How Walmart got government support, despite union pleas

Labor leader says allies in the Administration tried to persuade First Lady to dump retail giant -- but were denied

Published September 23, 2013 2:55PM (EDT)

The White House disregarded union pleas not to hold public events promoting Walmart, according to the main union backing protests against the retail giant.

Since President Obama’s first term, administration officials have joined Walmart executives for events devoted to issues ranging from boosting U.S. manufacturing to hiring returning veterans, including a series of appearances by First Lady Michelle Obama touting Walmart’s role in providing healthy and affordable food. A Walmart press release following a February 28 event at a Springfield, Missouri store quoted the First Lady saying that while before “the conventional wisdom said that healthy products simply didn’t sell…Thanks to Walmart and so many other great American businesses, we are proving the conventional wisdom wrong.”

“It irritates me,” Joe Hansen, the president of the 1.3 million-member United Food & Commercial Workers union, told Salon in a recent interview.

Hansen said that a few years ago, when the UFCW first received word that the First Lady planned to do a Walmart event, “We thought we could ask them not to do it, and we had allies in the administration at the time – we still do, I think, but the ones we had then – and they could not persuade her.” Hansen said the First Lady had “decided that it was more important [to promote] what she considers this healthy food, which really irritates me because you can get just as healthy food in Safeway and Kroger and other places.”

Hansen added that after the first such event, he met with White House advisor Valerie Jarrett, and “she felt we ought to have a conversation. I said I’m willing to do it. The phone still hasn’t rung. And that’s a couple years ago.”

Asked about Hansen’s account, White House Spokesperson Matt Lehrich e-mailed, “We’re proud that many companies…have answered the First Lady’s call to hire veterans and provide healthy foods. The President remains focused every day on building a strong and growing middle class and an economy that works for everyone.”

Critics have questioned whether the numbers announced by Walmart on hiring veterans and U.S. product sourcing are substantial, whether the jobs Walmart is offering vets are worth celebrating, and whether the federal government’s definition of “food deserts” lacking access to healthy food options presupposes large chain stores as the solution.

The UFCW is the largest private sector union in the AFL-CIO. As I’ve reported, it’s also the key player behind OUR Walmart, a non-union workers’ group which has mobilized hundreds of employees in Walmart retail stores for protests over wages, benefits, and working conditions, including a high-profile one-day Black Friday strike last November. Within the six months following that work stoppage, Walmart released a January press release in which the First Lady urged “every business in America to follow Walmart’s lead” in hiring veterans; Michelle Obama made her healthy food-focused visit to the Springfield store; she was introduced at a March business roundtable event by Walmart CEO Mike Duke; and Barack and Michelle Obama and Joe and Jill Biden held an April announcement on veteran hiring with Walmart US CEO Bill Simon at the White House.

Twenty OUR Walmart members have been fired since participating in a longer strike in June, and fifty-some other strikers have been disciplined in what OUR Walmart alleges is a wave of illegal retaliation; Walmart denies targeting strikers. (The company did not respond to a Friday inquiry.) Last month, a civil disobedience action by fired Walmart workers in Washington, DC, took place the same afternoon as a Walmart US Manufacturing Summit in Orlando featuring Obama’s Secretary of Commerce, Penny Pritzker.

Asked what Pritzker’s appearance there reflected about the administration’s view of Walmart as an employer, U.S. Secretary of Labor Tom Perez told me, “Well, we’re working with everyone on the issue of growing this economy…I think what Senator [Ted] Kennedy taught me as much as anything is that idealism and pragmatism are not mutually exclusive.” Noting the late senator’s work with Republicans on healthcare and hate crimes, Perez said it was “important to bring a wide array of stakeholders to the table to engage in a meaningful way in how we grow a vibrant middle class.” Asked about Walmart’s firings of activist workers, Perez said he hadn’t “studied that situation in sufficient detail,” and so didn’t “feel comfortable opining about the specifics of a particular action.”

As Walmart faces heightened attention to its labor practices and resistance to its urban expansion plans, perceived approval from the President – who joined his opponents in criticizing the company during the 2008 Democratic primary – is a valuable commodity. Walmart’s then-executive vice president of corporate affairs and government relations, Leslie Dach, told investors in 2010 that “our reputation” was “a lever” for achieving Walmart’s aims, among them entering “new markets.” The Nation reported in 2011 that “in a historically black Washington neighborhood where the chain wants to open stores, Michelle Obama stood before a giant Walmart banner and overflowing produce bins and endorsed the chain’s new plan to cut prices on healthy foods and open stores in food deserts.”

Such events run counter to the efforts of the UFCW, whose strategists have married workplace organizing and strikes in Walmart’s stores and supply chain with “corporate campaign” efforts targeting Walmart’s board, brand, and expansion ambitions. Calling the courage of the hundreds of Walmart employees who had gone on strike “remarkable,” Hansen said that to expect that “somebody’s going to get 500,000 Walmart workers to walk off their job, I think that’s unrealistic. But what I think is happening, and I think Walmart hates this as much as anything else, is it’s calling publicity to how they treat workers.” But Hansen said the White House’s ongoing praise for the retail giant was “not a good situation.”

The White House’s praise for Walmart also drew unusually harsh criticism from the AFL-CIO: in a May statement regarding a Walmart veteran hiring announcement, federation president Richard Trumka said, “That this effort was valorized by President Obama and Vice President Biden reflects an acceptance of economic failure out of line with America’s history or future.” Service Employees International Union President Mary Kay Henry, whose union also backs Walmart supply chain organizing efforts, was less willing to criticize the administration on the issue, telling me last month she “would rather, instead of dealing with the specific tactics of the President’s behavior with individual companies, keep calling on the President to say we have to have both a tax policy and an ability for workers to bargain again as a way to get off this low-wage road that the economy’s on.”

Hansen told Salon that “a lot of these workers are really determined to see something through and make something happen,” and pledged, “I don’t know what form it takes right now, but we will support those workers.” He noted that the Obamas were not the first Democrats friendly with the retail giant: “Hillary was on Walmart’s board…Although Hillary said she would try at least to start a conversation. That never happened.”

By Josh Eidelson

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Afl-cio Barack Obama Democrats Michelle Obama Our Wal-mart The Labor Movement Unions Wal-mart Walmart