Naked City

Wake up, Wal-Mart!

As part of the nationwide Wake Up Wal-Mart campaign, the United Food and Commercial Workers, along with the Texas AFL-CIO, the Austin Central Labor Council, Interfaith Worker Justice, and the Congregational Church of Austin held a state Capitol press conference last Wednesday addressing the big-box retailer's poor record of providing affordable health care to its employees. Advocates say the company's skimpy-to-nonexistent health care benefits force tens of thousands of workers and their families onto taxpayer-funded public health care roles. Advocates cited the 52% of Wal-Mart's 1.3 million employees who lack health care, as well as statistics from 12 of 13 states with available data which show that workers for Wal-Mart, more than any other employer, rely on public health care programs like Medicaid – which advocates said costs taxpayers up to $2.5 billion a year nationwide.

"Every day, Wal-Mart adds to America's growing health care crisis. It is Wal-Mart, not taxpayers, who should be providing health care for its workers," said Miles Anderson of UFCW. El Paso state Rep. Norma Chavez said, "Wal-Mart's failure to provide health coverage to many of its employees costs Texas taxpayers over $5.5 million annually." Chavez introduced legislation this session (the unsuccessful HB 954) that would have required the state to disclose, in an annual report, the number of employees and their dependents who receive public assistance and work for a company with more than 50 employees.

Contributing to the Fair Share for Health Care Act that the Wake Up Wal-Mart Campaign hopes to introduce in all 50 states, Chavez says she'll author similar legislation next session, along with two other bills directed at the retailer's health care habits. One would require corporations with more than 1,000 employees to disclose the percentage of payroll it devotes to health insurance. The other would require companies like Wal-Mart to pay at least 10% of their payroll costs to health insurance benefits or pay the difference into the state public health fund.

Wal-Mart representative Esther Silver-Parker called the press conferences, held in 15 states, "nothing more than a publicity stunt," designed to further the "narrow self-interests" of the UFCW. She pointed to www.wal-martfacts.com, which states, "86% of Wal-Mart hourly store associates surveyed have medical insurance – 56% of those with coverage received health care insurance from Wal-Mart and the remainder received health care insurance through another source such as another employer, a family member, the military or Medicare [sic]." She also referenced a December study that showed 7% of hourly store associates were on Medicaid three months before joining Wal-Mart, and that that number dropped to 5% once they joined the company. After two years of employment, the figure dropped to 3%.

In response, Ed Sills of the Texas AFL-CIO said the study shows that "even after Wal-Mart makes its benefits package available to workers, and even after two years of employment and the presumed benefit of building a career, Wal-Mart is still providing a work package so cheap that nearly half the folks who started a Wal-Mart job while on Medicaid are still on Medicaid." During the press conference, the Rev. Tom Vandestadt of the Congregational Church of Austin compared the retailer's corporate citizenry to the antics of its advertising alter-ego smiley face: "Where exactly is that smiley-faced Zorro cutting money from to make prices so low? Turns out it's from paychecks and benefits."

In other Wal-Mart news, Robert Greenwald, creator of the scathing documentaries Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism and Uncovered: The War on Iraq, has started work on Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price and has asked the public to send him stories and/or video about how Wal-Mart has affected their communities. More at www.walmartmovie.com. Also see www.wakeupwalmart.com and www.austinfullcircle.org.

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