Congressional Candidates Take a Swing at Wal-Mart
DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:
When union leaders rally in Seattle this Labor Day, they'll be calling on the nation's biggest private employer, Wal-Mart, to offer better pay and benefits. The event is the culmination of a month-long bus tour organized by a union-backed group called Wake Up Wal-Mart. The tour has attracted support from some prominent Democrats, who are shopping for votes in the anti-Wal-Mart aisle. NPR's Scott Horsley reports.
SCOTT HORSLEY reporting:
It has all the trappings of a political campaign: a cross-country bus tour with its own promotional video.
(Soundbite of promotional video)
ANNOUNCER: Thirty-five days, one mission. Change Wal-Mart and change America. Get on the bus and join the fight for a better America at Wake Up Walmart.com.
HORSLEY: Some big Democratic names have accepted that invitation, climbing aboard the anti-Wal-Mart bus in hopes it could turn into a bandwagon. Over the last month, Senators Joe Biden and Harry Reid, Governors Tom Vilsack and Bill Richardson and former vice presidential nominee John Edwards have all appeared at Wake Up Wal-Mart rallies. At one bus stop in Connecticut, Senate primary rivals Joe Lieberman and Ned Lamont both showed up.
Mr. CHRIS KOFINIS (Wake Up Wal-Mart): Someone joked that the event, you know, the war divided them but Wal-Mart united them.
HORSLEY: That's Chris Kofinis of Wake Up Wal-Mart. His group, led by unionized grocery store workers, has been campaigning to get Wal-Mart to pay higher wages and improve its health insurance.
Mr. KOFINIS: As the number two company in the Fortune 500 they have a great responsibility, not just to the shareholders but also to their workers, their families and the community.
HORSLEY: Kofinis believes that's a potent message at a time when the gap between rich and poor in America is growing and the middle class feels squeezed. Politicians taking up the cry this summer include not only liberals but centrist Democrats as well.
Mr. KOFINIS: This is just the tip of the iceberg. What you're going to see, I think, as we go into the midterm elections, but also more importantly into the presidential primaries, is a serious debate in this country about what kind of America we want to live in.
HORSLEY: Independent pollster John Zogby has done surveys for Wal-Mart's critics in the past, but he doesn't believe attacking Wal-Mart is smart politics for Democrats. After all, the chain draws twice as many shoppers every week as John Kerry drew to the polls.
Mr. JOHN ZOGBY (Pollster): The message comes across, don't shop at Wal-Mart, don't you realize what they're doing, aren't you stupid? And I don't think that people like to be referred to as stupid if they're just trying to find good buys.
HORSLEY: Zogby says Democrats need to find ways to embrace Wal-Mart shoppers instead of alienating them. Meanwhile, Wal-Mart has stepped up its own PR offensive with new political-style TV ads touting not only the chain's low prices but also its treatment of employees.
(Soundbite of Wal-Mart ad)
ANNOUNCER: Last year alone, Wal-Mart created tens of thousands of new American jobs and we offer eligible associates health insurance for less than a dollar a day.
SAM (Wal-Mart Employee): Those are the values that guide us.
ANNOUNCER: Sam's dream, your neighborhood Wal-Mart.
Mr. BOB MCADAM (Vice President, Wal-Mart): We think we have a positive impact on the overall communities that we're located in and the people that work for our company and for the people that shop at our stores.
HORSLEY: Vice President Bob McAdam says the average Wal-Mart employee earns a little over ten dollars an hour. The company has long been criticized for offering such costly health insurance that most employees don't sign up. This year Wal-Mart began offering a more affordable plan, although it comes with high deductibles. Wal-Mart argues that its pay and benefits are competitive with most other retailers and that keeping its cost low saves money for shoppers. Critics counter that Wal-Mart has far more influence than most other retailers and that it helps set the pay scale for both its competitors and suppliers.
Whether Democrats are helping themselves by attacking Wal-Mart, it's clear that the company has become kind of a political litmus test. Pollster Zogby notes that people who shop at Wal-Mart every week voted overwhelmingly for George Bush in the last election, while people who never shop at Wal-Mart voted overwhelmingly for Kerry.
Mr. ZOGBY: It's turned out for me to be a better voting indicator than frequent church attendance, whether or not one's a member of the investor class or a NASCAR fan or pretty much anything else except obviously party identification.
HORSLEY: Zogby's polling this year shows even weekly Wal-Mart shoppers have grown less satisfied with President Bush. He says they might not even vote Republican in November, but they'll probably keep shopping at Wal-Mart.
Scott Horsley, NPR News.
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