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    UFCW, Inglewood, Calif. Community Leaders Kick off Wal-Mart Campaigns

    BENTONVILLE, Ark. -- Timed to coincide with "Wal-Mart Media Days," a two-day public relations push to improve the retailer's press, The United Food and Commercial Workers' "Wake Up Wal-Mart," a grass-roots community-based campaign to change the retail giant's business practices, has begun by questioning statements made by company c.e.o. H. Lee Scott at a press conference here.

    BENTONVILLE, Ark. -- Timed to coincide with "Wal-Mart Media Days," a two-day public relations push to improve the retailer's press, The United Food and Commercial Workers' "Wake Up Wal-Mart," a grass-roots community-based campaign to change the retail giant's business practices, has begun by questioning statements made by company c.e.o. H. Lee Scott at a press conference here.

    The St. Louis Post Dispatch quoted Scott, in response to a reporter's query about why Wal-Mart has the highest number of employees on state Medicaid rolls, as saying, "There are government assistance programs out there that are so lucrative it's hard to be competitive, and it's expensive to be competitive." Disputing charges that it doesn't provide health care for its employees, the retailer noted that about 85 percent of its workers have health coverage, with about 56 percent covered by the company plan.

    "With over $10 billion in profits, Wal-Mart has a moral responsibility to provide decent health care for their 1.4 million employees," said Paul Blank, campaign director for the campaign, in a statement. "It is a sad day when the largest company in America admits that taxpayer-sponsored health care programs like Medicaid provide better health care than our nation's largest employer."

    According to Wake Up Wal-Mart, states are beginning to address this issue. For instance, Maryland's State Senate passed a bill April 5 requiring corporations to spend at least 8 percent of their payrolls on health care benefits for employees or put the difference into Maryland's Medicaid fund. The campaign cited information from the Baltimore Sun that although Maryland has several employers with more than 10,000 employees, Wal-Mart is the only one that doesn't meet the 8 percent threshold.

    Wake Up Wal-Mart noted that in 11 of the 12 states for which it has data, Wal-Mart is the company with the highest number of employees on Medicaid. Additionally, over 500,000 of Wal-Mart's employees don’t receive coverage under the retailer's health care plan, Wake Up Wal-Mart said.

    Describing the impetus behind the initiative, Blank said, "All across America, consumers and taxpayers are waking up to the high cost of Wal-Mart's poverty wages, reliance on taxpayer-funded state health care programs, and devastating impact on communities. Wal-Mart's values are not America's values.

    "There is only one force powerful enough to change the largest corporation in the world, the largest retailer in the world, and the largest employer in the world -- the American people," he added.

    The Wake-Up Wal-Mart campaign employs a variety of organizing strategies, innovative media, a blog, and other Internet tools that have been used in earlier political and grassroots campaigns.

    The Web site, WakeupWalMart.com, offers citizens, community leaders, activists, and workers the opportunity to "adopt" a Wal-Mart store through the "Take Action" section and begin forming community coalitions around every U.S. Wal-Mart location.

    Also intentionally coinciding with "Wal-Mart Media Days" was a press conference held in Rogers, Ark. by African-American and Latino community leaders from Inglewood, Calif., in which they challenged c.e.o. Scott to negotiate and sign the company's first-ever community benefits agreement.

    The legally binding contract would guarantee living-wage jobs, affordable family health care, and other benefits for employees, as well as help small businesses. The developers of the Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles and the City of Los Angeles, in connection with Los Angeles Airport, have already signed similar agreements.

    Last year, voters in Inglewood, a predominantly African-American and Hispanic city, roundly rejected a Wal-Mart-sponsored ballot initiative that would have allowed the company to build a supercenter without public input, government oversight, or environmental review. Despite the vote, Wal-Mart bought the land where it hoped to build the project and is expected to announce new plans for an Inglewood store soon.

    "Mr. Scott has admitted publicly that Wal-Mart made a mistake in Inglewood. It's time for Wal-Mart to correct that mistake by showing the people of Inglewood -- and the American public -- that the world's largest company is truly committed to strong, healthy communities," said California Assembly member and Inglewood resident Jerome Horton, leader of the delegation, in a statement.

    Horton told Progressive Grocer that the Wal-Mart issue was just one element of the Coalition for a Better Inglewood, which seeks to improve environmental, economic, and social conditions in the city. He added that he thought an ongoing dialogue would develop between his group and Wal-Mart, and that one of the organization's goals was to meet with decision-makers, including Scott himself.

    Horton and the rest of the delegation, which included supermarket worker Elionai Padilla, presented their challenge in a letter signed by Inglewood elected officials, church and community leaders, business owners, community organizations, and residents.

    Yesterday delegation members met with Wal-Mart officials at company headquarters in Bentonville, where the Inglewood group's concerns were further aired, although no resolution was reached.

    Meanwhile, Forbes magazine has once again named Wal-Mart No. 1 in the publication's 2005 ranking of the 500 largest publicly-traded U.S. companies.

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