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Wednesday, June 04, 2008

A Kinder, Gentler Approach to Wal-Mart?

Has countervailing power in labor market negotiations with Wal-Mart helped workers, or are the gains mostly just successful public relations?:

Wal-Mart’s Detractors Come in From the Cold, by Michael Barbaro, NY Times: Over the last several months, a confidential report has circulated within the headquarters of Wal-Mart Stores, proposing sweeping changes to its employee health care plans. ...

The ... report, written by an Emory University professor, Kenneth Thorpe, was commissioned, paid for and given to Wal-Mart by its longtime foes, the Service Employees International Union, and a group the union finances, called Wal-Mart Watch. They are known for attacking the chain, not cooperating with it.

But after waging an aggressive public relations campaign against Wal-Mart for three years, the company’s full-time, union-backed critics, who once vowed never to let up, are lowering their pitchforks.

Shrill condemnations and embarrassing leaked documents are giving way to acknowledgments of progress — and, in the case of Wal-Mart Watch, free advice.

“It’s fair to say we have been less in-your-face,” said David Nassar, the executive director of Wal-Mart Watch...

The mellowing of the anti-Wal-Mart movement is an unexpected development for the retailer, whose public image and share price were bruised by the well-financed union campaigns. ...

The union-financed campaigns were started in 2005. As the groups turned up the heat on the company, Wal-Mart was at first defensive, but eventually it responded in ways few of its critics expected. The company expanded its health care plans to cover more workers, though still not enough to satisfy the unions. And it made commitments to the environment, such as becoming the country’s biggest seller of more efficient light bulbs.

Indeed, Wal-Mart has gone so far on some initiatives, like the environmental programs, that it has started to draw scattered attacks from the right, particularly from a group called the National Legal and Policy Center that has accused the company of giving in to political correctness.

Now, the union-backed groups appear to have concluded it would be more constructive, sometimes, to engage Wal-Mart. That leaves them navigating a complex situation in which they have to decide, issue by issue, whether to shake hands with the company or to slap it. ...

Wal-Mart Watch and WakeUpWalMart.com still level occasional attacks against Wal-Mart, and remain potent watchdogs on some issues. ...

Both groups insist that, even if there is a change in their tone or size, they have not wavered from their mission of fighting to make Wal-Mart a better employer that pays higher wages and offers more generous health care.

“I don’t think there has been significant progress,” on those fronts, Ms. Scott [of WakeUpWalMart.com] said. Wal-Mart, she said, still requires workers to meet deductibles ranging from $700 to $4,000 a year for their health insurance. And most workers earn less than $20,000 a year.

But Mr. Nassar and Ms. Scott acknowledge that the appetite for criticism of Wal-Mart, which seemed insatiable at first, has waned, especially in the news media. ...

Both said they would remain critical when it made sense. “As the company makes changes, it becomes harder to be critical,” Mr. Nassar said...

Whether the changes are big or small, and I don't think it's clear the changes have been all that substantial, I think it's fair to assert that whatever change has occurred would not have happened without an organized effort on worker's behalf.

    Posted by on Wednesday, June 4, 2008 at 01:44 PM in Economics | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (17)

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