You Heard It Here First

This morning on WNYC, host Brian Lehrer and guest Charles Fishman, author of The Wal-Mart Effect, were chatting about Wal-Mart’s entry into the organic food market (stay tuned for a Nation feature on this subject in our upcoming special Food Issue). As people often do when discussing Wal-Mart, Lehrer and Fishman segued into the subject of the company’s crummy health insurance, and the burden it places on taxpayers, who end up footing the bill when Wal-Mart workers have to turn to the public dole for health care. (According to the retailer’s own statistics, 46% of the children of Wal-Mart workers are on Medicaid, or uninsured.) Wal-Mart Watch and Wake Up Wal-Mart, the national groups now attempting to reform the company, are working in states and towns all over to pass Fair Share Health Care laws, to compel Wal-Mart to insure its employees more generously. But, Lehrer suggested, and Fishman concurred, wouldn’t it be great if Wal-Mart used its immense lobbying muscle to agitate for national health care?

According to an excellent article, in the June Atlantic Monthly, Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union, which funds Wal-Mart Watch, is hoping to force Wal-Mart to do just that. The company could neutralize a lot of progressive criticism this way, and if we did get a single-payer plan out of the ensuing fracas, we’d all be better off. I have made this very point on this very website, as well as, more than a year ago, in the aforementioned Nation/Economist debate on Wal-Mart, which was moderated by Brian Lehrer. But the point is not just to toot our own horn (well, perhaps a passing, staccato toot); rather, that it’s delightful that this idea is catching on.

After all, let’s be realistic: the Fair Share for Health Care campaign is a fine way to make the point that health benefits ought to be taken out of competition, but it isn’t going to solve the dire problem of spiraling health care costs in America. Given that Wal-Mart has no intention of complying with the new laws, and will mount legal challenges to each and every one, Fair Share makes more sense when viewed as a means to an end, and that end should be national health insurance. In recent speeches, Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott has said that the cost of health care in America is a larger problem demanding more leadership from “government.” Let’s see how far he’s willing to go.

Let’s see, too, how far labor will go. In his new book, Solidarity for Sale, Robert Fitch argues that unions haven’t made serious efforts to organize for national health insurance; indeed, they have often opposed it, for a combination of self-interested and ideological reasons. (This goes way back: Samuel Gompers argued that national health insurance had sapped the “virility” of British workers.) If we are to have meaningful health care reform, that attitude needs to change. Pressuring Wal-Mart is a good place to start.

In related news, Target has just announced that it intends “Wal-Mart-like” changes to its own health care plan, and may eliminate traditional health insurance for employees. This underscores the urgent need for single-payer healthcare, and the need for continued pressure on Wal-Mart, the industry leader that sets the standards for its fellow retailers.