Wal-Mart to promote 25,000 workers. Policy change or publicity stunt?

Wal-Mart announced Tuesday that it would be handing out promotions to 25,000 US workers through the end of 2013. The promotions cap a year that has seen Wal-Mart come under fire from fair-wage activists and politicians for its treatment of workers. 

Eric Thayer/Reuters/File
The Walmart logo lights up the outside parking lot in North Bergan, New Jersey. Walmart announced Tuesday that it would give 25,000 US workers promotions to close out the year.

Wal-Mart has long been a public scapegoat for a wide range of social issues, drawing the ire of activists for everything from animal rights to fair worker wages. Now, it’s making a move to control its image on at least one of those fronts.

Tuesday, the world’s largest retailer kicked off a widely publicized round of 25,000 employee promotions at several stores in the US, to conclude by the end of 2013. Wal-Mart is the nation’s biggest private employer, with 1.3 million workers on its payrolls in the United States.

The workers will be moved into managerial positions and given increased wages, according to a company press release. All told, Wal-Mart says it will promote 160,000 workers by the end of 2013, approximately the same number it promoted in 2012.

“We are proud to provide our people with additional opportunities for career growth and greater economic security for their families,” Wal-Mart US president and CEO Bill Simon said in the press announcement. “Like most Americans, our associates want good jobs and access to a better life. Whether you are a cashier in Charlotte, or a stocker in Dallas or an assistant manager in Los Angeles, Walmart wants to see you succeed.”

The announcement caps off a tumultuous public relations year for the Wal-Mart, during which fair wage activists and some left-leaning politician painted the company as the poster child for corporations riding unfair worker treatment to yawning profit margins (Wal-Mart, for instance, turned $15.7 billion in profits in 2012). Protest groups including OUR Wal-Mart, a coalition of current and former Wal-Mart employees backed by the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, have held protests and rallies across the country since last year, when a number of the retailer’s employees walked off the job during Black Friday.

OUR Wal-Mart held a press conference in Washington last week, asking the company to pay all of its workers at least $25,000 per year. The group is planning another Black Friday strike this year.

The fight has gotten political as well. This past summer, Washington, D.C.’s city council passed a measure that would require big box retailers like Wal-Mart to pay their workers at least 50 percent more than the national minimum wage. In response, Wal-Mart threatened to scrap construction of two stores in the area that were either planned or underway. D.C. mayor Vincent Gray ultimately vetoed the measure, and the stores continued as planned.  

Wal-Mart has countered the attacks by arguing that there is ample opportunity for advancement within the company, and that Wal-Mart’s low and part-time wages are a starting point, not a destination. What’s more, the company says, more than 70 percent of its full-time workers who have been with the company for more than a year make $25,000 or more annually. “The discussion around the starting wage or minimum wage is one the country needs to have, but the issue is more where you go to,” not the starting wage, CEO Bill Simon said in a CNN interview Tuesday.

Even today’s Wal-Mart news is not without some controversy. The promotions announcement coincides with the news that Wal-Mart is investigating the firing of Matt Wood, a disabled Wal-Mart greeter who was allegedly terminated for clocking in late. 

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