It's been a tough year for Wal-Mart, and things are about to get tougher.
Last Tuesday, at the world premiere of Robert Greenwald's Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price, SEIU chief Andy Stern declared: "This isn't just the premiere of a movie, it's the premiere of a movement." During the week of November 13 to 19, over 3000 screenings of the film are planned in all 50 states and 19 countries. Throughout "Wal-Mart Week," the two largest groups opposing the retail behemoth's practices, Wal-Mart Watch and Wake Up Wal-Mart, are planning an unprecedented series of actions.
Spiraling into PR crisis mode, the world's largest corporation has just assembled a "rapid-response public relations team in Arkansas," which includes former presidential advisors Michael K. Deaver of the Reagan Administration and Leslie Dach of the Clinton White House. Wal-Mart's new "war room" certainly has its work cut out for itself.
While the movement to change Wal-Mart has reached a fever pitch, throughout the year, Wal-Mart Watch and Wake Up Wal-Mart have waged a tireless and highly coordinated campaign. Here are some of the highlights:
-- Innovative Boycotts: Over 2,000 teachers, students, and activists in more than 20 states participated in Wake Up Wal-Mart's national "Send Wal-Mart Back to School" campaign with the AFT and NEA (the country's two largest teacher unions), urging students to buy school supplies at stores other than Wal-Mart. Over 20,000 Americans pledged not to buy their Mother's Day gifts at Wal-Mart thanks to Wake Up Wal-Mart's Love Mom, Not Wal-Mart" campaign.
-- Make Wal-Mart Care About Health Care Campaign: Wake Up Wal-Mart helped coordinate more than120 house parties in 38 states, which led to over 150 actions encouraging legislators to crack down on Wal-Mart's health care policy. Thanks largely to pressure from Wake-Up Wal-Mart supporters, Rep. Anthony Weiner, Sen. Ted Kennedy, and Sen. Jon Corzine introduced the Health Care Accountability Act in Congress--which would require states to disclose the names of large employers whose workers are on Medicaid as a result of the companies refusal to provide insurance benefits.
-- Fair Share Health Care Act: Representatives of Wake Up Wal-Mart and Wal-Mart Watch lobbied Maryland's legislature and helped pass the first legislation in the nation that would require large companies (specifically Wal-Mart) to pay for health benefits for employees. Although Republican Gov. Robert Erlich vetoed the bill, the movement to get such legislation passed in other states has just begun. Over 2,000 Wake Up Wal-Mart supporters have pledged to lead the fight in their states to introduce Fair Share Health Care legislation (click here to help introduce such a bill in your state). In September, the Working Families Party and the Long Island Federation of Labor helped get a bill passed in Suffolk County, New York.
-- Blocking the Bank: In September, Wal-Mart Watch delivered over 11,000 signed petitions to the FDIC in opposition to Wal-Mart's application for an Industrial Loan Charter (ILC) in Utah. According to Wal-Mart Watch, a Utah ILC "would effectively grant Wal-Mart the ability to loan businesses and individuals money to spend in Wal-Mart stores, violating prohibitions against the mixing of banking and commerce." The petitions have had a "staggering impact on the FDIC" and has significantly delayed the ILC process, says Wal-Mart Watch spokesperson Tracy Sefl.
-- The Leaked Memo: On October 26th, Wal-Mart Watch delivered a knock-out blow to Wal-Mart. The corporation had just made giant strides to rebuild its image--publicly declaring its intentions to offer health care plans for its employees and voicing support for a Federal minimum-wage increase. The very next day, the New York Times published a cover-story on a leaked internal memo, acquired by Wal-Mart Watch, which detailed Wal-Mart's plans to systematically weed out unhealthy employees and applicants in order to avoid health care costs. The exposure of the memo instantly deflated Wal-Mart's hollow attempt at an image makeover.
"We don't want to destroy Wal-Mart. We want to change it, to make it a decent, humane company, which it could easily do," says Chris Kofinis, communications director of Wake Up Wal-Mart, who stresses that Wal-Mart will be a key issue in the 2006 and 2008 elections. "We're not going to rest or sleep one bit until that happens."
[Full disclosure: The Nation is part of a wide coalition of groups, organizations and publications helping to generate interest in the screenings.]
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Co-written by Sam Graham-Felsen, a freelance journalist, documentary filmmaker and blogger (www.boldprint.net) living in Brooklyn.