The Oberlin Review
<< Front page News November 4, 2005

Wal-Mart beyond Oberlin

As Oberlin citizens prepare to vote on a “Living Wage” petition and local critics ratchet up their public objections to Wal-Mart’s employment practices, the national debate over the retail giant’s role in society has been developing as well. This includes a new film documenting the company’s alleged labor abuses, a New York Times investigation into its internal policies and an official rebuke from the Department of Labor. Wal-Mart, in turn, has dramatically stepped up its public relations efforts to counter these attacks.

The Times article, published on Oct. 26, contains an internal memo from Wal-Mart’s Board of Directors detailing methods of cutting healthcare costs. These include luring younger and healthier workers by increasing education benefits and hiring more part-time workers but also more drastic measures such as cutting 401(k) contributions and discouraging older, infirm workers by requiring that all jobs include some physical labor.

The company has come under fire for this type of practice before. Earlier this year, a Wal-Mart employee with cerebral palsy was awarded $2.8 million in a lawsuit alleging that the company discriminated against him by reassigning him to a job collecting garbage and moving shopping carts.

Responding to criticism of the memo, its author, M. Susan Chambers, executive vice president for benefits, told the Times that she understood the criticism but that Wal-Mart’s benefits plan “is known today as being generous.”

On Oct. 31, the Labor Department’s Inspector General Gordon Heddell criticized the department for making “significant concessions” to Wal-Mart by arranging a deal under which stores would receive 15 days warning before inspections for child labor violation. The settlement was reached after the department found 85 child labor violations in Wal-Mart stores nationwide last January. These included letting children under 18 operate heavy machinery.

Heddell’s report also stated that Wal-Mart lawyers had written large parts of the settlement, as opposed to the Department of Labor’s own legal division, which constitutes a major violation of Department procedure.

The day after the report came out, Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price was released on DVD. It begins a limited theatrical run today. The film’s director, Robert Greenwald, who also made the popular political documentaries Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism and Uncovered: The Truth About the Iraq War, described his new project in a press release as “a movie about one corporation crushing the American dream for millions of people.”

It appears Wal-Mart is not taking all this lightly. A 2004 McKinsey and Company report found that two to eight percent of Wal-Mart consumers surveyed have ceased shopping at the chain because of “negative press they have heard.’’

The New York Times reported on Oct. 26 that the company has set up a high-tech “war room” to quickly respond to and counter media criticism of the company. This operation includes former staffers from Democratic and Republican presidential campaigns.

It remains to be seen how Oberlin residents will respond to these developments as voters and as shoppers.


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