Citing Sam Walton’s legacy, and vowing to shop elsewhere, a coalition of grass-roots organizations — with a broad base of support — is furious with Wal-Mart. That’s, of course, nothing new, but this time the recriminations aren’t coming from the progressive labor and community activists concerned about issues like living wages, community benefits agreements, health care and sex discrimination. The folks mad at Wal-Mart this week are the right-wing Christian groups like the American Family Association and the Family Research Council. Wal-Mart has for years been viewed as friendly to conservative Christians, banning racy men’s magazines, and refusing to carry books that might offend fundie customers (like Jon Stewart’s America: The Book, with its imaginative rendering of naked Supreme Court justices) or George Carlin’s When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops?
But this week, Wal-Mart has disappointed the cultural hard right by announcing that its membership in the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce. This mild nod to cosmopolitan capitalism inspired howls of pain, with the Family Research Council calling it “outrageous” and an “offensive move,” “an affront to the millions of traditional families that patronize Wal-Mart.”
It’s fun to see these intolerant cretins suffer. But let’s take a look at the context. Probably taking advice from its highly paid flacks from Edelman, an elite PR firm — and from the Clinton Administration alums now working for Wal-Mart, who are, of course, triangulation experts extraordinaire — the retailer has been working to distance itself from its right-wing customer base, probably reasoning that many fundies live in places where they have no choice but to shop at Wal-Mart, while folks in more liberal, densely-populated areas need to be courted, after all the bad things they’ve heard and read about this company’s practices. That’s, most likely, why Wal-Mart recently decided to carry Plan B, the morning after pill, after being, for years, the only national pharmacy chain refusing to do so. It’s also why Wal-Mart has been going green. Steps like this represent a triumph for the progressive groups that have been seeking to reform Wal-Mart; they also show how politically savvy Wal-Mart is.
The labor-backed groups criticizing Wal-Mart need to tread carefully here, and play well with others, because the retailer is trying to win over every imaginable stripe of liberal and progressive, hoping to paint labor as an isolated “special interest” group. This strategy doesn’t have to succeed; the labor critique of Wal-Mart has impressive traction right now and has been winning substantial victories. But to keep up the momentum, unions will have to treat their allies with respect and listen carefully. That’s not something that has always come easily to them.