A management position requires long hours — as many as 80 a week — and, often, a willingness to relocate. Rios worked at six California Wal-Mart stores before taking the helm at Serene Avenue.
Still, he said, the benefits outweigh the sacrifices.
"I have an open opportunity. I could go into real estate for Wal-Mart. I could do systems, analysis, accounting. It's endless," Rios said. "If I wanted to go to Germany or Japan or Brazil or any of the markets we have, I believe I could go."
A few weeks later, Rios snared another promotion, moving back to California as a district manager in the Antelope Valley, overseeing seven stores from Barstow to Palmdale.
Larry Allen had his own dreams of climbing the Wal-Mart ladder.
In the fall of 2001, he and his wife, Jacque, left Portland, Ore., where the economy was sputtering, and headed to Las Vegas. He was an executive chef and she worked in catering. They looked forward to a fresh start in unionized casino jobs, making more than $15 an hour, with health insurance and pensions.
But their timing was lousy. Recession and terrorism were hitting the gaming industry hard, and work of any kind was scarce.
Just before their money ran out, the Allens lowered their expectations and took jobs at the Serene Avenue Wal-Mart. Jacque, then 43, worked the counter at the in-store restaurant, Radio Grill. Larry, 46, stocked produce. They each earned $8 an hour.
Despite the letdown, Larry Allen said he attacked the job with enthusiasm. Inspired by tales of well-paid Wal-Mart managers who had started out as hourly employees, such as his manager Aaron Rios, he figured on working his way up. That was Sam's way, he said.
"I've been following Sam Walton since the 1970s," he said. "He's the American dream."
The glow faded quickly. At his 90-day review, Allen said, he received an unenthusiastic write-up and an hourly raise of 35 cents. His supervisor told him that if he continued working hard, in two years he might make his way up to $10 an hour.
Allen thinks he knows why he received such mediocre marks. For one thing, he was prone to question company policy. Then, Allen committed the ultimate act of disloyalty: He openly promoted unionization.
West Coast Ambitions
For decades, Wal-Mart has tantalized and frustrated union organizers. But the company's move into the grocery business — a labor stronghold — has raised the stakes dramatically.
Union organizers say the high wages and benefits of their members are at risk, as Wal-Mart expands its Supercenters beyond the South and Midwest. The company recently established a beachhead in Las Vegas, with five centers.
Next stop: California, where Wal-Mart plans to open 40 Supercenters starting early next year. In a sense, it has already arrived. Wal-Mart's low wages are a central factor in the labor dispute between California's three major supermarket chains and the United Food and Commercial Workers.
"They are the third party now that comes to every bargaining situation," said Mike Leonard, director of strategic programs for the UFCW.
Over many years of hard negotiating, the union has won and maintained premier contracts for its 800,000 grocery workers. But with the opening of each new Supercenter, the union's clout erodes.