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Philip Gailey

Wal-Mart, critics do some bargaining

A few weeks ago I came across a letter to the editor in the Courier Journal, a weekly newspaper in Crescent City. I decided to keep the letter in case I ever wrote about the ongoing debate over Wal-Mart, a corporate behemoth that has come under attack from union-backed watchdog groups demanding better pay and benefits for the company's employees. The letter, written by Cody Young, is the missing voice in this debate.

Young wrote: "I just read something in your newspaper against Wal-Mart coming here. It's hard for me to understand why anyone would be against Wal-Mart. Man, do we ever need some jobs around here. I graduated from the Crescent City Jr.-Sr. High school last year, with honors. The only job I have been able to find is at the Winn-Dixie, and that only pays a little over $7 an hour. I was attending St. John's Community College, but I cannot afford to buy the gas to go to classes.''

"Crescent City is where I've grown up, and it's home. I don't want to have to move away, but I don't see what else to do if I am to build a life. That man, Mr. Ballengree, sure doesn't understand what it's like to be young and working around here. A $12-an-hour job with benefits at Wal-Mart would be like winning the lottery for me.''

I would guess that Cody Young was speaking for a lot of young people in the small towns of America where job opportunities are limited and union jobs are scarce. Most Wal-Mart workers earn less than $20,000 a year, and while that may not be much in the cities and suburbs, it apparently is not a bad wage in places like Crescent City.

There is plenty to criticize about Wal-Mart without making it a punching bag for Democratic presidential candidates pandering to unions. (Ever wonder why John Edwards was harder on Wal-Mart than on Wall Street?) I can understand why some local communities don't want a giant Wal-Mart store in their midst, with the traffic congestion and other problems it brings, and I have seen small-town merchants go under because they could not compete with Wal-Mart's low prices. I also know people who are grateful to have a job at their local Wal-Mart, even if the pay and benefits could be better, and for the money consumers save by shopping there.

Now there are signs that the campaign waged by union activists protesting Wal-Mart's treatment of its workers is doing some good. Instead of just vilifying Wal-Mart, these watchdog groups are trying persuasion and good-faith cooperation, and the world's largest retail company is responding with positive changes.

Last week, the New York Times reported that both sides are moving from confrontation to a constructive dialogue that could improve Wal-Mart's corporate image and, in time, enhance pay and benefits for its employees, although it's hard to know where the company will draw the line in concessions. The newspaper reported that groups like Wal-Mart Watch are changing tactics, taking embarrassing internal documents to company executives instead of first leaking them to the press. In response, the company has dismantled the "war room" it created to fight back against its critics.

Since the union-financed campaign against Wal-Mart began in 2005, the company has expanded its health care plans, although not enough to satisfy critics. Wal-Mart's CEO, H. Lee Scott, has voiced support for Democratic legislation to raise the federal minimum wage, and he has met often with Andrew L. Stern, head of the Service Employees International Union, to discuss solutions to the nation's health care problems.

Wal-Mart also has shown a green side that has won praise from environmental groups and drawn criticism from conservative groups. The company supports legislation to cap carbon emissions and is now the largest seller of more efficient fluorescent light bulbs.

"Is Wal-Mart Too Liberal?'' Newsweek magazine asked last week. Only in the minds of conservative ideologues who have accused the company of going politically correct on them in trying to appease its liberal critics.

Conservatives are worried that as goes Wal-Mart, so goes the country.

Peter Flaherty, head of the conservative think tank called the National Legal and Policy Center, the magazine said, "argues that conservatives have been slow to recognize that today it's corporations, not government, that drive many big social changes,'' from gay rights to the environment. Next thing you know, Wal-Mart, long considered a paragon of "family values," will be selling Playboy magazine and rap CDs with offensive lyrics.

It's probably a sign of progress that Wal-Mart is taking political fire from the left and the right. The company and the union activists should stay the course they're on. Wal-Mart is not going to roll over, and neither are the unions. But both sides are likely to come out ahead if they keep talking and seeking common ground.

Who knows? Maybe some day a Wal-Mart will locate in or near Crescent City, and Cody Young will win that lottery he dreams about.

Philip Gailey's e-mail address is
gailey@sptimes.com.

Wal-Mart, critics do some bargaining 06/07/08 [Last modified: Monday, June 9, 2008 5:46pm]

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