Logging On With A New Campaign
Tuesday, May 31, 2005
It's a Thursday morning in a downtown office building on K Street. Five staffers are fielding phone calls, soliciting help, blogging and brainstorming. Handmade posters are taped to drab walls, tracking their plans and progress. White boards are scribbled on, erased and scribbled on some more. Boxes sit unpacked. Dating lives have been put on hold. There are no plans for a summer vacation. Weekend rest is fleeting.
In other words, not much has changed since these staffers were with the Howard Dean, Wesley K. Clark and John F. Kerry presidential campaigns. But this time, they are trying to win one for the Wal-Mart workers.
Their group is the latest manifestation of the ongoing campaign to change Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the nation's largest private employer. After years of failed attempts to help Wal-Mart workers organize a union, leaders of the United Food and Commercial Workers are trying an Internet-oriented approach developed in recent failed presidential campaigns.
When Joseph T. Hansen became president last year, he decided to switch from approaching employees inside the stores to putting on a wider campaign designed to win over the company's customers and general public. His hope is that public reaction and negative publicity will force the company's executives to change some practices.
In January, the UFCW hired 29-year-old Paul Blank, former political director of the Howard Dean presidential campaign. He pulled together a team of other young former staffers from failed Democratic presidential campaigns to start a grass-roots effort to draw in consumers. The group calls its effort Wake-Up Wal-Mart, and it tries to use tools developed in political campaigns.
"For a number of years, we were going by the rules," attempting to sign up workers under rights granted by the National Labor Relations Act, said William T. McDonough, head of UFCW's organizing department. "We got very frustrated."
The mega-retailer's public image had already taken some hits before the campaign began, in part because of earlier attempts by organized labor to draw attention to what it argues is the downside of Wal-Mart's dominance. Wal-Mart is facing the largest ever class-action lawsuit charging gender discrimination. Its critics say it does not pay a fair wage and creates a burden for localities because it fails to provide adequate health care for its workers. Wal-Mart has agreed to pay $11 million to settle a federal investigation that found hundreds of illegal immigrants were hired to clean its stores.
McDonough said two well-known failed organizing attempts showed that the unions had to change their tactics: Wal-Mart eliminated meatpacking positions nationwide and began to sell prepackaged meat after meatpackers at a store in Texas voted to organize in 2000. The company said it had intended to do so before the workers voted for a union. "That had a chilling impact on any other organizing," McDonough said. Wal-Mart in April closed a Jonquiere, Quebec, store where workers had voted in a union. Wal-Mart said the store was underperforming. And so the union decided to respond with a more public campaign.
"It's a very small group dealing with very big things," Blank said. Involved in politics and campaigns since he worked in Bill Bradley's office at age 12, he most recently worked for Joe Trippi, Dean's former campaign director.
The other staffers include Buffy Wicks, 27, an antiwar activist who worked on the Dean campaign and is Wake Up's political director, and Jeremy Bird, 26, who grew up in Missouri and whose mother used to work for Wal-Mart. He went to Harvard Divinity School and was a Dean campaign worker "until the bitter end."
Brendan Bush, 25, runs the group's blog. He was on the Internet crew for the Kerry campaign. "Back before I knew I was a Democrat," he said, he teased his uncle who was proud of his union membership in the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen. The group's communications adviser, Chris Kofinis, 35, helped originate the DraftWesleyClark.com campaign and was a strategist for TheNaderFactor.com, a Democratic group that worked to pull Nader voters to other candidates.
Wake-Up Wal-Mart's first major action was to garner opposition to Wal-Mart for Mother's Day. The group launched a campaign called "Love Mom, Not Wal-Mart." Shoppers signed a petition promising not to buy a Mother's Day gift at the store. News of the petition went out on blogs and community activist sites. About 22,000 people signed the online promise in the week and a half before Mother's Day. Kofinis said he considered the signatures a success, not because they had an impact on Wal-Mart sales, but because he thinks they helped raise awareness of the group's criticisms of Wal-Mart.