Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Union Critics Share ObjectivesBut Snipe at Each Other; Seeking Pay and Benefits

Editor's Note: This is from a paysite so no link is given.

In Wal-Mart's Case,
Its Enemies Aren't
Terribly Good Friends

Union Critics Share Objectives
But Snipe at Each Other;
Seeking Pay and Benefits

January 11, 2006; Page A1

WASHINGTON -- and Wal-Mart Watch have two things in common: They criticize Wal-Mart, and they criticize each other.

A few weeks ago,, financed by the grocery workers union, launched its latest TV ad campaign questioning whether Christians should shop at Wal-Mart given its low wages and benefits. At the same time, the group sent a letter to Wal-Mart's chief executive Lee Scott signed by 65 ministers. "Jesus would not embrace Wal-Mart's values of greed and profits at any cost, particularly when children suffer as a result of those misguided values," the letter said.

Wal-Mart was upset. But so was Wal-Mart Watch, a group backed in part by the service workers union, formed to take on the world's largest retailer. Wal-Mart Watch declined to put its name on the ad, even though it earlier had helped cull names from its lists of religious leaders potentially willing to sign the letter. "What would Jesus do, indeed," Tracy Sefl, Wal-Mart Watch communications director, said in an email to this newspaper. "I think he would say the ad was a mistake. We heard from numerous supporters who were offended."

Meanwhile, has its own issues with Wal-Mart Watch. When Wal-Mart recently offered a health-care plan to its employees, with three free doctor visits before deductibles kick in, Wal-Mart Watch applauded the efforts. Paul Blank, WakeUpWalMart's campaign director, complained that Wal-Mart Watch hadn't properly analyzed the plan and that it was no better than what Wal-Mart had been offering. He put out a harshly worded press release saying that.

The two organizations, backed by different unions, are top-heavy with former Democratic operatives from the 2004 presidential campaigns of John Kerry and Howard Dean. Both groups arose as Wal-Mart's rapid expansion made it a lightning rod in some corners of labor and the political left for a long list of grievances against big business. Wal-Mart and its supporters argue that the big retailer offers an enormous boon to Americans -- particularly lower-income consumers -- by driving down the price of household goods, appliances and thousands of other products.

The company says it doesn't see much difference between the two groups. "To us, these are both campaigns directed by union leadership intended to criticize a company trying to help working families," says Wal-Mart spokeswoman Sarah Clark. "There are well-meaning critics out there. These two organizations don't fall into that category."

WakeUpWalMart is run by Paul Blank, the former political adviser for Mr. Dean's presidential campaign. It is financed and housed by the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, which failed in a decade-long effort to organize Wal-Mart workers.

In November, it ran a provocative Internet ad asking: "Who is the biggest criminal?" The ad showed pictures of former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and Lewis Libby, Vice President Cheney's former chief of staff, both currently under indictment by grand juries, but the answer turned out to be Lee Scott, Wal-Mart's chief executive. A Wal-Mart spokeswoman called the ad mean-spirited and offensive.

Wal-Mart Watch is the brainchild of Andy Stern, the head of the Service Employees International Union, who shook up the labor movement last summer when he broke his union off from the AFL-CIO. The Service Employees provided the start-up funding for Wal-Mart Watch, though it also has grants -- and support from such groups as Common Cause.

Jim Jordan, Sen. Kerry's former presidential campaign manager, is a consultant, and several former Kerry campaign workers are on the payroll. It scored a coup in November when it made public an internal Wal-Mart memo about spiraling health-care costs that discussed hiring younger, healthier workers. Wal-Mart Watch frets that its campaign is being undermined by WakeUpWalMart's tactics. "I think the key difference between us is that they are about short-term impact rather than long-term change. Our organization is addressing concerns, not caricaturing them," says Ms. Sefl.

Paul Blank's response: "She is dead-wrong about our group. Neither Andy Stern nor Wal-Mart would be foolish enough to think we aren't in this for the long term to make Wal-Mart change."

Both groups were born out of the four-month grocery strike against Safeway, Albertsons and Kroger in Southern California two years ago. The big chains argued that they had to cut wages and benefits in order to compete with Wal-Mart, and the workers ultimately made significant givebacks.

Last summer, when Mr. Stern began exploring a new umbrella labor organization to compete with the AFL-CIO, he wanted to goad Wal-Mart into providing higher wages and more generous health-care benefits. At the Service Employees International Union annual convention, the group pledged $1 million to begin pressuring Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart Watch was officially launched in April, with a Washington staff of 36.

After the costly California strike, the United Food and Commercial Workers Union voted in new leadership last March. Under its new president, Joe Hansen, it decided, at least in the short term, to stop actively trying to unionize Wal-Mart. Instead, it made a priority of pressuring Wal-Mart to raise pay and benefits to more closely resemble those of unionized grocers. In April, the union launched, with a staff of six working out of union headquarters in Washington.

Taking a page from the Howard Dean campaign, which recruited supporters and funds over the Internet, WakeUpWalMart wants to drum up community opposition to Wal-Mart's practices and to sign up supporters over the Web. To date, more than 150,000 people have registered their support with the group online.

That doesn't impress Mr. Stern. "They've done a good job collecting a lot of names, but I'm not sure what their ability is to turn the grass roots into action," he said.

His counterpart, Mr. Hansen, didn't answer a question about tensions between the two groups taking on Wal-Mart. Via email he said: "We welcome SEIU's involvement in the campaign to change Wal-Mart."

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