obvious temptation for theft and criminal joy of knocking these things out of the sky, along with a hackers dream of taking control. Drones are stupid at best...and will be used for spying at least!

I'm pretty sure that they already are being used for spying ... probably by our own government, on its own people.

I'm also pretty sure that the regulatory process will have to deal with the legitimate issues that many will raise. But that doesn't mean the revolution won't happen.

From another reader, on the same subject:

Don’t know where to go with this story, but it struck me as odd that someone thinks that drones are more dangerous than guns…so let’s regulate them more heavily?!  On what planet do we live?

We had a story last week about how Sonic is going to test deliveries, and I joked about this being clear additional evidence of a trend. To which MNB reader John Lloyd responded:

Yea. The trend is to deliver goods I would not buy. And this will bring...?

My suggestion, with all due respect, is that we should not make the mistake of judging trends solely on the basis of whether they are relevant to us. That's what's called epistemic closure ... and the world - and the definition of relevance - is a lot broader and wider than that.

Responding to last Wednesday's Eye-Opener about a new shoe company founded by the husband of one of my Portland State University students, designed to draw attention to various social issues. Common Ground is at its core a footwear company, but more importantly, it is designed to "inspire steps, regardless of their size, that contribute to progress." There are four basic collections, with each one focusing on a specific issue - gender equality, gun violence, immigration, and marriage equality.

MNB reader Joe Gilman was not impressed:

More Nonsense! really! are shoes going to change anything? Maybe they should make a shoe with Hashtags, so we can defeat ISIS and Boko Haram and get our girls back? I lean Democratic, but these are just so silly and made in South Korea, the land of gender equality, and marriage equality and all that good stuff.

Please give me a break.

I don't agree, but that's what makes the world go 'round.

People can choose to patronize this company or not, based on its position on social responsibility or not, and based on the quality of its products or not. But I think it is a good thing when companies want to be relevant to what's happening in the outside world. If I shop at Orvis, where they donate 5 percent of profits to environmental causes, or REI, where they partner with nonprofits that invest in the nation's outdoor recreational spaces, I feel better about the experience ... and I may choose to go there instead of alternatives in part because of those positions.

Not everybody agrees, but that's okay.
KC's View: