Updated Wednesday, January 16, 2013 at 06:28 AM
NEW YORK — Wal-Mart Stores has been coming under a lot of fire lately. Two of its suppliers were found to have been making goods in a factory where 112 people died in Bangladesh, and employees throughout the country walked out of the store on one of the busiest retail days last year to protest working conditions.
But the company, never a crowd favorite at worker-solidarity gatherings, may be trying to improve its image. In a speech Tuesday to the National Retail Federation in New York, Wal-Mart U.S. Chief Executive Bill Simon said the company would hire any returning veteran who wanted a job. He also said it would buy more products from the U.S. and help more employees become full time.
The CEO said the 2012 election and the gridlock in Congress motivated him to introduce these initiatives.
“The election clarified for me that it’s time for those of us outside politics to get to work,” Simon said. “I find it fascinating that during the campaign we all waited with bated breath each month for the government to tell us how many private-sector jobs were created. After all, it’s the private sector that creates jobs.”
Wal-Mart said it plans to hire more than 100,000 veterans in the next five years as part of a program to offer a job to “any honorably discharged veteran in his or her first 12 months off active duty.”
Simon said veterans are often good employees, and that his company plans to begin hiring them after Memorial Day.
“Not every returning veteran wants to work in retail,” he said. “But every veteran who does will have a place to go.”
Veterans will be placed in jobs in stores, clubs, distribution centers and the corporate office, he said.
“Hiring a veteran can be one of the best decisions any of us can make,” Simon said. “Veterans have a record of performance under pressure. They’re quick leaders and they’re team players.”
Some retail workers questioned whether veterans would want to work for Wal-Mart. They include Edgar Lucas, 38, an Army veteran who has worked for Wal-Mart and other retailers in New York.
“If you are looking out for the veterans, they need something that’s guaranteed 40 hours a week,” he said. “They need to know their schedules.”
“Everybody knows that Wal-Mart, they’ll work you 28 hours, make sure that you don’t get 40,” he said.
Lucas, who lives in the Bronx, said most retail jobs are the same. He’s been stringing together various such jobs, trying to get enough hours, knowing he won’t get benefits unless he gets to full time.
During Simon’s speech, a group of protesters in the hall unveiled a banner that read, “NRF: Stop Clocking Out Workers, It’s Time for Good Jobs and Just Hours.”
They chanted until they were escorted out.
About 100 workers from various New York groups also protested outside.
“Workers are going to make sure that the kind of jobs that they’ve announced for veterans are the kind of jobs that workers need,” said Yana Walton, a spokeswoman for Retail Action Project. “That means enough hours and living wages and jobs with benefits.”
Simon defended Wal-Mart jobs during his speech.
“We’re all tired of retail jobs being put down, as if retail workers can’t judge for themselves what a good job is,” he said.
“Some people say we don’t offer good jobs. I say this industry is the greatest engine of opportunity in the United States of America.”
Simon pledged to bring more transparency to the store’s scheduling system to allow part-time workers to choose their own hours, and said Wal-Mart would make internal changes to help part-timers become full time.
He provided no details but did say 75 percent of Wal-Mart’s store management started as hourly associates.
Simon ended his speech by announcing Wal-Mart and Sam’s Clubs will increase what they buy in the United States, including sporting goods, games and paper products, which he said would help boost American manufacturing.
The company plans to buy an additional $50 billion in U.S. products over the next 10 years, he said.
“I know according to urban legend Wal-Mart’s shelves are filled with foreign products,” he said. “But the truth may surprise you.” About two-thirds of its goods are made, grown or sourced in the United States, he said.
By buying products made in the U.S., Simon said he hoped to nudge manufacturers to the “tipping point” where it no longer made sense to make products in Asia. Some manufacturers have told him privately that rising labor costs in Asia and increasing costs of oil and transportation have made manufacturing more expensive overseas, he said.
“Through our buying power, we can give manufacturers confidence to invest capital here.”
National Retail Federation Chief Executive Matthew Shay praised Wal-Mart’s announcement, calling upon other retailers to follow the company’s lead.
“We have a lot of announcements made at the National Retail Federation’s Big Show, but today’s announcement by Wal-Mart President and CEO Bill Simon tops them all,” he said. “It is nothing less than visionary for a great American company to make such a bold pledge to help our American heroes.”
Not surprisingly, Wal-Mart’s detractors were unimpressed.
They pointed reporters to a City University of New York study that showed almost 60 percent of the retail workforce consists of people hired as part time or temporary and that only 17 percent of workers have a set schedule.
The “ ‘Wal-Martization’ of retail has turned this expo into a convention on how to just-in-time the retail workforce,” said Carrie Gleason, executive director of Retail Action Project, one of the groups protesting outside.
“The NRF says ‘Retail Means Jobs,’ but these aren’t the kind of jobs Americans need to boost our economy. Rather, the industry is fueling a crisis of underemployment as workers continue to be part-timed.”
Walton, the Retail Action Project spokeswoman, said workers would make sure that Wal-Mart followed up on its commitments to make scheduling more transparent. “If these promises aren’t kept, workers will keep fighting the way we’ve been fighting,” she said.