By  on April 21, 2005

BOSTON — The public relations war over Wal-Mart rages on.

Wal-Mart Watch, a new advocacy group campaigning against the world’s biggest retailer, took out a full-page ad in The New York Times on Wednesday alleging that taxpayers get stuck with an annual bill for almost $1.6 billion in government assistance because Wal-Mart fails to provide its employees with adequate wages and benefits.

The ad touted Walmartwatch.com, a Web site designed to be a clearinghouse for strategies aimed at opposing the Bentonville, Ark.-based retailer. It is a direct response to a media blitz Wal-Mart orchestrated in January, taking out full-page ads in more than 100 newspapers to defend its employment record. At the time, Wal-Mart also launched its own Web site, Walmartfacts.com.

“Wal-Mart, with 2 percent of the gross domestic product, has an outsized effect on the economy,” said Andy Grossman, executive director of Washington-based Wal-Mart Watch. “They are leading the way to the bottom in the degradation of standards for our communities and workplaces.”

Wal-Mart spokeswoman Mona Williams, in an e-mailed statement, said the ad was “just another example of labor unions playing fast and loose with the facts in their attempt to discredit Wal-Mart. It is ludicrous to think we cost taxpayers money. One has to wonder why this group chose to omit the billions of dollars Wal-Mart pays in local, state and federal taxes every year.”

Wal-Mart Watch was founded by representatives of the Sierra Club, the Service Employees International Union and the National Partnership for Women and Families, among others, and is financed by grants from The Ben & Jerry’s Foundation and the antiglobalization organization Solidago Foundation.

Nelson Lichtenstein, a labor historian at the University of California Santa Barbara, said Wal-Mart’s expansion has become “a political issue as it attempts to move to the Great Lakes and coastal U.S. areas — to put it crudely, the ‘blue state’ areas. This is where the fight over opinion makers is taking place and this is where Wal-Mart needs to grow.”

Wal-Mart Watch is trying to coalesce opposition around a common set of demands aimed at changing the retailer’s business practices, Grossman said.The ad, headlined “Rollback Wal-Mart,” is particularly critical of the retailer’s health benefits.

Lichtenstein said health care is “a natural for these opposition groups to agree on because there are federal and state monies involved. It’s an issue on the agenda to get big firms to pay health care.”

Wal-Mart Watch plans to disseminate copies of recently enacted Maryland legislation that would require employers with 10,000 workers or more to spend 8 percent of payroll on health care, or to contribute to a state fund to make up the difference. The Fair Share Healthcare Act will be sent as “sample legislation” to 7,000 legislators across the country.

The group has no direct affiliation with the Union of Food and Commercial Workers, the nation’s largest union, which is battling Wal-Mart’s expansion to metropolitan areas through a separate campaign, “Wake Up Wal-Mart,” launched earlier this month. The UFCW said Wednesday it will ask consumers to boycott Wal-Mart by not buying Mother’s Day gifts there “until Wal-Mart stops discriminating against women.”

The retailer is the target of the largest-ever gender discrimination class-action case, involving 1.6 million current and former female employees. Wal-Mart has embarked on a wide-reaching campaign to “tell its story” through television and print advertisements as well as charitable initiatives.

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