SAN FRANCISCO - Some 400 non-governmental groups are rallying this week to oppose practices by the world's most profitable corporation, Wal-Mart, which may be feeling the effects of a mounting opposition.
"Wal-Mart Week of Action" began on Monday, the same day that America's largest employer announced its smallest quarterly profit gain in four years.
Senator Edward Kennedy (D-MA) points to the Ten Commandments of Corporate Responsibility as he speaks about the new film by Robert Greenwald 'Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price' during a news conference at the US Capitol in Washington November 15, 2005. Kennedy highlighted some of the film's accusations of Wal-Mart policies which hurt workers and communities. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts
The week of action is sponsored by small business owners, women's rights organizations, environmentalists, and labor unions, who complain about a host of costs they say Wal-Mart externalizes onto society.
Among the cornucopia of charges against the biggest retail chain on the planet are gender discrimination, union-busting, environmental abuses, forcing small businesses to close, driving down property values and wages, and weakening the American economy by sending some $20 billion to China every year.
"There's no question that Wal-Mart imposes a huge, often hidden, cost on its workers, our communities, and U.S. tax-payers," Rep. George Miller (news, bio, voting record) (D-California) told Congress in February.
"And Wal-Mart is in the driver's seat in the global race to the bottom, suppressing wage levels, workplace protections, and labor laws," Miller said.
A Congressional inquiry launched by Rep. Miller found that wages for Wal-Mart's full time employees are so low that the average Wal-Mart store costs American tax-payers over $400,000 in emergency health care, rent assistance, nutrition programs, and educational services for employees and their families.
Wal-Mart has long been derided for failing to provide health insurance to over half its employees, encouraging them instead to use state and federal health plans such as Medicaid. An internal document that emerged last month further revealed company plans to cut health care and retirement benefits.
Some 1.5 million current and former female employees who say they were paid and promoted at significantly lower rates than their male co-workers are currently suing Wal-Mart in the largest class action discrimination lawsuit in history.
The company now faces scores of legal battles in 31 states.
On October 25, in what some call a response to public pressure, Wal-Mart pledged to invest hundreds of millions of dollars a year to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, press Washington to increase the minimum wage, and introduce more affordable healthcare for its U.S. workers.
Chief executive Lee Scott laid out specific targets for the company such as increasing fuel efficiency of its fleet by 25% within three years, reducing greenhouse gases from existing stores by 20% within seven years, and reducing solid waste from its stores by 25% within three years.
Regarding global warming, Scott said, it "used to be controversial but the science is in and it is overwhelming. We believe every company has a responsibility to reduce greenhouse gases as quickly as it can."
"We should view the environment as [Hurricane] Katrina in slow motion."
Scott said the company would invest $500 million a year in new technologies to meet its goals and attributed new initiatives to meetings held over the past 12-18 months with store opponents, which included environmental groups but no labor unions.
Many of Wal-Mart's longtime detractors, however, have not been won over by the company's pledges.
"This is a publicity stunt meant to repair a faltering public image," said Chris Kofinis, a spokesman for Wake-Up Wal-Mart, a group backed by the United Food and Commercial Workers union.
Whatever the company's environmental efforts, critics predict that Wal-Mart's plan to double its retail outlets by 2010 will have a monopoly-like effect on competitors.
"For every new Supercenter that Wal-Mart opens, at least two local supermarkets and countless small businesses will close," reads a press release posted on the Web site of the California-based human rights organization Global Exchange, which is encouraging citizens to "support local businesses and your local government's efforts to curb Wal-Mart's predatory growth."
Wal-Mart Watch, a Washington D.C.-based group founded by the Service Employees International Union, Democracy for America, and the Sierra Club, is sponsoring some 1,000 public events this week, including town hall meetings with elected officials and sermons by religious leaders.
In conjunction with Global Exchange, Wal-Mart Watch plans to protest what it sees as the company's bad behavior this Saturday at the Oakland Airport in California.
MoveOn.org, a progressive online advocacy group, held an estimated 7,000 screenings Tuesday night of a new and widely recognized documentary entitled, "Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price."
The film airs complaints told by long-time Wal-Mart employees, details the company's aggressive union-prevention methods, and reports first-hand on working conditions at company factories in China, where employees say they often work 12-hour days and seven days a week for just $2 a day.
The feature-length film "was produced for less than half of what Wal-Mart spends on PR in a single day," MoveOn said in a letter to its members announcing the screenings.
According to the Wal-Mart 2005 Annual Report, the company spends $3.8 million a day on public relations, or $1.4 billion annually.
Several progressive on-line and print media outlets including The Nation, The American Prospect, In These Times and AlterNet are standing behind the documentary and plan to report extensively on themes brought up in the film.
This Monday, another internal document was obtained by Sprawl-Busters, a group opposed to unchecked suburban development, that details Wal-Mart's 2006 expansion plan for 484 new store openings, including 164 new Wal-Mart Supercenters.
"It is our goal to see at least one of every three stores on this openings list be challenged by a local citizens' group," said Al Norman of Sprawl-Busters in a statement posted on the Web site of Wal-Mart Watch.
"This internal document [is a] roadmap about where to marshal our resources," Wal-Mart Watch executive director Andrew Grossman said in the statement.
"This is a fight against local communities falling victim to Wal-Mart's too-aggressive and frequently dishonest tactics," Grossman said.
"This is also a fight to avoid the blight caused by abandoned discount stores resulting in at least 26 million square feet of wasted space nationwide."
Copyright © 2005 OneWorld.net.