Several Hoosiers are at the forefront of a fledgling effort to deflect a growing barrage of criticism lobbed at retail giant Wal-Mart Stores by organized labor and worker's rights advocates.
The Indiana chapter of the Working Families for Wal-Mart formed earlier this month and includes in its membership local elected officials such as City-County Councilor Ron Gibson and State Rep. Vanessa Summers, D-Indianapolis.
The national not-for-profit, which launched a year ago, is backed by the Arkansas-based retailer and also boasts chapters in California, Colorado, Georgia, Michigan and Ohio, with more expected to follow.
Its emergence serves as the latest volley in a contentious public relations battle between the world's largest retailer and its critics, which aligned in April 2005 under the Wakeup Wal-Mart moniker.
That organization, funded by the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, depicts Wal-Mart as a rogue corporate citizen that refuses to provide adequate wages and health insurance to workers, despite clearing $10 billion on $312 billion in revenue last year.
Supporters counter by promoting the discount chain's contributions to communities. Last year, for instance, it gave more than $245 million to charity and generated more than $13.9 billion in state and local sales taxes.
Kathy Carrier, president of Briljent LLC, an information technology consulting firm employing 70 people in Indianapolis and Fort Wayne, is a leader of Wal-Mart's Indiana chapter. She lives five minutes from where its latest store opened in Allen County and is not ashamed to say so.
"I don't view that negatively at all. In fact, I'm proud that Wal-Mart chose to locate in a part of the city nobody else would," Carrier said. "The stores are gone and the gas stations have shut down. They are putting stores in where people need jobs."
To be sure, 25,000 people applied in January for 325 jobs at a store opening in the Chicago area. The company employs 1.8 million people worldwide in 6,600 stores in which 175 million consumers shop weekly to take advantage of discount prices. A study by Boston-based Global Insight Inc. estimates Wal-Mart saves the average American family $2,300 annually in retail spending.
Yet critics contend the savings come at a cost, pointing to a recent conference call in which executives told analysts the company wants to increase profit by transforming its work force from 20 percent part-time to 40 percent.
Organized labor groups insist they have no interest in unionizing Wal-Mart employees. Rather, they're concerned competitors will follow the company's lead, said Jeff Kimbrough, Wakeup Wal-Mart's Indiana coordinator and member of UFCW Union Local 700.
"They're leading the race to the bottom that a lot of other retail groceries are following," Kimbrough said. "When we sit down and negotiate contracts with the employers we represent, Wal-Mart comes up inevitably."
Indeed, Wal-Mart is a lightning rod for controversy. One of the latest episodes involved a supercenter in Hialeah Gardens, Fla., where workers on the morning shift walked out in protest against a new round of workplace restrictions.
Among them were moves to cut the weekly hours of full-time employees from 40 to 32, along with a corresponding cut in wages, and to force workers to be available for shifts around the clock. Workers also are required now to call an 800 number when they are sick.
Besides staging the protest, employees sent a letter to Wal-Mart executives and to Florida politicians, including Gov. Jeb Bush.
A Wal-Mart spokesman said in national media reports that the protest was prompted by the reduction in hours, which was a misunderstanding brought about by new scheduling procedures. He declined to discuss the sick-leave issue and addressed the changes in shifts by saying schedules are set in order to have adequate staff during the busiest hours of the day.
In Chicago, Wal-Mart temporarily put off plans to build 20 more stores, most of them supercenters that sell groceries, inside city limits in the next 10 years until the City Council decided the fate of a bigbox ordinance.
That measure, passed by the council last month, required big-box retailers to pay wages and benefits of about $13 an hour. In response, retailers such as Wal-Mart, Target and Lowe's said they wouldn't expand in Chicago. Mayor Richard Daley later vetoed the measure, calling it bad for business.
Sales associates, the most common job at Wal-Mart, earn $9.68 an hour, or roughly $17,000 annually, according to the company. Cashiers make about $14,000 a year.
Right to defend self
Closer to home, the village of Zionsville blocked-at least for now-Wal-Mart's attempt to build a supercenter on the burgeoning Michigan Road corridor.
The Town Council unanimously voted in May to limit single-tenant buildings to 60,000 square feet and shopping centers with multiple tenants to 125,000 square feet. The plans had called for a 198,000-square-foot Wal-Mart.
But legislation signed by Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels last legislative session prohibits municipalities from changing the rules on developers after they have filed initial building permits. The law went into effect March 15, before the council vote. In turn, Wal-Mart filed suit in Boone Superior Court appealing the council's decision.
Zionsville merchants remain optimistic the town will prevail. They think a Wal-Mart, although it would be outside the heart of the village, would harm the historic town's charm. They gathered 6,000 signatures supporting their cause.
"Basically, we didn't feel that that kind of store fits in our community and the image we have here," said Dick Carr, president of the Zionsville Merchants Association. "And, of course, there is a Wal-Mart just two miles down the road [at 86th Street and Michigan Road.] It seemed kind of strange that they would build one that closely."
Nonetheless, Wal-Mart intends to pursue the Boone County location, apparent by the court case in which a teleconference is set for Jan. 18. While that dispute might be settled soon, there seems to be no end in sight to the debate over Wal-Mart's business practices.
It's too soon to gauge Working Families For Wal-Mart's effectiveness. But Grant Monahan, president of the Indiana Retail Council, of which Wal-Mart is a member, defends the corporation's decision to back the organization.
"Wal-Mart is under attack seemingly daily for one thing or another," Monahan said. "I think it's appropriate for Wal-Mart or any other company to organize allies and spokespeople on their behalf."
A Wal-Mart spokesperson declined to disclose how much it contributes to Working Families for Wal-Mart.