Obama’s Wal-Mart stop prompts labor backlash

President Obama speaks at a Wal-Mart store in Mountain View, Calif.
(Jeff Chiu / Associated Press)
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President Obama appears to have warmed up to Wal-Mart, much to the frustration of his party’s labor wing.

As a candidate for president six years ago, the then-senator from Illinois reportedly declared he would not shop at the mega-retailer long targeted by labor groups. On Friday, a company official said Obama was the first sitting president to visit one of the stores of the nation’s largest private employer.

In remarks delivered in the clothing section of a store in Mountain View, Calif., Obama embraced the Arkansas company’s environmental philosophy as a model.


“More and more companies like Wal-Mart are realizing that wasting less energy isn’t just good for the planet; it’s good for business; it’s good for the bottom line,” Obama said, standing amid $5.44 T-shirts and $11.96 U.S.-flag bathing suits.

“At Wal-Mart, you’ve committed to reducing energy consumption across 850 million square feet of space,” the president said. That’s a lot. That’s enough to cover more than half of the city of San Francisco. Taken together, this is going to make a difference. And it’s the right thing to do for the planet, but it’s also the right thing to do for the bottom line, because when you save that money you can pass that money back to consumers in the form of lower prices or you can use it to create more jobs.”

It was a notable moment for Obama who in 2007 told an AFL-CIO forum, “I won’t shop there,” when asked about the company, according to the Chicago Sun-Times.

In January 2008, Obama’s campaign blasted then-rival Hillary Clinton for serving on the Wal-Mart board. An Obama spokesman declared the retailer “one of the least environmentally friendly, least labor-union friendly companies in the country.”

But since taking office, Obama’s Wal-Mart position appears to have evolved. The company has worked closely with First Lady Michelle Obama on her anti-obesity push. She had her own Wal-Mart moment last year, when she visited a store in Springfield, Mo., to promote the company’s pledges encouraging healthy eating.

The president’s trip followed the same pattern -- albeit under a brighter spotlight. Obama arrived to tout Wal-Mart’s commitment to double its solar generation project, one of dozens of corporate pledges the White House has arranged as part of a campaign to work with the private sector, rather than Congress, to advance its agenda.


The effort, modeled on the first lady’s strategy, has led top White House officials and the president to ask some high-profile executives for cooperation on domestic priorities, in return for some good publicity.

On Friday, the arrangement generated some bad publicity for the White House -- a reminder that many in the president’s party have not shifted their opinion on the retailer.

Joe Hansen, international president of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, issued a statement saying Obama was sending “a terrible message to workers across America.”

“President Obama will stand side by side with a company known for low wages, few benefits, unreliable hours, discrimination against women, violating workers’ rights, and yes, environmental degradation,” he said.

Robert Reich, secretary of Labor during the Clinton administration, filed the event in the “Department of ill-advised photo opportunities.”

“What numbskull in the White House arranged this?” Reich wrote on a post on his Facebook page.


The White House did not comment specifically on the labor complaints, saying only that Obama was committed both to cutting carbon pollution and to pushing for fair wages. “I didn’t hear anything of a mixed message today,” said White House spokesman Eric Schultz.

A Wal-Mart spokesman said the company is used to labor groups trying to “make a lot of noise and draw attention to themselves.”

“Our focus was about having the president in the store to talk about this important issue,” said spokesman Kory Lungberg.

Wal-Mart U.S. President and Chief Executive Bill Simon introduced Obama. His company was doing its part to increase domestic energy production, he said.

“For the first time in a generation, the availability for domestic energy is increasingly becoming a competitive advantage in the U.S.,” he said, adding that the firm is committed to doubling the number of onsite solar energy projects at its U.S. stores. “And these projects will be installed by American workers.”

In addition to the energy commitment, a Wal-Mart spokesman recently said the company was considering backing an increase in the minimum wage. The White House and congressional Democrats have made the pay increase a top priority in the midterm campaign.