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Lobbyists take the Wal-Mart war straight to Washington

Published August 3, 2005 12:01 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2005, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

WASHINGTON - 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 big-box retailer from their neighborhoods. Now the two sides are taking their fight straight to Washington.

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

Run by veterans of political campaigns, these groups are aligning themselves with lawmakers in hopes 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 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 also recruited thousands of volunteers around the country to help their cause.

Wal-Mart, meanwhile, has increased its own Washington presence. Since 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 already more than doubled to 10 in the past year.

The fight in Washington comes as Wal-Mart faces increasing legal problems, from child labor violations to charges of gender discrimination. The company recently paid a fine to settle federal charges that underage workers operated dangerous machinery, and 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 gender bias.

Wake Up Wal-Mart and Wal-Mart Watch are fighting the discounter on issues ranging from outsourcing of jobs and gender discrimination to its environmental record. The groups 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.

Both organizations have sent letters and met with lawmakers including Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., Sen. Jon Corzine, D-N.J., and Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn. Around the country, they've held online petition drives, organized meetings and barbecues, staged boycotts at Wal-Mart stores and launched ad campaigns. And they're 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 mostly ''self-serving, misguided and desperate.''

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

Wal-Mart, Bracy said, pays its fair share of taxes, creates jobs for Americans and upgrades the standard of living with its low prices. Wal-Mart is intent on getting that message out to lawmakers and the public, he said.

Last month, the company, which opened a lobbying office here five years ago, replaced its top legislative chief with Lee Culpepper, who was chief lobbyist at the National Restaurant Association. The eventual goal for 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 way he mobilized support from the over 300,000 restaurant members at his old job.