A campaign critical of Wal-Mart has made its way into Iowa, featuring potential Democratic presidential candidates of the future and prompting Iowa business groups to rally to the defense of the retail giant.
By week’s end, a handfull of presidential hopefuls, including Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack, as well as other Democrats on the local level will have made statements in support of the campaign to pressure Wal-Mart to pay for health care insurance for all its employees.
State Senator Jack Hatch, a Democrat from Des Moines, says Wal-Mart deserves the drubbing because taxpayers wind up providing many Wal-Mart workers with health insurance. “We don’t think that a corporation as profitable as Wal-Mart should be using tax-supported dollars to provide health care to some of their employees,” Hatch says. Hatch cites a state report which found about 900 Wal-Mart employees get state-paid Medicaid health insurance.
Greg Spenner, president of the Associated Builders and Contractors of Iowa, accuses the Democrats and unions of launching the campaign to pressure Wal-Mart employees to join a union. “It’s a little disingenous for politicians to try and think that they know more about how Iowans feel about their employers and try and force issues simply to reverse a trend that’s occuring and that is that fewer and fewer people are choosing to belong to a union,” says Spenner, a former Republican state legislator.
Hatch, a current Democratic state legislator, says that’s a “bogus” argument. “Wal-Mart is not a good citizen if they’re asking the Iowa taxpayers to pay their health care bils for their employees. That’s irresponsible,” Hatch says. “They’re strong enough as a corporation to pay their own (employees) health care bills and they’re trying to deflect the arguments against them by saying this is a union-organizing proposal.”
Mike Ralston, president of the Iowa Association of Business and Industry, issued a statement in support of Wal-Mart. “ABI’s not so much interested in getting involved in any debate and respects all kinds of views on this issue, but we also wanted to make it clear to Iowans and for the record say that Wal-Mart does a lot of good, creates a lot of economic activity that is truly important to Iowa and that ought to be known as well,” Ralston says.
Democrats like Hatch say the issue is whether Wal-Mart’s a good corporate citizen when at about one-quarter of Wal-Mart employees are uninsured. “When we’re trying to look at providing Medicaid for the poor…how can we divert so much money away…to help employees of Wal-Mart?” Hatch asks. “That’s just not fair and that’s not being a good corporate citizen.”
According to Wal-Mart spokesman Dan Fogleman, over 75 percent of Wal-Mart “associates” nationwide have insurance coverage either through Wal-Mart; through another job because many Wal-Mart workers are part-timers; through the government’s Medicare program because many Wal-Mart workers are senior citizens; or — because some Wal-Mart workers are students — those younger workers are still covered on a parent’s policy.
The company has sent its 18,000 Iowa employees a letter. “We’re disappointed that these politicians are speaking out without paying attention to the facts and we’ll be sure to inform our associates all across Iowa and in other key states these candidates are not telling the truth about Wal-Mart,” Fogleman said over the telephone, reading a company statement. “We certainly hope that these political leaders will accept our invitation to tour our stores, to talk with our associates, and to learn first-hand the truth about our company.”
Fogleman, who continued to read from the statement, said elected officials should “spend their time on real solutions to real challenges” rather than what he termed the “misguided attacks aimed at scoring special interest political points.” According to Fogleman, Wal-Mart is offering insurance coverage to more of its employees every day. “(Our associates) said they wanted their coverage to be more affordable, more accessible and so we’ve done that. We’ve come up with innovative plans that cost as little as $11 a month in some areas, $23 a month anywhere in the country,” Fogleman said. “And we’ve expanded eligibility for our plans to ensure that associates — both full and part-time — have access to affordable, accessible and secure health care coverage.”
Fogleman calls Wal-Mart a unique employer with “hundreds of thousands” of students, second-income earners and senior citizens, so the corporations demographics are much different than most employers.