- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 3, 2005

The battle over Wal-Mart Stores Inc. has long been waged in towns and cities, with opponents using zoning ordinances and referendums to block the retailer’s expansion. They also have mounted union-organizing drives.

Over the past six months, that fight has shifted to the nation’s capital, and lobbying is the latest anti-Wal-Mart strategy.

Working out of offices that resemble political war rooms, two groups, Wake Up Wal-Mart and Wal-Mart Watch, are waging campaigns to pressure the world’s largest retailer to be a better employer and corporate citizen.

Run by veterans of political campaigns, the groups are aligning themselves with lawmakers in the hope of passing laws that are aimed at Wal-Mart. They also hope to make the company a political campaign issue for 2006.

Their efforts extend beyond the Capital Beltway. Wake Up Wal-Mart, supported by the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, and Wal-Mart Watch, which draws support from a wider network, have recruited thousands of volunteers across the country.

Wal-Mart, meanwhile, has increased its own Washington presence. Since early spring, its representatives have visited and written to lawmakers, particularly Democrats who have been most critical of the company. It also plans to bolster its lobbying team, which has more than doubled to 10 over the past year.

Wake Up Wal-Mart and Wal-Mart Watch are fighting the discounter on issues ranging from outsourcing of jobs and sex discrimination to its environmental record. They are attacking its wages and health benefits, which they say are driving down pay and benefits for workers in many other companies as Wal-Mart’s rivals try to compete.

Opponents have sent letters and met with lawmakers including Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat; Sen. Jon Corzine, New Jersey Democrat; and Rep. Rosa DeLauro, Connecticut Democrat.

Across the country, they have held online petition drives, organized meetings and barbecues, staged boycotts at Wal-Mart stores and started ad campaigns. And they are using Web sites and blogs to try to rally the public.

“We’re attacking the Wal-Martization of the economy,” said Andrew Grossman, the executive director at Wal-Mart Watch and former executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Although the groups are labor backed, they say their fight goes beyond employee issues.

“In order to change Wal-Mart, we first have to build a broad-base social movement in this country for change,” said Wake Up Wal-Mart Director Paul Blank, who was the political director for Howard Dean’s presidential campaign. “This is about empowering people to build that movement.”

Ray Bracy, vice president of federal and international affairs at Wal-Mart, said the company is listening to its opponents, but he described some labor-backed groups as “self-serving, misguided and desperate.”

As for the groups’ recruitment of volunteers, Mr. Bracy responded that Wal-Mart attracts 120 million shoppers per week.

“People vote by shopping there, and by applying for jobs,” he said.

Wal-Mart, Mr. Bracy said, pays its fair share of taxes, creates jobs and upgrades the standard of living with its low prices.

Wal-Mart is intent on getting that message of responsibility out to the public, he said.

Last month, the company, which opened a lobbying office in Washington five years ago, replaced its top legislative chief with Lee Culpepper, who was chief lobbyist at the National Restaurant Association. The goal for Mr. Culpepper is to enlist the company’s more than 1.3 million workers at its 3,000 stores to rally behind its legislative agenda — the same way he mobilized support from the more than 300,000 restaurant members at his old job.

The fight in Washington comes as Wal-Mart faces increasing legal problems, from child labor violations to charges of sex discrimination. The company recently paid a fine to settle federal charges that underage workers operated dangerous machinery. It also agreed to pay $11 million to settle charges that its cleaning contractors hired illegal immigrants. It also faces a class-action lawsuit by female employees who charge Wal-Mart with sex discrimination.

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