By Allison Stevens
Tuesday, December 13, 2005
At the height of the shopping season, female rights activists are protesting outside the big-box stores of retail heavyweight Wal-Mart. They join a cross-section of groups focused on wages, benefits, community preservation and contraceptive access.
WASHINGTON, D.C. (WOMENSENEWS)--Two weeks before Christmas, the holiday specials are on full display at a suburban Clinton, Md., Wal-Mart, the big-box retail chain that advertises an immense selection of products at bargain-basement prices.
A walk through the aisles suggests the store is delivering on its promise: Twenty metallic ball ornaments are on sale for $1.88; a strand of 150 white Christmas lights costs $6.97; and potted poinsettias start at $5.94 apiece. The store also promotes a variety of gift items--such as bath and shower items for her and a manicure set for him--for under $10.
Wal-Mart's holiday deals aren't enough to lure Maryland resident Duchy Trachtenberg in from the winter cold. Instead of shopping inside the store she plans to spend her time outside, as a protestor.
This Saturday, Trachtenberg, president of the Maryland state chapter of the National Organization for Women, plans to lead an anti-Wal-Mart rally of like-minded activists who hope to raise awareness of allegations against Wal-Mart of sex discrimination and unaffordable health care insurance for its low-wage workers.
"It's a huge rallying cry right now," Trachtenberg said of the campaign against Wal-Mart, where women, according to the company's Web site, compose about 60 percent of the chain's sales associates but 40 percent of its management.
Target--another large-scale, low-price retail chain--has also come under fire this season from reproductive health advocates over a disputed incident involving a Missouri pharmacist's alleged refusal to fill a prescription for emergency contraception. Two other retail giants--Best Buy and Costco--are involved in pending sex discrimination lawsuits.
But Wal-Mart bears the brunt of the criticism by women's rights activists, who say that on top of allegations of sex discrimination in pay and promotion, the company bars sales of emergency contraception and declines to cover contraceptives in health insurance plans.
Wal-Mart spokesperson Dan Fogleman confirmed that the company does not cover contraceptives and said the company stocks emergency contraception in states where it is required to by law, but does not in other states because there is not sufficient demand.
That policy leaves female customers--especially those in rural areas, who often have no other pharmacy to turn to--without access to emergency contraception, said Planned Parenthood spokesperson Erin Libit.
Trachtenberg hopes to change that, along with a number of other policies practiced by the company. She and other activists around the country--from labor unions, environmental and immigrant rights groups--say the company eats up green space, drives out small local businesses and does not pay enough in wages and benefits.
Two new organizations--both based in Washington, D.C., and backed heavily by labor unions--are coordinating nationwide campaigns against the company involving rallies and protests, consumer education initiatives and public relations offensives. Their goal is not to drive Wal-Mart out of business--or even put a significant dent in the company's bottom line--but rather to compel Wal-Mart officials to change their policies.
Wake Up Wal-Mart, a subsidiary of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, claims 150,000 members.
Tracy Sefl is a spokesperson for the other group, Wal-Mart Watch, launched with seed money from the Service Employees International Union. Sefl could not quantify the group's membership but said more than 400 organizations--representing hundreds of thousands of activists from a variety of grassroots groups and state and national organizations--took part in a week-long "Higher Expectations" campaign against the company in November.
"We have had a tremendous impact on public awareness," Sefl said, but added, "We understand and have no illusions about Wal-Mart's dominance."
With 2004 sales of more than $288 billion, Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the nation's largest retailer, employs 1.6 million associates in more than 6,100 stores worldwide.
In October, Wal-Mart chief executive H. Lee Scott Jr. announced that the company would offer a more affordable health care plan and unveiled a series of environmental initiatives.
Health care coverage will be available in January for as little as $11 per month for individuals and sales associates will also soon be able to make tax-deductible contributions to a health care fund. On the environmental front, the company will reportedly take steps to reduce energy in stores, increase trucks' fuel efficiency, minimize packaging and pressure other companies to take similar stands.
Skeptics are taking a wait-and-see approach to the company's environmental initiatives and have faulted the company's new health plan, saying it has kept in place high deductible costs and strict eligibility requirements.
Still, some see the changes as a sign that the company is susceptible to public pressure.
"They just still have a long way to go, but it shows that they are able to try," said Sefl.
Officials at Wal-Mart, based in Bentonville, Ark., however, say the consumer campaigns are unnecessary and deny that policy changes have come in response to anti-Wal-Mart efforts.
Wal-Mart spokesperson Sarah Clark said Wal-Mart had strong sales in November and had its best October ever.
The company, she told Women's eNews, encourages diversity at all levels of the business, offers affordable health care plans for full- and part-time workers and will insure roughly 1 million employees and their family members.
Moreover, Clark said the company currently pays employees $9.68 an hour, nearly double the minimum wage of $5.15 per hour, and offers employees a 10 percent discount on store merchandise.
On top of that, Wal-Mart says it offers significant savings to its customers.
"We believe that their focus is certainly in the wrong place," said Clark, noting that many of the protesters are involved with campaigns backed by labor unions. "They're wasting hundreds of thousands of dollars on publicity stunts to attack our company when we're creating jobs and insuring families."
Those explanations haven't stopped holiday protests.
The anti-Wal-Mart campaign shifted into high gear in November with the release of "Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Pay," a documentary directed by filmmaker Robert Greenwald that outlines a laundry list of complaints against the company, including a pending class action lawsuit involving some 1.6 million current and former female employees. It is the largest class action in the nation's history.
The plaintiffs allege the company systematically denied them promotions and paid them less than men for the same work. Wal-Mart officials dispute the allegations in the class action lawsuit, contending in a statement on the corporate Web site that the six named plaintiffs are not representative of the experience of women working at Wal-Mart. The company notes the percentage of women in management will continue to increase due to various diversity initiatives. Instead, Wal-Mart is promoting a competing documentary by independent producer Ron Galloway, "Why Wal-Mart Works and Why That Makes Some People Crazy," which portrays the mega retailer as a positive influence on the lives of its employees and their communities.
"I firmly believe no special interest group in this nation benefits the poor and blue-collar as much as Wal-Mart does," Galloway wrote in a column published recently on The Huffington Post, an online political site. "Ask a single mom where she shops. Money is freedom, and by saving families money, as is its mission, Wal-Mart provides their customers more freedom in their daily lives."
Allison Stevens is Washington bureau chief at Women's eNews.
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