Democratic Underground

Behind Closed Doors at the Wal-Mart Media Conference

April 9, 2005
By Don Elkins

BENTONVILLE, AR. -- They wouldn't let broadcasters in the door at the Embassy Suites in Rogers, Arkansas on Tuesday. However, through a combination of complaints and my fortunate role as a writer for three local publications, I got signed up at the last possible minute to attend Wal-Mart's first annual media conference. The best word I can use to describe the event?

"Curious."

A captive audience of print reporters listened to a retinue of Wal-Mart executives, including CEO H. Lee Scott.

In attendance; Steve Greenhouse of the New York Times, Ron White of the LA Times, representatives from the Chicago Tribune, Arkansas Democrat Gazette, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, on and on and on.

So, what about it was questionable? Not Wal-Mart's attempt to go right to the "decision makers" and "gatekeepers" in the international media. Reading the headlines and copy from yesterday's session, Mr. Scott did manage to get his message across, which simply was that Wal-Mart critics have their story wrong, as he said, "dead wrong."

Scott explained his view that critics have an agenda to maintain an unrealistic status quo intended to deny customers better prices. He also explained how he thinks some critics expect Wal-Mart to serve the function General Motors served in the post World War II era.

He defended low wages (he says the average worker in his company earns $10 a hour - he pulled down slightly more than that himself, in the millions) by saying the average worker at Wal-Mart only generated in excess of $6 thousand dollars last year, whereas the average worker at Microsoft generated $143 thousand for that company.

But, did the world's largest retailer actually go the right place for its message of victimhood?

Those in attendance took note of Scott's adversarial tone and acidic regard for the company's opponents.

They also analyzed, nit-picked and generally did the things business journalists do. They might not actually have been the audience the company could have used to its best advantage -- the less specialized members of the media might have been a little more impressed.

One also has to ask about the "poor little me" attitude coming from Wal-Mart during these sessions. If that was intended to improve the company's image, it didn't work. Regardless of what Scott says about wages, and regardless of what Wal-Mart USA President Mike Duke told reporters about his company's dedication to making Wal-Mart a better place to work for its employees, critics have made viable complaints about wages. In many states, Wal-Mart continues to sit at the top of lists of companies with employees on public assistance. The company argues those numbers skew the truth -- it employs so many people, that the percentage figure of those on public assistance means the company has relatively fewer employees on the dole. That does not, however, reduce those overall numbers, or the overall dollar total of payments for assistance picked up by taxpayers.

On at least three separate occasions, reporters asked why Wal-Mart didn't feel it could increase pay for employees.

Each time, the reply was an exercise in obfuscation. One reporter asked why Wal-Mart couldn't reduce its 3 percent discount margin by even a single percent, and put the resulting funds into improving pay.

While he talked straight most of his time on the dais, Scott did say one thing that came across in an incredibly disingenuous fashion.

He said he couldn't understand why thousands of people would get in line for a job at Wal-Mart just to receive poorer pay and benefits than they already get.

Of course, the truth is those thousands don't -- most have no benefits and no wages, leaving all the power in the hands of the company, and leaving the question of corporate responsibility and morality; when a company becomes as large of Wal-Mart and employs so many people, do the responsibilities of that company change?

Should its board of directors reasonably expect Americans to demand more?

After all, Americans have been used to better pay, better health care and better treatment -- including the right to organize in the workplace -- than people living in other countries.

Scott took pains to explain that we live in a "New World" with a new paradigm where competition and efficiency rule. But, do those "values" as Scott described them exclude humane or even preferential treatment for American workers?

Again, the question becomes one of corporate morality or lack thereof -- except in a different situation.

Lee Scott gets an A+ as a straight-up executive. So far, he values a right-down-the-line approach to ethics on the board, he's managed to raise the price of the company's stock from the mid-90s doldrums near $10 a share to the company's usual mid-$50 a share range. He's expanded the company, and it sits on the top of the Fortune 500 list for another year -- he's a superb businessman. But, with a company the likes of which the world has never seen, an entire economic segment unto itself, perhaps some "outside the envelope" thinking needs to take place to make things right for the company, the shareholders and those who have big problems with Wal-Mart, and I don't mean just the UCFW.

 
Don Elkins hosts a progressive radio program in Northwest Arkansas. Visit his website at www.arkansastonight.com.

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