- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 2, 2005

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Wal-Mart Stores Inc. customarily has used its annual meeting as an opportunity to talk about its power as a retailer and its global reach.

Now, Wal-Mart’s critics are using today’s gathering of shareholders in northwest Arkansas as a stage for airing their complaints about the company’s health benefits, wages and other aspects of how the world’s largest retailer does business.

The group Wake-Up Wal-Mart, backed by the United Food and Commercial Workers union (UFCW), staged events Wednesday to call for states to adopt legislation that would require Wal-Mart to provide employees affordable health care.

The proposed bills are modeled on legislation approved by the Maryland General Assembly in April. The legislation, vetoed by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. last month, may still become law if lawmakers override the veto when they convene in January. It requires the retail giant to spend 8 percent of its payroll on health benefits or pay into the state’s Medicaid fund.

“Maryland is now inspiring this greater movement,” said Chris Kofinis, a spokesman for the Wake-Up Wal-Mart campaign.

Paul Blank, the campaign’s director, said the group wants to do more than create press pressure on the Bentonville-based retailer.

“It is a little bit broader than public opinion. This is a grass-roots movement, across the country, of Americans who want to change Wal-Mart,” Mr. Blank said.

Mr. Blank said Wal-Mart, with more than 1 million U.S. employees, should set the standard for how workers in the nation are treated and should sacrifice profits to help ensure its workers live above the poverty line.

“This is nothing more than a publicity stunt,” Wal-Mart spokesman Dan Fogleman said. “This is the UFCW by a different name.”

Mr. Fogleman said Wal-Mart would not have its 1.2 million domestic employees if it did not provide a good place to work, and he said Wal-Mart would not be able to retain the talent it takes to run such a massive company.

“By trying to focus a negative spotlight, by using half-truths and distortions of reality, they are painting or are attempting to paint us as something we’re not in hope of swaying public opinion,” Mr. Fogleman said. “The fact is, 270 million Americans choose to shop at Wal-Mart each year.”

Wal-Mart has consistently said it is eager to listen to criticism but said Wake-Up Wal-Mart is more interested in drawing attention to itself than making meaningful changes. The company has drawn criticism for the number of workers who rely on Medicaid, but Wal-Mart says its rate of workers using Medicaid declines the longer they are with the company.

“The health care issue is much broader than Wal-Mart,” the company’s executive vice president of benefits M. Susan Chambers said in a press release. “Maliciously targeting one company doesn’t address this issue. It doesn’t provide one person with insurance or take one person off the list of America’s uninsured. It doesn’t offer solutions.”

But the UFCW is not Wal-Mart’s only foe.

A group of shareholders that includes New York City Comptroller William C. Thompson Jr. is calling for Wal-Mart to have its audit committee name a group of independent directors to review the company’s internal controls that ensure it is following laws and regulations.

And Martha Burk, chairwoman of the National Council of Women’s Organizations, is to attend the meeting to ask the company’s board to detail payment of stock options by race and gender.

Miss Burk gained fame by trying to force the Augusta National Golf Club to admit women.

Wal-Mart has drawn its share of criticism in the past, but the focus is more intense this year. Pressure to improve company profits is also strong.

Wal-Mart’s share price has a 52-week range of $57.70 to $46.81, with the stock at $47.86, up 63 cents or 1.3 percent, in trading on the New York Stock Exchange. The investment community is looking for signals from Wal-Mart that it can increase sales — not just overall sales through growth but sales at stores that have been open for at least a year.

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