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Labor Groups Challenge Retail Giant Wal-Mart on Pressuring Employees to Vote Against Obama

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Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retailer, is being accused of violating federal election laws by urging its employees to vote against Senator Barack Obama in the November election. Last month, the Wall Street Journal revealed Wal-Mart has been warning its managers that an Obama victory would lead to unionization at Wal-Mart stores. A coalition of prominent labor groups recently filed a complaint against Wal-Mart with the Federal Elections Commission. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.


We turn now to Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retailer, being accused of violating federal election laws by urging its employees to vote against Senator Barack Obama in the November election. Last month, the Wall Street Journal revealed Wal-Mart’s been warning its managers that an Obama victory would lead to unionization at Wal-Mart stores.

In recent weeks, thousands of Wal-Mart store managers and department heads have been summoned to mandatory meetings discussing the downsides of unionization. The Wal-Mart human resources managers who run the meetings don’t specifically tell attendees how to vote but make it clear that voting for Obama would be tantamount to inviting unions in.

Well, a coalition of prominent labor groups recently filed a complaint against Wal-Mart with the Federal Elections Commission. The groups — American Rights at Work, AFL-CIO, Change to Win, and WakeUpWalMart.com — say Wal-Mart broke a federal election law that bars corporations from expressly advocating to hourly employees the election or defeat of specific candidates.

Chris Chafe, the executive director of Change to Win, joins us here in Denver. Welcome to Democracy Now!

CHRIS CHAFE: Thank you for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain what is going on. When did you find this out? How did you find it out? Where did these meetings take place?

CHRIS CHAFE: Sure. Well, one of the interesting things about this is that our information about these meetings came from the managers themselves, reaching out to a variety of organizations and informing us that the company had been holding what we would consider captive audience meetings, where they’re on company time, they’re being paid, but they’re required to go to meetings. This fits a pattern of what Wal-Mart does with its hourly employees all the time around unionization issues.

But this is a different story; this has gone beyond the normal routine of intimidation. Now they’re actually trying to deny their workers’ rights at the ballot box, and that was something that we felt like we could not allow to take place and that we had to let the world know, that this was happening in the country’s largest employer.

AMY GOODMAN: So, where did the meetings take place?

CHRIS CHAFE: I believe they happened on company property, but I don’t know the specifics of all the meetings. They were widespread all over the country. At first, we thought that this might be — we wanted to know if it was an isolated situation, but we’ve heard from folks throughout America and throughout many of the battleground states that are going to decide the next president.

And so, we believed that in this case you have a company that has the ability to impact a vote. They’re the largest private employer in the country. They’re largest employer in many of the battleground states. So, we’ve seen what their tactics have meant for workers who are trying to raise their wages or look for healthcare benefits or retirement security. They’ve scared the daylights out of their employees, illegally.
When their employees have exercised their rights to form a union, they close the facilities. It happens — it just happened again, I believe, in Canada. They’ve announced that a department that had voted for unionization was going to be closed.

They come up with all sorts of reasons why that needs to happen for business, rationale, but we know the real reason, which is the same reason that they’re putting out this message about the elections: they don’t want to have to share. They don’t want their employees to be a part of getting their fair share, getting living wages, allowing their workers to work enough to have healthcare benefits and to provide them with a package that’s both affordable and accessible. They don’t want their employees to get retirement security, and they certainly don’t want their employees to have freedom and a voice on their job.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we contacted Wal-Mart about the story. The company’s corporate communications director, Daphne Moore, issued this statement. She said, “Our policies are clear, and we’ve communicated to our associates that if anyone representing our company gave the impression we were telling associates how to vote, they were wrong and acting without approval. We believe that if the FEC looks into this, they will find what we’ve known all along: that we did nothing wrong. The real issue here is protecting the rights of individuals to cast a private ballot when voting, and we’re opposed to the ‘card-check’ bill, because it removes that right when it comes to unionization.”

CHRIS CHAFE: Sure. That’s a fascinating spin on something that your viewers should know, that Wal-Mart managers and hourly employees reached out to us to complain and voice their concerns. So, I’m confident that when the FEC looks into this, with the large degree of folks that reached out to us, there is ample evidence that there is significant law-breaking that’s been happening here at this company, in regards to this particular issue and probably more.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain how the law works.

CHRIS CHAFE: Well, you’re not allowed to tell your employees how they’re supposed to vote. It’s the most sacred right in our democracy. You’re not supposed to be advocating to anyone at the worksite that you have, that you employ, any supervisor or any person who could be impacted by that, by any intimidation or coercion. That’s just a flat-out violation of our election law. It’s a fundamental right.

And this is a company that has steeped itself in what it claims are core American values, and yet this evidence shows — here is another example where they are trampling on our most solemn practices and rights in the democracy. And I think that consumers should be outraged. And folks who watch their political maneuverings around the country should really appreciate that no matter where they spend their money and where they put their contributions, when it comes down to making decisions, we know which side they’re always going to land on, and it’s certainly not the workers’ side.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you about, well, the presidential campaign and Wal-Mart, because we know that Barack Obama criticized Hillary Clinton repeatedly on the fact that she was on the board of Wal-Mart for many years. Then, as soon as she quit the race, he hired Jason Furman. He brought him on as his top — as a top senior adviser. In 2005, this New York University scholar, former official in the Clinton administration, published a paper called “Wal-Mart: A Progressive Success Story.” It argued Wal-Mart’s low prices outweigh the negative effects of its low wages on workers.


AMY GOODMAN: You’re smiling, Chris Chafe.

CHRIS CHAFE: Well, we’ve had a series of conversations about that issue —-

AMY GOODMAN: You’re a big supporter of Obama now.

CHRIS CHAFE: —- with the senator. Yes, I am. And we’ve met privately with him about it, and we’ve met privately with Jason about it. And I would say that the senator brought Jason on to manage the day-to-day war room operations of their message to illustrate contrast with McCain, and we made it clear that — and as did the senator —- that there were certainly differences of viewpoint between he and Jason on a series of issues. We believe that Barack Obama has stood firm and clear on our agenda and the workers’ agenda that work at Wal-Mart, on the consumers that care about rights on the job, and on all Americans who want to see workers there be able to share in the profits of that company and be able to be a part of the middle class. So, he has been forthright and clear with us on where he stands, and he has stood consistently with Wal-Mart workers, both publicly and privately, advocating on their behalf, and I’m confident he’s going to continue that position, as he would with workers in all kinds of worksites and companies across the country.

AMY GOODMAN: What makes you so confident, if he’s hired him as his top adviser?

CHRIS CHAFE: I think that Jason’s role is not to set policy. And I think that he is managing a series of issues for the senator that are largely about contrasting the senator’s record with McCain’s record. But I don’t think that he is setting any kind of policy within the campaign, nor moving for -—

AMY GOODMAN: Well, what about that argument that low prices trump low wages?

CHRIS CHAFE: Well, I think that’s hogwash. I think that’s absolute hogwash. I think that — and we’ve made that clear to everyone involved, that if we think that the way to win for workers and in politics is to claim that Wal-Mart gets a pass because they pass along savings — they’re passing along poverty, poverty to workers across the world who are producing their goods, poverty to the people that are working in their stores representing them, who are trying to make a living, many of whom probably have multiple jobs in order to afford to raise their families, people who are not able to get full-time work there, because the company’s scheduling is such that they often have a limit by which you have to reach in order to qualify for your healthcare benefits. You name it. They find every single way to cut every corner and cut their workers out of their success. Meanwhile, the profits are all flowing, in a remarkable example, to the top, you know, members of the Walton family.

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