Wal-Mart woes elude Democrats

Three weeks ago, feeling the heat from newly organized and emboldened critics, Wal-Mart executives gathered to launch a charm offensive. Aiming to win back wavering Americans, the company promised slight improvements to its healthcare plan and its energy consumption and ostensible support for an increase in the minimum wage. Any dent the company may have made in mounting public hostility was short-lived. The next day, the New York Times printed an internal memo from Wal-Mart Vice-President M. Susan Chambers suggesting ways to “dissuade unhealthy people from coming to work at Wal-Mart.”

Chambers’ advice: Increase turnover to get out of paying seniority benefits. Phase in Health Savings Accounts to discourage job applicants who are older or married. And revamp jobs which workers currently can perform without much moving around to now “include some physical activity (e.g., all cashiers do some cart-gathering),” thus discouraging “the least healthy, least productive” employees from staying in their jobs. As Yale Professor Jacob Hacker observed, “What this memo makes clear is that Wal-Mart’s recently touted effort to ‘upgrade’ its health plan ultimately amounts to a gutting of the very concept of health insurance.”

The day after Wal-Mart’s attempt to pitch itself as a kinder, gentler corporation, this memo, leaked by one of its employees, provided a telling reminder of why Wal-Mart has become a poster child for deregulated laissez-faire capitalism run amuck. This window into the mindset of the world’s largest retailer is disturbing. But it shouldn’t be surprising.

This is a company whose headquarters in Bentonville, Ark. directs the temperature for all of its American stores but describes whether to lock its night-shift employees inside the building as a local decision. It’s a company which approaches city councils around the country with legislation to exempt itself from government oversight and ran an ad comparing regulation of big-box employers to Nazi book-burning. It’s a company which illegally puts chainsaws in the hands of underage employees and then makes deals to get advance warning about future Department of Labor inspections. It’s a company which takes advantage of undocumented immigrants in hopes that they’ll be afraid to speak up and shuts down entire stores when employees seek union representation. Its systematic discrimination against female employees has made it the defendant in the largest certified class-action lawsuit in American history.

Wal-Mart economics have rightly inspired an increasingly organized and effective backlash from Americans in red states and blue ones who recognize that there are just and efficient alternatives to the Wal-Mart model of driving down wages and benefits through willfully high turnover, illegal squeezing and silencing of employees and intentional exploitation of marginalized groups. Wal-Mart’s critics recognize that companies can turn a profit by investing in their workforce and that government has a crucial role to play in paving the high road by rewarding progressive business policy. They recognize that real economic freedom is fostered when government protects the rights of all workers and ensures that work pays in America.

So, in its best moments, has the Democratic Party. Which is why it’s a shame to see Democratic congressmen and consultants carrying water for Wal-Mart.

That includes the Clinton staffers who, the Times reports, will be working in Wal-Mart’s new “War Room” defending Wal-Mart’s record from charges of discrimination, union-busting and cronyism. They’ll be working hard this week, as Robert Greenwald’s new film “Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price,” in which Wal-Mart workers air their grievances against the company, is shown in 7,000 communities around the country (including tonight at the Yale Law School). Former Center for American Progress fellow David Sirota reports that at least one of his former associates has taken up work advising Wal-Mart on how to weather the storm of bad press they’ve earned themselves rather than reforming their broken business model.

The problem extends to Congress as well. This summer, 22 Democrats voted against an appropriations amendment offered by New Haven Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro which would have denied the Department of Labor funding with which to implement its sweetheart deal with Wal-Mart. That deal gives the company special 15-day advance warning before inspectors show up to see whether Wal-Mart is still handing 16-year-olds chainsaws. These Democrats are siding with Wal-Mart to support a deal which the Labor Department’s own Inspector General criticized as unfair and unnecessary. The vote they cast makes it that much easier for Wal-Mart to continue the child labor law violations which have already led to injury among the 70 underage Wal-Mart workers who were told to use chainsaws here in Connecticut.

Why would the Bush Department of Labor risk public criticism by giving Wal-Mart advance notice of when to have the high-schoolers put away the chainsaws? Because what Wal-Mart is advancing through its economic power is what the Bush administration is advancing politically: the triumph of laissez-faire economics over the resistance of workers and the American public. In the struggle over the ability of democratic majorities to impose limits on the corporate race to the bottom, Republicans recognize which side Wal-Mart is on. It’s time more Democrats did as well.



Josh Eidelson is a senior in Jonathan Edwards College. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.

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