Today marks the premiere of Robert Greenwald’s documentary Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price, and Wal-Mart is ready with a “war room” led by Robert McAdam, who is, charmingly, the former strategist for the tobacco industry.
Wal-Mart’s spin machine is being sorely tested. Just last week, a secret internal memo recommending that the company curb healthcare costs by “dissuad[ing] unhealthy people from coming to work at Wal-Mart” was leaked to the advocacy group Wal-Mart Watch. The memo’s suggestions included designing “all jobs to include some physical activity (e.g., all cashiers do some cart-gathering).” This amounts to nothing less than a plan to discriminate against the disabled, sick and elderly. It’s contemptible, of course, but it also has serious legal implications; Wal-Mart has been forced to settle lawsuits from disabled workers in the past, and this memo will almost definitely strengthen the case of any who wish to sue the company in the future.
In the memo, whose contents were first revealed in the New York Times, Wal-Mart admits that criticism of its meager, unaffordable healthcare plan is contributing to the decline of Wal-Mart’s overall reputation and that “our critics are correct in some of their observations…our coverage is expensive for low-income families, and Wal-Mart has a significant percentage of Associates and their children on public assistance.” The memo acknowledges that 46 percent of Wal-Mart workers’ children are either on Medicaid or uninsured.
It’s very clear that criticism and public pressure are bothering Wal-Mart’s leaders. So far, they are mostly investing in spin and devising harebrained–and inhumane–schemes like those outlined in the memo. But the same memo does contain a glimmer of hope that the company could respond to pressure by doing something good–in particular, a suggestion that the company “refram[e] the debate” on healthcare, emphasizing that “this is everybody’s problem, not just Wal-Mart’s” and “establishing Wal-Mart as a leader on this critical issue.” We couldn’t agree more. The best way for Wal-Mart to curb its healthcare costs–and improve its image–would be to lobby for single-payer national health insurance; for its activist critics, all this pressure on the company to improve its health benefits should be a means to that end.
As unrealistic as that might sound–after all, Wal-Mart is a right-wing company, whose campaign contributions tend to favor antigovernment Republicans, not European-style social democracy–there is no telling what people might do when under enough political and economic pressure. A recent study commissioned by Wal-Mart showed that from 2 percent to 8 percent of its customers had stopped shopping there because of “negative press.” All of this is having some surprising effects, including unpredictable policy recommendations from the company’s leadership.
Last week, CEO Lee Scott called for increasing the minimum wage, a suggestion that drew howls of wounded betrayal from the company’s usual defenders on the Wall Street Journal editorial page, but which Scott rightly pointed out would help the company’s customers, many of whom are low-wage workers. National health insurance would do the same, while allowing the company to save money on benefits–and on spin. Paying former tobacco lobbyists to convince the public that Wal-Mart is a good corporate citizen is going to get expensive.