With the federal government content to let Wal-Mart run amok,it has been left up to the states to protect workers from the retailbehemoth’s excesses. This past Saturday, April 9, Maryland showed America’slargest corporation who’s boss.

Maryland’s House of Delegates voted 82 to 48 to approve a bill thatwould require all businesses in the state with more than 10,000employees to spend at least 8 percent of their payroll on healthbenefits for workers (or, alternatively, donate the funds to thestate’s Medicaid program). Wal-Mart, with its 15,000 employees, is theonly such company that does not already spend 8 percent on health care foremployees–and thus, the direct target of the bill. Spearheaded byMaryland for Health Care, the legislation was supported by a coalition ofover 1,000 organizations representing Maryland’s health, business, andcommunity interests.

“We’re looking for responsible businesses to ante up…and provideadequate health care,” said Sen. Thomas M. Middleton (D-Charles). Republican Governor Robert Ehrlich Jr., who is expected to veto the bill, lashed out atDemocratic legislators. Cowed by Rush Limbaugh’s criticisms of themeasure, Ehrlich claimed the bill had made a mockery of Maryland.[Note to Marylanders: when your Governor cares more about Rush’sopinion than yours, you’re in trouble. Thankfully though, with a widemajority of the Senate having approved the bill, Ehrlich’s vetodoesn’t stand a chance.]

Wal-Mart’s critics hope that other states will follow Maryland’s lead.The Center for Community and Corporate Ethics, headed by formerdirector of the Democratic Party’s Senatorial Campaign Committee AndyGrossman, plans to distribute copies of Maryland’s Fair ShareHealth Care Act to state legislators in all 50 states. Already, sevenstates are considering similar measures.

The surge of anti-Wal-Mart activity has pushed the corporation into PRcrisis mode. On April 6, in its latest attempt to soften its image,Wal-Mart invited over seventy journalists to its corporateheadquarters in Arkansas. And on Tuesday–responding to a newly-formedcoalition of environmental and labor activists–Wal-Mart announced thatit would donate $35 million over the next decade to the National Fishand Wildlife Coalition’s preservation efforts.

Don’t count on Wal-Mart to become another Ben and Jerry’s. But, withcontinued pressure from activists and legislative action from thestates, America’s corporations could face a future in which socialresponsibility is no longer optional.

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Co-written by Sam Graham-Felsen, a freelance journalist, documentary filmmaker, and blogger (www.boldprint.net) living in Brooklyn.