Friday, February 17, 2006

Wal-Mart as Political Poster-Child

In a national conference call hosted Wednesday night by activist coalition, Illinois Senator Barack Obama was preaching to the choir when he said, “The battle to engage Wal-Mart and force Wal-Mart to examine its corporate policies is absolutely vital, and I’m proud to stand alongside you.”

Convincing Wal-Mart to reverse policies that it deems “anti-family” may be the core mission of, but engaging the participation of Obama, and in a subsequent conference call former N.C. Senator John Edwards, effectively positioned Wal-Mart as a poster-child for political debate in the 2008 presidential election.

The critical take-away message from Obama was that all the practices at Wal-Mart that have come under fire, such as low wages, lack of health care, discrimination, unreasonable hours and anti-family attendance policies, are indicative of a broader trend in America. “The fundamental social contract has shifted from workers to employers, and that is not good for America,” noted Obama.

America’s economic strength makes this shift even more unacceptable. “Worker productivity is up; corporate profits are up; and the stock market is at an all-time high,” he continued. “This is not a situation where everyone is taking a hit. Unlike many manufacturers, Wal-Mart is not under enormous pressure from foreign competition. Wal-Mart is in a position to do better by its employees.”

But, instead of making life better for employees, the trend has been for corporate executives to prosper while lower-level associates barely tread water. This is true not only at the world’s largest retailer, but also at gas companies, utilities, financial institutions, essentially every industry. And when corporate leaders set the standard, competitors follow suit. Obama noted that Wal-Mart’s practices have driven wages down at its competitors, for instance mom-and-pop stores, grocers and drug stores are forced to pay their employees less.

Ultimately, society suffers when the standard of living is lowered for a large percentage of its citizens.

In his comments, Edwards stressed, “Nobody should work in a full-time job and live in poverty—but that is what happens with many Wal-Mart employees.”

Although Obama’s objective was not to bash Wal-Mart, he did throw a couple of hard punches, such as this endorsement of Costco: “When I shop for low prices, I go to Costco because the average wage at Costco is 60% higher than at Wal-Mart and 80% of Costco’s employees have health care. If Costco can do this, so can Wal-Mart.”

Ironically, I recall being told by representatives in both political camps during the 2000 presidential election that there was nothing to comment on relative to the retail industry—because nothing in retail was an issue. By the 2004 election, there were political comments concerning retail, but they were primarily related to issues of national security and international trade.

Now, presidential-hopefuls are eager to discuss retail topics with political implications, but the important perspective to focus on for the next election is that no one retailer is the issue—not even Wal-Mart.

— Connie Gentry

No comments: