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  • Working for Respect: Community and Conflict at Walmart by Adam Reich and Peter Bearman
  • Jill Ann Harrison
Working for Respect: Community and Conflict at Walmart By Adam Reich and Peter Bearman New York: Columbia University Press, 2018. 332. pp.

Walmart has long been the hardest of anti-union eggs to crack. In their new book, Adam Reich and Peter Bearman set out to better understand the problems and possibilities associated with organizing Walmart workers. Using a rich blend of methods, the authors focus on the ways that people make sense of their work, what they feel about their working conditions, and the social and institutional contexts that structure these perceptions and experiences.

But their book is about much more. They aptly note that the book is "something like a Russian [nesting] doll" (14), as couched within the story about Walmart workers is the story of the summer organizing program led by the authors, involving 20 college students and recent graduates. These aspiring activists are scattered around the country to organize workers with the labor organization OUR Walmart and to interview Walmart workers for the project. Embedded within this story is another about social ties and social change in general. While relying primarily on ethnographic data, the authors bring in other sorts of data to enhance their argument—including networks analyses, surveys, and even brain scan data. In doing so, they push social scientists to think about how varying levels of data interweave to tell us about social ties and social change more generally.

There is risk in the nested doll strategy of storytelling that the narratives will compete rather than complement, and out the outset of the book, readers may feel a bit overwhelmed by the wide scope of the project and various methodologies. But by the end, the unifying theme is quite clear: social networks and interactions can make or break social change. The social contexts that structure these ties are key sites to understanding when change happens, and when it fails.

The authors lay out their argument by first focusing on Walmart workers' working lives to understand how people came to work for Walmart and the ways that they make sense of their work on the shop floor. This deep-dive into workers' life-worlds is one of the book's main strengths, as it provides vivid insight regarding what it is like to work at the giant retailer. It also serves as a [End Page 1] much-needed caution against generalizing about or assuming what working low-wage retail means to people. People come to work at Walmart with various backgrounds and assorted motivations, and these tend to track with the ways people make sense of their work. Some came to Walmart out of economic desperation and felt disgruntled, while others saw employment as a positive way to combat the boredom or loneliness associated with domestic routines or retirement, and felt generally grateful for the community that Walmart provided. On the shop floor, we see how workers take pride in banal-seeming work like stocking shelves or ringing up items. Workers expend extra effort—not in the hopes for higher wages or promotion—but for recognition from co-workers, to be a valued member of the workplace community, and to achieve some kind of autonomy when it does not seem possible. In short: they seek to find dignity at work.

The authors next pull the scope back to examine the system of control that structures the labor process for workers at Walmart. "Walmartism" refers to managerial reliance on surveillance technology that tracks workers' performances and the overall flow of products, combined with requirements to provide service to customers. As a result, work environments are often unpredictable and chaotic. Workers complain less about low wages than they do about the everyday disrespect by customers and the arbitrary use of authority by managers. Workers' frustrations thus stay on the shop floor rather than directed upward toward corporate officials. Walmartism serves to undermine the structural power of workers to challenge these unfavorable conditions through collective action. That Walmart remains the primary option for both working and shopping in many...