Notorious Wisconsin Retailer Backs AFP-Linked Anti-Union Program

In June of last year, as the 2010 election campaigns gained steam — just five months before Wisconsin elected its famously anti-union governor, Scott Walker — Linda Hansen, executive director of the Walker-allied Wisconsin Prosperity Network, stood, beaming, behind a podium bearing the logo of the Americans for Prosperity Foundation. She was there at Southern New Hampshire University in Manchester to introduce her new “employee education” program, Prosperity 101, to a lively group of conservative activists. (See the video here.)

During the question-and-answer session that followed, Hansen offhandedly mentioned one company whose participation in her AFP-linked workplace program was likely a big coup: Menards, a major retailer one of the nation's largest privately held companies. The firm would join a list of other local firms working with Prosperity 101 to educate the retailer's employees on policies Hansen contended could negatively impact their jobs. The policies Hansen listed — including energy and healthcare reform — just happen to be endorsed and advanced by Democrats. As the nation's third-largest home improvement retail chain — just behind Lowes and Home Depot —Menards, based in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, operates more than 250 retail stores, mostly in the Midwest,and employs more than 40,000. It was now poised to become one of Prosperity 101's largest participants.

Set up as a for-profit company, Prosperity 101 preaches an anti-union, anti-government gospel to workers right in their own workplaces. Of the known participating firms, Menards is perhaps the most notorious. The subject of a 2007 exposé in Milwaukee magazine, Menards is known throughout Wisconsin as a particularly bad operator, abusive to its employees and dismissive of environmental protection laws. Reporter Mary van de Kamp Nohl found that the company docked employees' pay for circumstances beyond their control, such as a customer failing to pick up an order within ten days. Menards store managers were penalized for failure to inspect employees' lunch boxes before they left the premises and were prohibited from hiring anyone who had at any time been a union member. One store manager told Nohl that he was “forced to fire two promising management trainees because they'd been baggers at a unionized grocery store while in high school.” Another Menards manager told Forbes in 2003 that his contract contained a provision for “a 60 percent cut in pay should his store be unionized.”

Menards and CEO John Menard have been cited for dozens of environmental code violations; in 1997 Menard and his company were fined $1.7 million when Menard himself was found to have used “his own pickup truck to haul plastic bags filled with chromium and arsenic-laden wood ash to his own home for disposal along with his household trash,” according to Milwaukee. Earlier this year, Menard, Inc. was ordered by a judge to pay $30,000 to resolve a complaint of illegal hazardous waste disposal in Onalaska, Wisconsin.

Menards has also run afoul of the Internal Revenue Service, which in 2004 billed Menard, Inc. for $5.9 million in back taxes and penalties, claiming that a substantial part of John Menard's $20 million salary and bonus actually constituted a dividend that had been improperly reported as employee compensation. And in 2005, the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed suit against the firm for its failure to submit required reports documenting the number of women and minority employees.

Since 2009, John Menard has contributed $10,500 to state Republican Parties ($10,000 to the Minnesota GOP and $500 to the Republican Party of Wisconsin), and a total of $10,800 to the campaigns of a number of Republican candidates for national office, including $3,400 to the Senate campaign of Ron Johnson, who went on to defeat Russell Feingold.

Menards' company spokesman Jeff Abbott referred queries about Menards' relationship to Prosperity 101 to the firm's executives, who failed to respond to requests for information.

This article was reported in partnership with The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute; research assistance by Jed Bickman.

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