Celebs Ignore 'Green' Wal-Mart's Worker Oppression

When Wal-Mart hired Leslie Dach, "a prominent Democratic operative," earlier this year, Wal-Mart critics worried that the world's richest retailer would get just what it paid for.

Next Monday evening, when Wal-Mart CEO H. Lee Scott Jr. is honored by a raft of lifelong liberals "for his commitment to environmental sustainability," it'll be that much harder to argue that Dach wasn't an excellent acquisition for the global behemoth. In fact, it'll be its biggest public relations coup since Al Gore's green patina graced the offices of Wal-Mart executives this summer.

Monday's event is to be hosted by Weinstein brothers, lifelong Democrats and producers of the most successful documentary in the history of cinema, Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11." Among the other prominent guests scheduled to attend are both PBS journalist Charlie Rose and Gore buddy and Democratic heavy Bob Pitmann. Musical accompaniment will be provided by the Eagles, led by singer/songwriter Don Henley, whose history as a champion of the environment pads his bulging resume as one of the best-selling recording artists in history.

So what's wrong with all this? Why shouldn't these liberal bigwigs clink some glasses to changes in Wal-Mart's environmental practices, described by Grist's David Roberts as: "substantive," and, "well beyond what would be necessary for a successful greenwashing campaign"?

One of the more compelling answers, ironically, can be found in a story on Tuesday's front page: the workers. Cindy Zeldin's story tracked the latest leaked memo, detailing "plans to limit its 2007 health insurance options for new hires to two choices, both high deductible plans, in an effort to squeeze benefit costs." Zeldin is not hopeful for the health of future Wal-Mart employees and their families, calling the plan "a dagger through the heart of the very concept of insurance."

And speaking of workers, at the very moment that Monday's invite sailed into my mailbox, Wal-Mart department managers Guillermo Vasquez and Rosie Larosa were leading about 200 employees out of a Wal-Mart Supercenter in Hialeah Gardens, Florida. According to Business Week, the employees were "shouting 'We want justice' and criticizing the company's recent policies as 'inhuman.'"

These are by no means isolated incidents. Apart from our Republican-dominated federal government, no single entity boasts more lawsuits against it than Wal-Mart. Class action suits in motion at the moment read like a pamphlet from the nascent worker's rights movements of the early 20th century. They include: gender discrimination, racial discrimination, unpaid wages, exploitation of undocumented workers, pressure to work overtime or off the clock, and denied lunch breaks. And those are just the class action suits.

Lest anyone think these claims frivolous, juries are siding with workers more often than not. The most recent decision, handed down earlier this month, awarded nearly $80 million in damages to Pennsylvania workers.

Given the ongoing burdens shouldered by the Wal-Mart worker, it's downright shocking that the corporation's CEO is being praised and in such a high-profile manner by a group with liberal chops to burn.

Asked about the event, Robert Greenwald, the director of "Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price," lamented: "If only Wal-Mart would spend as much money trying to improve the working conditions for employees, the lack of health care and sweatshops around the world as they do on self-congratulatory P.R. advisers and self-serving events."

Much like diplomacy in every realm, some combination of carrots and sticks is required. Waiting until Wal-Mart is the perfect global citizen before praising its baby steps -- no matter how self-serving they may be -- is ludicrous. By the same token, lavishing the head of a deeply problematic corporation with praise for having made important strides in one area is unconscionable. Not to mention the fact that giving away the carrot farm for some improvements, despite Wal-Mart's unrepentant policies toward workers, is a poke in the eye to the workers themselves.

The issue of unjust labor practices at Wal-Mart and elsewhere isn't news to the liberals lending their names and reputations to Scott's recognition dinner. Don Henley, to take just one example, has testified before two senate committees as the cofounder of the Recording Artists' Coalition, which protects musicians' rights against standard industry practices. Were the RIAA, which represents the industry's interests, to receive accolades from high profile liberals for going green, while Henley went to bat for the artists, it might not sit too well with the artist.

Unless Henley pulls a Colbert and retools his pop hit "Dirty Laundry," to ensure that the tens of thousands of struggling employees aren't forgotten, this episode will be seen by many as a betrayal of the liberal values many attendees claim to hold.

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