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.
EXCLUSIVE: @tomford is opening its first-ever beauty store. The boutique, which opens November 20 in London’s Covent Gardens, was designed with the over-the-top glam Ford is known for. Read the full story on WWD.com, link in bio. #wwdbeauty #wwdnews (📷: Simon Wagner) #TomFordBeauty
New York-based DJ @harleyvnewton threw a party to celebrate the holiday collection of her dress and pajama line @hvn at the Ladurée Beverly Hills. It Girls @katebosworth, @rashidajones and more joined in on the fun, which included cocktails, croque monsieur sandwiches and a photo booth. #wwdfashion (📷: Owen Kolasinski/BFA.com)
For the holidays, @Burberry partnered with 20-year-old artist @blondeymccoy on a series of three outdoor murals in downtown Manhattan. The murals are McCoy’s interpretation of a Christmas eve party, the idea of charity and the spirit of family. His third mural, pictured here, is the most personal. The image depicts McCoy’s grandparents and father in London’s Trafalgar Square in the Seventies. “My work often features lots of sentimental objects.” #wwdeye
For spring 2018, designers applied bold colors and cartoonish motifs on everything from sneakers and belts to key chains. See all the top men’s accessories trends on WWD.com. #wwdtrends (📷: George Chinsee; Prop Styling by @rnasti; Market Editor: @luiscampuzano)
The @dior-sponsored @guggenheim international gala pre-party has a history of drawing cool-girl musical acts to serenade the crowd –– and last night was no exception. @haimtheband performed songs both new and old, and lured a star-studded audience with the likes of Rebecca Hall, Kate Mara, Mamoudou Athie and more. #wwdeye (📷: @lexieblacklock)
In a partnership between the @metopera and the @englishnationalopera, “Marnie” was born. The opera, with costumes sponsored by @mrporterlive, is an adaptation of the 1961 thriller by Winston Graham. Arianne Phillips, who created the costumes, is no rookie: She’s styled Madonna for her tours and created costumes for a myriad of films in the past. Read WWD’s interview with Phillips, where she talks about her inspiration for the opera’s costumes on WWD.com #wwdfashion
@barneysnyc took a different approach to their holiday windows this year. Instead of Christmas decor, Barneys tapped @thehaasbrothers to tell a story of positivity, gratitude and inclusivity via heartwarming silliness and humor. “It’s about kids and it’s about coming together and being family and loving each other,” said Simon Haas. #wwdfashion (📷: @joshuascottphoto)
Beauty influencer @kandeejohnson makes her foray into hair care with a collaboration with @ogx_beauty — making it the first time that OGX has teamed up for a product creation. The collab includes shampoos and conditioners in three scents. At 39 and a mom, Johnson is a different profile than the emerging social media stars, but is considered one of the pioneers of the digital beauty influencer world. Read WWD’s interview with her on wwd.com, including the strangest beauty product she’s ever tried #wwdbeauty