This week Abby talks with business writer Rick Wartzman about what he learned reporting his latest book: Still Broke: Walmart’s Remarkable Transformation and the Limits of Socially Conscious Capitalism. Rick spent nearly three years documenting how Walmart’s directors attempted, but ultimately failed, to significantly improve wages and conditions for employees. The book is a fascinating look at how good intentions, even from a behemoth like Walmart, are ultimately not enough to overcome the demands of Wall Street, where keeping shareholders happy, even at the expense of workers and their communities, is the name of the game.
Rick takes Abby back to 1962 when Sam Walton, affectionately called “Mr. Sam” by his employees, opened his first store. As he grew an empire over the next several years and decades, he paid workers poorly and used cut-throat techniques, including hiring union-busting firms; the likes of which are still operating today. What was different back then, Rick explains, was that Mr. Sam not only made his workers feel like they were an important part of the enterprise, he also offered them profit sharing, which offset low wages for many.
Sam Walton died in 1992. In the years that followed, Rick explains how and why the company became a hellscape for workers and one of the most vilified companies in the world, a veritable symbol of American capitalism gone wrong. Yet by the time Rick finds himself inside Walmart in 2018, he meets executives who genuinely want to pay workers a living wage, among other things. But at the end of the day, he tells Abby, the market will not allow a company to be socially responsible. “Voluntary efforts will only take corporate America so far,” Wartzman declares, saying that his research has led him to believe “ We need a government solution.”
Rick’s consulting company is Bendable Labs and his book is Still Broke: Walmart’s Remarkable Transformation and the Limits of Socially Conscious Capitalism.
Co-Founder, Bendable Labs, Author, "Still Broke."
Rick Wartzman is co-president of Bendable Labs, a technology, consulting, and research firm that builds and tests social innovations in the areas of lifelong learning, workforce development, and job quality. Rick’s five books on the intersection of business and society include his latest, Still Broke: Walmart’s Remarkable Transformation and the Limits of Socially Conscious Capitalism; 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 (co-authored with Mark Arax), which won a California Book Award and the William Saroyan International Prize for Writing.
Before co-founding Bendable Labs in 2023, Rick spent 15 years at the Drucker Institute, where he was the founding executive director. He advised California State Controller Betty Yee on job-quality metrics and has spoken about workforce-related topics at the Aspen Institute, Brookings Institution, Harvard University’s Trade Union Program, the California Future of Work Commission, and other venues. Rick serves on the boards of the progressive publication Capital & Main and the employee benefit corporation California Harvesters, and he is a fellow at the Burning Glass Institute.