One of Wal-Mart's most vocal union-funded critics took out a full-page ad in The New York Times on Tuesday calling on the company to live up to the ''moral responsibilities'' of being the world's largest private employer by improving wages and health insurance.
Wal-Mart Watch urged the retailer to enter a voluntary deal to improve its business practices, calling it ''a handshake with Sam'' in reference to Wal-Mart's late founder Sam Walton. That deal would involve seven voluntary commitments, including ensuring quality, affordable health insurance and paying a ''family-sustaining wage''.
The ad, which the group said cost about $150,000, is the latest volley in a war of words between unions and Wal-Mart that has heated up since last year, when Wal-Mart Watch and another group, WakeUpWalMart.com, were set up by separate unions to wage political-style campaigns against the retailer.
Bentonville, Ark.-based Wal-Mart Stores Inc. dismissed the ad and said it has no plans to respond to the union group.
''There is absolutely nothing new in there they haven't already said,'' Wal-Mart spokesman Bob McAdam said.
McAdam said the company is already doing much of what the group calls for in its ad.
''What they fail to acknowledge is ... Wal-Mart has made great progress and continues to be a leader in our industry,'' McAdam said.
Wal-Mart Watch was started by the Service Employees International Union last year at the same time that the United Food and Commercial Workers launched WakeUpWalMart.com. Both are aimed at pressuring Wal-Mart to change its business practices after unions failed to organize the retailer through traditional methods.
Wal-Mart Watch said the ad is meant to offer constructive criticism that would make Wal-Mart a better company. ''Wal-Mart Watch isn't here to give Wal-Mart a black eye,'' Andrew Grossman, the group's executive director, told reporters on a conference call.
McAdam noted Wal-Mart has improved its health care plans for its 1.3 million U.S. workers, or ''associates.'' It has announced improvements twice since October, including shorter eligibility periods for part-time workers, coverage for their children, health premiums lowered to between $11 and $23 a month and reduced prescription co-payments to $3 from $10.
Wal-Mart has argued that it is a good employer, creating 125,000 U.S. jobs last year and providing career opportunities and above-average pay and benefits for the retail sector. It also says it saves its customers, including working families, about $2,300 a year.
The ad prominently features a quotation from Sam Walton that says, ''I am absolutely convinced that the only way we can improve one another's quality of life, which is something very real to those of us who grew up in the Depression, is through what we call free enterprise -- practiced correctly and morally.''
McAdam said the company still represents Sam Walton's values.
''I don't think there is a disconnect between what Mr. Sam said and where our company is today. We're proud of our heritage and we're proud of what we do today,'' McAdam said.
The demands in the ad, including buying more products locally in the U.S. rather than globally and ending any employment discrimination, are similar to calls made by rival union group WakeUpWalMart.com
WakeUpWalMart.com says it handed a letter to Chief Executive Lee Scott in February outlining those demands and never heard back. McAdam denies Scott was given the letter as he entered a Washington, D.C., meeting with Hispanic congressional leaders.
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