Wal-Mart tries to rally employees’ voting power

/ Source: The Associated Press

The voting power of Wal-Mart’s huge U.S. work force has become the latest target in the retailer’s battle with union critics as labor activists launch a drive to reach Wal-Mart workers ahead of midterm elections next month.

The union campaign, to be announced Thursday, comes after Wal-Mart entered the political fray this summer with a letter to workers in Iowa naming politicians who had attacked the company. It says it will issue similar letters in the future.

Wal-Mart also launched a first company-wide effort last month to get its more than 1.3 million workers to register to vote.

Both sides are not endorsing any specific candidates and both say they are being nonpartisan.

Analysts said Wal-Mart is making a public point of encouraging workers to vote and of naming critical politicians to dissuade candidates, mainly Democrats, from backing an increasingly organized union campaign for changes including better wages and benefits.

“Wal-Mart is signaling to all their enemies, ’We have almost 1.5 million workers who like us,”’ said Gary N. Chaison, professor of industrial relations at Clark University in Worcester, Mass.

WakeUpWalMart.com, a group started last year by the United Food and Commercial Workers union to pressure Wal-Mart to change, said it will start a media and on-the-ground campaign Monday in multiple states that will claim Wal-Mart backs “right-wing” policies that hurt workers.

Wal-Mart denied that claim. Spokesman Dave Tovar said its efforts to register voters and inform workers about what candidates are saying are entirely nonpartisan.

The union campaign will run for 15 days until the Nov. 7 midterm elections. It will be targeted at Wal-Mart workers and shoppers, said Chris Kofinis, spokesman for WakeUpWalMart.

Activists plan to hand out “voter education cards” to workers at 600 of Wal-Mart’s roughly 4,000 U.S. stores. The cards have a picture of Chief Executive Lee Scott next to a quote from an interview on CBS News in which he said, “I don’t know specifically what a living wage is.”

Scott went on in that interview to say Wal-Mart’s average wage was over $10 an hour.

The cards urge Wal-Mart workers to back candidates who support higher wages, affordable health care and protecting American jobs. It does not name specific candidates but claims that “Wal-Mart’s Politicians Fight Against You” by opposing a living wage and affordable health care and shipping American jobs to China.

The campaign plans to air two 30-second television ads in at least seven states, conduct more than 140,000 household visits in at least 10 states and hold store and community actions in over 30 states.

“Wal-Mart’s decision to declare war on Democrats who are calling on the company to pay a better wage, provide affordable health care, and treat its employees with dignity and respect is a disgrace, and shows just how right-wing Wal-Mart has become,” said Paul Blank, campaign director for WakeUpWalMart.com.

Wal-Mart’s Tovar denied the company is targeting Democrats.

Wal-Mart said efforts it started in Iowa in August were simply aimed at letting employees, which it calls associates, know when their company was under attack by politicians.

“It’s about things that we as a company feel it’s important for our associates to know, whether those are elected officials who are criticizing the company or making misstatements about the company or also people who are praising the company,” Tovar said.

Wal-Mart sent a letter to its 18,000 Iowa employees accusing several potential presidential candidates of directing “misguided attacks” against the retailer’s wages and benefits at rallies hosted by WakeUpWalMart.

“We would never suggest to you how to vote, but we have an obligation to tell you when politicians are saying something about your company that isn’t true,” the letter read.

The letter named four Democrats who are all potential 2008 Democratic contenders: U.S. Sens. Evan Bayh of Indiana and Joseph Biden of Delaware, and Govs. Bill Richardson of New Mexico and Tom Vilsack of Iowa.

Wal-Mart’s political action committee has changed its level of support for GOP candidates. Republicans received 71 percent of $1.06 million that the Wal-Mart PAC and employees contributed to federal candidates and parties in this election cycle, compared with 98 percent for Republicans in 1996, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Tovar said any future letters would be in the style and tone of the Iowa one.

So far, the Iowa letter is the only one. Wal-Mart said in August it would send similar communications to workers in South Carolina and Nevada. But Tovar said Wednesday it never did so because it decided there was no reason to. He said he could not elaborate.

He declined to say if any letters would be going out before the midterm elections or which politicians might be targeted.

“We’re committed to communicating to our associates when there’s an important issue and when we need to. That’s going to be our approach going forward and it goes beyond Election Day in a couple weeks and it’s part of an ongoing process,” Tovar said.

Corporate ethics consultant Alice Peterson of Chicago-based Syrus Global said Wal-Mart was well within its rights to inform employees about issues that it believes could hurt it.

“Anything that encourages participation in the voting process is very, very positive,” Peterson said.