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Wal-Mart Group, Unions Tap Activists to Promote Causes

April 12, 2006
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Two back-to-back hires of activists--one made by a union coalition and the other by a group funded by Wal-Mart--show how management and labor are using PR campaigns and the aura of the civil rights movement to seek public support for their positions.

On February 25, Working Families for Wal-Mart announced that it had hired veteran activist Andrew Young to serve as chairman of the group’s steering committee.

Seven days later, the Change to Win Coalition, a group of seven unions that spun off from the AFL-CIO last year, said it had hired Frank Clemente, former director of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch in Washington, D.C., as its issues campaign director.

Each of these hires is an attempt to raise public awareness of their causes, observers say. Twenty years ago, employers and unions focused more on getting employees of specific companies to hear their pleas, but in today’s political climate, public opinion is much more important, says Lowell Peterson, an attorney at New York-based Meyer, Suozzi, English & Klein, which represents unions.

Gaining public approval is critical for the labor movement, which has been suffering from declining membership, he says.

In his new role, Young, who began his career as an aide to Martin Luther King Jr. and was later elected mayor of Atlanta, says he will help emphasize how the retailer helps poverty-stricken regions. Last week, Wal-Mart announced that it plans to build 50 stores in struggling communities over the next two years as part of a goal to create 15,000 to 25, 000 jobs.

"I have worked with government and I have worked with labor unions to address the poverty problem, but you need an entrepreneurial spirit to generate wealth," Young says. "I’m not saying that everything at Wal-Mart is perfect, but they are making the model work."

Working Families for Wal-Mart, which is funded by Wal-Mart, is paying Young through a contract with his consulting company, Goodworks International. Working Families for Wal-Mart would not disclose how much Young’s company is being paid.

Clemente served as senior policy adviser in the U.S. House Government Reform Committee and was issues director for Jesse Jackson’s 1988 presidential campaign. He says he is helping to define and communicate the Change to Win Coalition’s goals. "People need to see unions as representing the best interest of the people," he says.

Both Young and Clemente have the gravitas to help their respective groups, says Robert Bruno, associate professor of labor and industrial relations at the University of Illinois in Chicago.

"They are people who will garner people’s attention," Bruno says. "But more importantly, they can rally the support of the communities they are trying to target."

For Wal-Mart, that community is largely composed of minorities, who are an increasingly important constituency as Wal-Mart expands into urban areas, says David Gregory, a labor law professor at St. John’s University in New York.

But whether these two men are just figureheads or will actually accomplish something remains to be seen, says Ken Goldstein, an economist at the Conference Board.

"I’m skeptical that they can get beyond all of the inertia right now," he says.

Jessica Marquez

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