By Amy Joyce
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.
Visitors to the organization's Web site can also enter their Zip codes to find nearby Wal-Marts and then promise, online, to take responsibility for focusing attention on that particular store. Many people signed up to do this during the Mother's Day campaign, gathering signatures for petitions criticizing Wal-Mart or standing near stores to tell people about Wal-Mart practices they dislike. "We're focusing on people who might go to Wal-Mart and don't know the facts and might change their behavior," Kofinis said.
The UFCW's membership includes employees at grocery stores, which are facing stiff competition from Wal-Mart stores, known as Supercenters, that also sell groceries.
Wal-Mart has no plans to deal with Wake-Up Wal-Mart. "We do not plan to talk with them," said Wal-Mart spokeswoman Mona Williams in an e-mail. "Some of our critics are open-minded people who are genuinely concerned about issues and want to make the world a better place. We reach out to them and try to work toward common goals. Other groups simply pull publicity stunts to further their own narrow self-interests -- and Wake-Up Wal-Mart is clearly in that category."
The UFCW is not the only union pursuing a different kind of strategy. The Service Employees International Union backed a group formed earlier this year called Wal-Mart Watch. Much like Wake-Up Wal-Mart, it is trying to build alliances with other groups that disagree with Wal-Mart policies.
Some labor experts think the UFCW's different effort is long overdue. "It surprised me that it took so long for UFCW to realize it doesn't work on a store-by-store effort," said Kate L. Bronfenbrenner, director of labor education research at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.
Recently, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) vetoed a bill that would have effectively required Wal-Mart to pay more for health benefits in Maryland, and voters in a Los Angeles suburb rejected an initiative to open a Supercenter there.
Though Wal-Mart chief executive H. Lee Scott Jr. "has said he will not raise wages, if you get more stuff like the vetoed Maryland law and in Los Angeles, I think that they will begin to make some accommodations in both wages and health care," said Nelson N. Lichtenstein, editor of the upcoming book "Wal-Mart: Template for 21st Century Capitalism?" and director of the Center for the Study of Work, Labor and Democracy at the University of California at Santa Barbara.
Some believe they are seeing the beginnings of that already: Wal-Mart is launching a massive counteroffensive to protect its image. It is spending millions of dollars on advertisements in which employees praise the company as a great place to work. For the first time, Wal-Mart invited 100 journalists to its Arkansas headquarters this spring.
At a recent morning staff meeting in Wake-Up Wal-Mart's conference room, staffers pored over the clips from the day's papers and Web sites that mentioned Wal-Mart. Many were about a supposed whistle-blower fired from the company. "Have we reached out to his lawyers?" Blank asked.
"We should get people on the Hill" who sponsored the whistle-blower legislation to respond, Kofinis said.
"We're also still getting play on this Medicaid thing, which is great," Blank continued, referring to stories about Wal-Mart workers who turned to Medicaid because they couldn't afford the company's health coverage.
His colleagues were getting antsy. Their cell phones were ringing, legs were wiggling, and the staff just wanted the morning meeting to be over so they could get back to work.
With that, Blank rallied his troops: "Trust me, they are meeting 18 hours a day to figure out what to do with us."