Wal-Mart kicks off on-the-spot promotions

CHICAGO - SEPTEMBER 27: Wal-Mart workers and shoppers wait in the food line at the Uncle Remus Chicken location at the new Wal-Mart store September 27, 2006 in Chicago, Illinois. Chicago opened its first Wal-Mart today in the wake of a defeated Chicago wage law that would have set the minimum "living wage" requirements for big box stores. Wal-Mart reports that over 15,000 people applied for the 490 jobs available at this west side location and in the month of September they will have created over 6,200 jobs when opening 24 new stores in the U.S. (Photo by Tim Boyle/Getty Images)
Tim Boyle

NEW YORK Wal-Mart Stores (WMT) is banking on on-the-spot surprise promotions of about 25,000 U.S. store employees to help send a message that it offers economic security and opportunity.

The world's largest retailer and the nation's largest private employer will be kicking off the promotions at ceremonies Tuesday in its Secaucus, N.J., store and about 15 other markets including Atlanta and Denver. It will dispatch top executives to stores nationwide for similar events for the rest of its fiscal year, which ends in late January. The mostly hourly workers will be promoted to different jobs -- some to store management positions -- and will receive higher pay.

"It's good a time as any to tell our story," said Bill Simon, president and CEO of Wal-Mart's U.S. namesake division. He will be in Secaucus Tuesday at a ceremony to promote six to eight workers.

The move is an addition to Wal-Mart's announcement in September that it would move 35,000 workers from temporary to part-time status and another 35,000 from part time to full time by year-end. The campaign builds on a theme the discounter pushed throughout the year, including at its annual shareholders' meeting in June, in which it cast the company as a place where employees have a chance to advance. It has often highlighted that 75 percent of its store management teams started as hourly associates.

The latest campaign comes as Wal-Mart Stores Inc. remains a target of attacks by critics, particularly union-backed groups that have argued the discounter puts profit ahead of its workers and pays meager wages.

Last week, OUR Wal-Mart, a group of current and former workers that have been staging protests at its stores, held a press conference in Washington, to pressure the discounter to pay all of its full-time workers at least $25,000 a year. It's planning another round of protests at its stores on the day after Thanksgiving, the traditional kickoff for the holiday shopping season.

The union-backed group latched on to a comment that Simon made at the Goldman Sachs retail investor conference last month when he said that more than 475,000 Wal-Mart workers earned more than $25,000 last year. OUR Wal-Mart inferred that with Wal-Mart employing 1.3 million workers in the U.S., about 825,000, or 63 percent, make less than $25,000 a year.

Wal-Mart says the group has distorted the figure, noting that more than 70 percent of its full-time hourly workers who have worked at its stores and its distribution centers for more than a year make at least $25,000. Wal-Mart isn't counting those who work at its Bentonville, Ark., headquarters or as drivers. Wal-Mart doesn't break down numbers for part-time and full-time workers but noted that full-time workers account for the majority of its workforce.