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4/06/2005

Activists Spotlight Wal-Mart’s Role as Corporate Bad Actor

Community activists from Inglewood, Calif., are taking their campaign to tell the truth about Wal-Mart’s anti-worker, anti-community policies to Wal-Mart’s headquarters in Bentonville, Ark., where the world’s largest retailer is holding a media blitz this week to polish its tarnished image.

As part of Wal-Mart’s yearlong, high-cost public relations campaign, the corporate giant invited selected journalists from around the country to Bentonville for interviews, tours and presentations.

The nation’s largest company, Wal-Mart, is facing the largest civil rights class action lawsuit ever certified against a private employer in this country. Filed on behalf of 1.6 million current and former female employees, the suit says the company discriminates against women in pay and promotions. Wal-Mart last month agreed to pay $11 million to resolve federal charges that it employed undocumented workers to clean its stores. The company also paid $135,540 in February to settle charges of violating child labor laws involving young workers’ use of dangerous equipment.

The retail giant’s image also has been badly damaged by numerous reports documenting the company’s low wages and unaffordable health benefits and from growing community opposition to state and local tax breaks for Wal-Mart, which last year made $10 billion in profits.

“We believe that the hundreds of millions of dollars Wal-Mart is investing in public relations would be far better spent on addressing the problems Wal-Mart has created for America’s communities,” says the Rev. Altagracia Perez, who helped lead the campaign to defeat Wal-Mart’s ballot initiative in Inglewood and who traveled to Bentonville this week. We challenge Mr. Scott [Wal-Mart CEO] that the time has come for action, not words.”

One year ago, 61 percent of the mostly African American and Latino voters in Inglewood, near Los Angeles, rejected a ballot measure that would have allowed Wal-Mart to build a supercenter and exempt it from local and state planning reviews. Despite community opposition, Wal-Mart has since purchased the land where it hoped to build the project and is expected to announce new plans for an Inglewood store soon.

The activists held a Tuesday press conference and attempted to deliver a letter to Lee Scott. The letter called on Wal-Mart to sign a legally binding community benefits agreement that will protect the rights of the Inglewood community and guarantee living wage jobs, affordable family health care, fair pension benefits, job training and advancement, freedom from retaliation and basic rights on the job.

Wal-Mart Costs Communities

Workers across the country are spreading the word about Wal-Mart’s high cost to the nation. An AFL-CIO analysis of workers’ reliance on public health assistance in 13 states, The Wal-Mart Tax: A Review of Studies Examining Employers’ Health Care Cost-Shifting, released March 31, shows Wal-Mart ranks as one of the nation’s largest corporate offenders in shifting the cost of health care for workers and their dependents to the public.

Wal-Mart reports its national average wage for full-time employees is $9.68, which means a full-time worker who works 34 hours a week—Wal-Mart’s definition of full-time—earns $17,114.24 per year, well below the 2005 federal poverty level of $19,350 for a family of four.

Instead of paying its workers enough to support their families, Wal-Mart passes the buck to communities and taxpayers while undercutting local businesses and forcing many to close down. Each Wal-Mart store employing 200 people costs taxpayers approximately $420,750 annually in public social services for its employees, according to Everyday Low Wages: The Hidden Price We All Pay for Wal-Mart by the staff of Rep. George Miller (Calif.), the House Education and the Workforce Committee’s senior Democrat.

“I hear Wal-Mart say, ‘If we raise our prices poor people won’t be able to afford to shop at our stores.’ The truth is, Wal-Mart is creating more and more poor people by replacing good jobs with poverty jobs,” says Elinonai Padilla, an Inglewood supermarket employee who also is traveling to Bentonville this week.

Wal-Mart rakes in profits at the rate of $20,000 per minute—while benefiting from at least $1 billion in economic development assistance from states and municipalities in the past decade. Fortune magazine last month rated Wal-Mart as the nation’s largest company with revenues of $288 billion. Fortune also currently rated Wal-Mart as the world’s largest company.

Scott’s 2004 CEO compensation package was nearly $23 million and five members of the Walton family who are major company stockholders have a combined net worth exceeding $90 billion, making them half of the 10 wealthiest individuals in the United States. Yet fewer than half of Wal-Mart workers participate in the company’s health plan.

Taking Away U.S. jobs

Wal-Mart is the single largest importer of foreign-produced goods in the United States, and the majority of its private-label clothing is manufactured in at least 48 countries around the world—and almost none in the United States.

Wal-Mart’s biggest trading partner is China. The world’s largest retailer bought some $12 billion in merchandise in 2002, from China, nearly 10 percent of all Chinese goods sold in this country that year. The U.S. deficit with China was $162 billion in 2004 and Wal-Mart bought $18 billion in merchandise from China last year—one-ninth of the U.S. trade deficit with China, according to The Charlotte Observer.

Such a huge trade deficit undercuts domestic manufacturing and destroys good U.S. jobs because the nation is importing, on a large scale, products that had been produced domestically.

“I never did like Wal-Mart because I saw what Wal-Mart does to communities—they run off competition instead of playing fair,” says Steve Ratcliff of Circleville, Ohio. His employer, Thomson Electronics, a Wal-Mart supplier, shut down and moved to China because of Wal-Mart’s pressure to lower prices. “They make other businesses pull out or sell out and it kills the downtown area when they come in. I’ve lived just outside of Circleville all my life and Wal-Mart really did make it a ghost town.”

Ratcliff and other workers affected by Wal-Mart’s policies are interviewed on the documentary “Is Wal-Mart Good for America?” The Public Broadcasting System’s “Frontline” TV show will rerun the documentary nationwide on April 26. Check your local listings for times.

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