Wal-Mart Antagonists Set to Join Edwards

By Ylan Q. Mui
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 7, 2007

Two of the political operatives who helped create the anti-Wal-Mart movement are close to leaving the cause to join the presidential campaign of former Democratic senator John Edwards, raising questions about the fate of a movement that has turned the behemoth retailer into a hot political and social issue.

Paul Blank, the campaign director of Wake Up Wal-Mart, and its chief spokesman, Chris Kofinis, are in final discussions with the Edwards campaign and could leave in a few days. The group was founded by the United Food and Commercial Workers two years ago after the failure of several well-publicized attempts to organize Wal-Mart employees.

Blank was previously political director of Howard Dean's 2004 presidential campaign and worked with Joe Trippi, who was hired by Edwards in April. Kofinis helped found the DraftWesleyClark.com campaign during that presidential race and was a strategist for TheNaderFactor.com, a Democratic group that worked to pull Ralph Nader voters to other candidates.

Kofinis said Wake Up Wal-Mart would continue its mission to change the company's business practices. It launched an animated television ad last week criticizing the retailer for the amount of Chinese products it imports. Kofinis said more aggressive attacks are planned for the upcoming weeks.

"The fact is, the Wakeupwalmart.com movement, the campaign to change Wal-Mart, was never about two people. It's about the 377,000 supporters who have worked passionately and endlessly to change Wal-Mart and America for the better," Kofinis wrote in an e-mail yesterday. "And so, rest assured, the campaign and the Wakeupwalmart.com movement will move forward, it will become more aggressive, and it will reach even greater heights."

But the landscape has changed dramatically since Blank and Kofinis launched Wake Up Wal-Mart in a drab, messy office on K Street in 2005. Namely, Wal-Mart has begun to fight back, hiring big guns from the Edelman public relations firm to staff a rapid-response team and shape its political strategy.

"We wish them well," Wal-Mart spokesman David Tovar said. "As always, our focus is on serving our customers and helping them save money so they can live better."

Another group, Wal-Mart Watch, funded by the Service Employees International Union, also formed in 2005. It scored an early coup when it obtained a copy of a memo by Susan Chambers, former executive vice president of benefits, that suggested that the company could lower health-care costs by pushing out sickly workers.

Wake Up Wal-Mart became known for splashier behavior like large rallies and protests. Last summer, it staged a bus tour called Change Wal-Mart, Change America that stopped in 35 cities and drew support from several Democratic politicians -- including Edwards, who spoke in Pittsburgh criticizing Wal-Mart's wages. In addition, the group has engaged in what it calls a "constant campaign" that attacks the company on different issues roughly every month. The goal is to create a sort of echo chamber in which negative news about the company constantly circulates.

"That kind of continuous pressure and commentary is important in shaping the conversation," said Nelson Lichtenstein, director of the Center for the Study of Work, Labor and Democracy at the University of California at Santa Barbara. "They're not going to change the policies of the company, per se, but you just need to be there continuously. . . . It would be a mistake for them to fold up."

But it remains unclear how long the debate will have legs, particularly on the hot issue of health care. Two years ago, Wal-Mart spokeswoman Mona Williams said the company had "no plans" to speak with Wake Up Wal-Mart, which, she said, was simply pulling "publicity stunts to further their own narrow self-interests."

The company has kept its word and still adamantly opposes unions in its stores. But in February, Wal-Mart agreed to work with the SEIU to push for universal access to affordable health care. The partnership floored many in the labor movement and stole some of the thunder of Wal-Mart's critics.

"Two years ago, no one would have ever expected [Wal-Mart Chief Executive] Lee Scott and [SEIU President] Andy Stern to be discussing health-care issues. Now they're at a point where they're actually at the same table," said Nu Wexler, spokesman for Wal-Mart Watch. "If Wal-Mart is serious about pressing for universal health care, that alone will make our work worthwhile."

To Ron Galloway, a former member of Working Families for Wal-Mart, which the company sponsored as a response to the union groups, the partnership amounted to a truce among rivals. Wal-Mart realized it had to give some ground, said Galloway, who left over disagreements about how much Wal-Mart paid its employees, and the company's critics realized that was all they were going to get.

"Nobody won. It was clearly a draw," he said. "It's over."

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