Buddying Up To Walmart

Last week, in a remarkable interview with the American Prospect magazine's Ezra Klein, SEIU president Andy Stern, normally one of the more articulate leaders of the American labor movement, was unable to form a single persuasive sentence on the subject of his recent partnership with Wal-Mart on health care policy reform. Klein pressed Stern pretty hard, asking what exactly Wal-Mart has committed to do, in exchange for all the positive publicity the company gets for working with unions on this issue. Stern hemmed and hawed and finally said that if the partnership doesn't work, he was "gonna eat a lotta crow." Looks like that feathery chow-down may occur sooner rather than later.

I've written before about Wal-Mart's strategy of buying off potential critics: African-Americans, community groups in cities where Wal-Mart's entry is politically contested, environmentalists and women's organizations. In this week's New Yorker magazine, Jeffrey Goldberg profiles Leslie Dach, Democratic consultant turned Wal-Mart spin-meister. Goldberg shows that this practice is a conscious and systematic plan:

Dach and Edelman have been innovators in their field. A press release issued in 2000 outlines a strategy that Dach has used repeatedly to good effect. "You've got an environmental disaster on your hands," the document reads. "Have you consulted with Greenpeace in developing your crisis response plan? Co-opting your would-be attackers may seem counterintuitive, but it makes sense when you consider that N.G.O.s (non-governmental organizations) are trusted by the public nearly two to one to 'do what's right' compared with government bodies, media organizations and corporations." The document goes on to describe Amnesty International, the Sierra Club, and the World Wildlife Fund as "brands" that the public believes "do what's right."

Edelman's co-option policy may already be on display at Wal-Mart. Greenpeace has talked with the company abou the issue of environmentally sound product packaging, and earlier this year Lee Scott joined Andy Stern, the leader of the Service Employees International Union, in a coalition of businesses and unions calling for quality health care to be made available to all Americans by 2012.

Now, Wal-Mart's "co-option" of SEIU may not work as well as Wal-Mart would like, in that SEIU probably will continue to attack and criticize Wal-Mart. But there's no question that Wal-Mart is trying to bullshit its way into some credibility with the public on the healthcare issue, and there's -- so far -- no evidence that the company is at all serious about using its substantial lobbying power to push for real health care reform. If Andy Stern can get Wal-Mart to do that, we will of course owe him a ginormous debt as a nation. But sadly, he may just be the latest on a long list of co-optees.

In other Wal-Mart developments, CEO Lee Scott said yesterday that he didn't "personally care" if Wal-Mart came to New York City and strongly implied that the company was giving up the fight. "I don't think it's worth the effort," he told the New York Times in a meeting with the paper's editors and reporters. Labor's war against Wal-Mart has worked well here. It's good news, especially for the many New Yorkers who work in in this city's retail industry.

(c) 2007 The Nation

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