By  on May 24, 2006

NEW YORK — Union-supported Wal-Mart Watch stepped up its campaign to change working conditions at the world's largest retailer, placing a full-page ad in The New York Times Tuesday that listed seven "moral responsibilities" of the company.

The goal of the effort, dubbed "A Handshake With Sam" in reference to Sam Walton, the late founder of Wal-Mart, is to provoke dialogue with and get the company to agree to seven voluntary commitments, including a "family-sustaining wage," affordable health care and ending employment discrimination, said Andrew Grossman, executive director of Wal-Mart Watch.

The watchdog group "isn't here to give Wal-Mart a black eye," Grossman said during a conference call. "Our aim is lasting change. We will continue to embrace our responsibility for constructive suggestions for how Wal-Mart can improve its business."

Wal-Mart Watch, started last year by the Service Employees International Union, is composed of community, environment and labor groups and has upped the ante on pressuring Wal-Mart to change its policies. Another group, Wakeupwalmart.com, is funded by the United Food and Commercial Workers. Both unions have been unable to organize workers at the Bentonville, Ark.-based retailer.

"We are not planning to respond," said Bob McAdam, Wal-Mart vice president of corporate affairs. "We are not planning to meet. Nothing that they have proposed in that ad has not been said before. It's the same rhetoric ... Wal-Mart has made great progress and continues to be a leader in our industry."

The company has expanded health benefits for 1.3 million U.S. workers to cover part-time employees and their children and lowered premiums and prescription co-payments. The retailer reacted to critics who allege the chain's aggressive expansion has put stores out of business and ruined downtown shopping in some areas by announcing this year that more than 50 stores will open in struggling urban neighborhoods over the next two years, creating 15,000 to 25,000 jobs. Wal-Mart also said it would offer financial incentives and programs such as producing free radio ads and coaching businesses on how they can thrive with a Wal-Mart in their community.

Wal-Mart Watch, which said it paid $150,000 for the ad, last February disclosed an internal company memo suggesting that Wal-Mart reduce health care costs by discouraging unhealthy workers from applying for jobs. The group also has opposed the retailer's efforts to create its own bank, though Wal-Mart has stressed it would use the bank only to process its credit card, debit card and electronic check transactions, and that it abandoned plans for retail banking, which could drive other banks out of business.

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