Wal-Mart Whitewashing

01/20/2011 05:21 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

We have an affliction that really undermines a decent society. It's a tendency to want to ignore inconvenient facts, either explicitly or because we are encouraged to look quite narrowly and myopically at a problem. Which brings me to Wal-Mart's new attempt to whitewash its practices, using the First Lady as a prop.

We learn today from The New York Times:

Wal-Mart, the nation's largest retailer, will announce a five-year plan on Thursday to make thousands of its packaged foods lower in unhealthy salts, fats and sugars, and to drop prices on fruits and vegetables.

The initiative came out of discussions the company has been having with Michelle Obama, the first lady, who will attend the announcement in Washington and has made healthy eating and reducing childhood obesity the centerpiece of her agenda. Aides say it is the first time Mrs. Obama has thrown her support behind the work of a single company.

A couple of points. First, I am a strong supporter of Michelle Obama's attempt to try to get the country to eat more healthy foods. Second, it is absolutely true that when Wal-Mart makes a strategic decision it can move markets because of the stranglehold it exerts on suppliers. It has more power than federal agencies to move an issue:

Some say the company has almost as much power as federal regulators to shape the marketplace. The article goes on:

A number of companies have said they are going to make voluntary reductions in sodium over the next several years, and numerous companies have said they are going to try to get trans fat out of their food,' said Michael Jacobson, executive director of Center for Science in the Public Interest. 'But Wal-Mart is in a position almost like the Food and Drug Administration. I think it really pushes the food industry in the right direction.'

But, I wish people would understand that corporations don't do things out of the kindness of their hearts. They do things for their bottom lines -- and, in this case, to make the Waltons even richer. In fact:

But Wal-Mart is pushing only so far. The company's proposed sugar reductions are 'much less aggressive' than they could be, Mr. Jacobson said, noting that Wal-Mart is not proposing to tackle the problem of added sugars in soft drinks, which experts regard as a major contributor to childhood obesity. And he said it would be 'nice if Wal-Mart's timeline were speedier' than five years.

I also understand that all companies seek to make a profit. Okay, fine. But, fillings its pockets with cash and giving it huge positive publicity ignores the following:

Wal-Mart makes its billions on a strategy of exploiting poverty. It pays low wages and its low prices cater to the increasingly destitute class of millions of people who cannot afford to shop anywhere but Wal-Mart because Wal-Mart wages -- or, more broadly, the strategy to lower wages as much as possible -- is not the economic strategy of corporate America.

Wal-Mart is the defendant in the largest sex discrimination case in the history of the country. As an attorney for the women says, "Wal-Mart tries to project an improved image as a good corporate citizen. No amount of P.R. is going to work until it addresses the claims of its female employees."

I am assuming the First Lady knows of this lawsuit -- and the attempt by Wal-Mart to drag the case out and refuse to settle?

Evidence? According to one study, by Dr. Richard Drogin, professor emeritus at California State University-Hayward:

*female hourly workers earn up to 37 cents less per hour than their male counterparts;
* female full-time employees working at least 45 weeks earn on average nearly $5,000 less than male employees in yearly salary;
* women make up 72 percent of Wal-Mart's total workforce, but only 33 percent of its managers;
* and women make up 92 percent of Wal-Mart's cashiers, but only 14 percent of Wal-Mart store managers.

Wal-Mart repeatedly violates the law when it comes to other workplace issues, not the least of which is its virulent anti-union stance. Here is just a small list of examples:


Ten former Wal-Mart workers who are primarily Muslim and from West Africa have filed discrimination complaints against three stores in Western Colorado, saying managers treated them differently from other workers and denied them scheduled prayer breaks.

Wage Discrimination?:

On December 23, 2008, Wal-Mart announced that it would settle 63 wage and hour class action lawsuits that have been pending against the company for several years. That number represents approximately 86% of the 73 wage/hour and overtime class actions currently pending against Wal-Mart. What these cases have revealed through evidence and employee testimony is a "corporate culture" and systematic approach geared towards cutting labor costs, by dictating managers hire below the "preferred" staffing levels and rewarding managers for keeping labor costs down. It has been suggested that Wal-Mart's motivation for settling these lawsuits is not simply to avoid costly defeats in the courtroom, but to tie up issues that might be used by supporters to argue for passage of the Employee Free Choice Act[emphasis added]

Union Organizing? Check this absurd story out.

Going back to the days of Sam Walton, the company likes to paint itself as American and apple pie but Wal-Mart is a habitual tax dodger. Taxes are only for the little people, not the Waltons who are busy buying expensive paintings but will never pay for decent real health care for their workers.

You may remember the case of Debbie Shank, a severely disabled woman who Wal-Mart sued to get money back on an insurance settlement. Yes, the Waltons were really trying to scratch together every nickle to pay for those expensive paintings so they went after a woman who was barely making it.

Since China is on everyone's mind today, let me remind you of Wal-Mart's leading effort around the globe to block a truly modest improvement in Chinese labor laws.

I could go on and on and on.

At the end of the day, then, the point is we have to have a holistic view about how we set standards in our country, how we reward corporate behavior and how far we are willing to go to turn a blind eye to behavior that undermines the very foundations of a decent society.