Wal-Mart Launches Employee Voter Drive

By Ylan Q. Mui
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 30, 2006

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. yesterday launched a voter registration drive aimed at its 1.3 million U.S. employees in what it describes as the largest such effort by a private company.

The kickoff was held in Iowa, a key battleground in the upcoming midterm elections. Workers at Wal-Mart's roughly 3,800 other facilities across the country also received registration forms yesterday. Although the world's largest retailer said it does not want to influence how its workers vote, David Tovar, director of media relations, said the drive was prompted by recent criticism of the company by politicians.

Wal-Mart workers "read the newspapers and see the headlines, just like you and I do," Tovar said. "They recognize there were some elected officials that were saying some things that didn't really represent the company. They wanted to have an opportunity to have their voice heard."

Wal-Mart is working with Democratic strategist Charles Baker of the law firm DLA Piper and Republican strategist Terry Nelson, founder of Crosslink Strategy, on what it has dubbed the Voter Education Program. The company has prepaid postage for voter registration forms in Iowa and several other states. It is also allowing workers whose shifts do not give them three hours to visit the polls to take paid time off to vote. Before the elections in 2004, they received two hours of unpaid time off.

Wal-Mart sent letters to 18,000 Iowa employees in August criticizing Sens. Evan Bayh of Indiana and Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware and Govs. Tom Vilsack of Iowa and Bill Richardson of New Mexico -- all Democrats -- for participating in a bus tour arranged by Wake Up Wal-Mart, which is funded by the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union. Similar letters were sent to workers in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada.

The bus tour was designed to attract new members to Wake Up Wal-Mart and draw attention to the company's health benefits package.

Labor groups have accused the retailer of blocking employee attempts at unionizing. They also assert that Wal-Mart runs small companies out of business, depresses wages and does not provide adequate health coverage for its employees.

Wal-Mart Watch, which is backed by the Service Employees International Union, said it supports the retailer's voter drive but was still critical of its political efforts.

"Wal-Mart's employees realize that the company's lobbyists don't represent their personal interests," spokesman Nu Wexler said.

Some activist groups questioned the retailer's motives, citing Wal-Mart's policy of banning voter registration drives conducted by outside parties from its stores.

"If Wal-Mart is truly interested in promoting a just democracy, then customers and employees should be included in registration activities," said Edward A. Hailes Jr., senior attorney with Advancement Project, a national civil rights group organization that works on voting issues.

In the spring, volunteers with Project Vote and the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, a nonprofit group that has been critical of Wal-Mart, attempted to set up voting drives at several Florida stores, said Brian Mellor, the elections counsel for Project Vote. He said they were quickly asked to leave.

Tovar said the company's blanket policy bans such drives because it disrupts customers' shopping experience but that it has made exceptions for some nonpartisan groups.

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