WASHINGTON — In the high stakes political game over health care reform, the centerpiece of President Obama’s domestic agenda, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. stands to gain considerable ground in its public image and labor relations.
The country’s largest retailer has long been cast as antiworker after a series of negative incidents and a vigorous effort against unionizing its stores, but in recent times has improved its stance through better employee benefits. Now, Wal-Mart has inserted itself into a game-changing debate of historical proportions that promises to burnish its reputation and establish the company as a model corporate citizen in the eyes of workers and consumers.
At the same time, business groups, including the retail industry’s major lobbying group, the National Retail Federation, find themselves on the other side of public sentiment by opposing several of the health care proposals, including an employer mandate. Such a stance in this economic climate is loaded with public relations headaches.
The retail industry employs 24 million people, 50 to 60 percent of whom are eligible for health care benefits, according to industry figures. That means 10 million to 12 million retail employees, many of them working part-time, are not eligible for employers’ health coverage.
A new USA Today/Gallup poll out Tuesday said 56 percent of Americans favor a health care reform bill, 33 percent oppose it and 12 percent do not feel strongly either way. To finance the bill, 61 percent believe employers who do not provide insurance should pay a fee.
Also on Tuesday, House lawmakers unveiled their comprehensive health care reform legislation. It includes an employer mandate that gives employers the option of providing health insurance to all employees or contributing funds on their behalf. The legislation would exempt small employers, defined as payrolls under $250,000, from the employer mandate.
The NRF took an aggressive stance against Wal-Mart’s position in a letter to its members. Tracy Mullin, NRF president and chief executive officer, said: “Although the move may provide a short-term public relations boost to Wal-Mart, it could have long-standing, devastating consequences to retailers throughout the country.”
A Wal-Mart spokesman declined to comment directly on Mullin’s statement, but he noted Wal-Mart believes the focus should be on health care reform and providing ideas to contribute to the discussion. “The question is what other proposals are being forwarded by the NRF or other interested parties,” he said.
Some experts said the NRF and other business groups could run the risk of being isolated in the debate. But the NRF doesn’t see it that way and is fighting back.
“From my perspective, this strengthens our position in the debate by showing we’re willing to even go as far as to criticize a retailer [Wal-Mart], albeit a nonmember retailer, for an odd and peculiar position they have taken,” said Neil Trautwein, NRF’s vice president and employee benefits policy counsel.
Asked whether it would hurt the NRF’s image, Trautwein said: “I’m not concerned that we have lost image. If anything, I think this has helped protect the NRF as a positive player in the health care reform debate.”
As for a burnished Wal-Mart image — the corporate giant’s identity as a defender of workers’ rights might be far from fully formed — the nation’s largest private employer has already scored points with President Obama, longtime critics, neutral observers and even some labor groups for endorsing, in conjunction with the Service Employees International Union, the controversial employer mandate provision in health care reform legislation being drafted on Capitol Hill.
White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs praised Wal-Mart in his daily briefing with reporters on Monday.
“And obviously Wal-Mart came out as the nation’s largest employer and discussed the importance and the need for health care that cuts costs now,” Gibbs said.
But while Wal-Mart continues to bask in the glow of the positive attention, labor-management experts warn that the temporary détente the retailer has with organized labor is likely just that: temporary.
“What he has done at Vuitton is really exceptional,” said @gameofthrones’ actress Gwendoline Christie on @mrkimjones’ final show for @louisvuitton. “He has rebooted luxury in terms of making it commercial, viable and contemporary. And most importantly artistic. He has never compromised his artistic vision for the sake of commodity.” (📷: @zefashioninsider)
After seeing a demand for men’s wear from its customers, British contemporary women’s wear label @ariesarise has added a men’s wear component and will launch a unisex collection with @mrporterlive. The 20-piece collection includes jackets, denim, logo T-shirts and more with deconstructed ‘90s vibes. Set to launch on January 18, you can shop the pieces on Aries’ website and on mrporter.com. #wwdfashion
“And so spending so much time with a character who thinks like that, inevitability you try and analyze yourself and go back and think about your own demons and dark chapters that you had in your life,” says @thedanielbruhl of his role in TNT’s “The Alienist.” The show, set in the Gilded Age of New York, also stars Dakota Fanning and Luke Evans. Head to WWD.com to read about how 39-year-old Brühl prepared for the role and why he thinks the show is so relevant to today #wwdeye ( 📷: @Eriktanner)
Now that Celine Dion’s collection has topped $10 million in sales, the pop superstar, fashion icon and newly-minted industry player is eyeing growth in Asia. Read the full report by @tiffanyap, link in bio. #wwdnews #celinedion
“My personal philosophy to beauty is paying attention to oneself. I love to be outdoors, lots of fresh air, trying to take care of yourself as best you can. I always notice that comes through,” says Felicity Jones, the global face of @shiseido-owned @cledepeaubeauteus, which launches today. Head to WWD.com to read more about the actress’ love for beauty and how she prepared for her new role in “The Basis of Sex,” playing the young Ruth Bader Ginsburg. #wwdbeauty (📷: @dandoperalski)
Among the familiar faces at @off____white’s show was a surprise figure: Japanese artist @takashipom, pictured here on Wednesday morning. Other show-goers included @jerrylorenzo, who spoke about his upcoming project: a @nike collaboration for back to school, with designs inspired by his childhood on the West Coast. Sitting in the front row were Future, Don Crawley, @miguel and more. See the rest of the photos on WWD.com #wwdeye (📷: Stephane Feugere)
According to @laurentsai, former “Terrace House: Aloha State” cast member, she didn’t know she was auditioning for the Japanese version of “Real World.” “I was telling a couple of my friends and someone’s like, ‘That sounds a lot like Terrace House.’ I was like, ’No it can’t be.’” Turns out, it was. But Tsai isn’t just a reality star — she’s an illustrator who has worked with Starbucks Japan and most recently, she’s dipping her toes into the fashion world. Head to WWD.com to read about her time on the show, modeling and her art. #wwdeye (📷: @danieldorsa)
More changes are coming to New York Fashion Week: Beginning with the spring 2019 collection, @alexanderwangny will move his New York show to June from September, adopting a biannual schedule with collections shown in June and December. Additionally, the @cfda is planning for an official summer/winter fashion season taking place as soon as June and December 2018. Read more about the upcoming changes on WWD.com. #wwdnews #wwdfashion (📷: @slovekinpics)