Democrat critics threatened with Wal-Mart 'army'

As the mid-term elections approach, the retail giant vows to stop political opponents 'beating up' on it
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The Independent Online

Wal-Mart, America's largest retailer, is to launch "voter education programmes" aimed at taking on its Democrat critics in the run-up to November's mid-term elections in the US.

The much-criticised com-pany will adopt a far more aggressive stance towards the politicians who accuse it of paying poverty-level wages and offering miserly healthcare benefits. For the first time it is trying to mobilise its army of shoppers and employees (whom it calls "associates") into a formidable electoral force.

"More than 120 million people a week shop at our stores, and we have 1.3 million associates," said the company's communications director, Bob McAdam. "There is no telling what kind of reaction they will have to politicians beating up on Wal-Mart. A voter education campaign is aimed at getting the message out and to prepare people so that when they cast their votes they are aware of all the facts."

Leading Democrat politicians are backing an anti-Wal-Mart campaign. It charges the company with exploiting its workers, banning union membership, driving small shopkeepers out of business and scarring the environment. The retailer - the country's biggest private-sector employer, with profits of $4.7bn (£2.5bn) so far this year - is being singled out by Democrats in their efforts to improve healthcare and raise the minimum wage.

Wal-Mart, which owns Asda in the UK, is sending letters to more than 60,000 employees in states where politicians have attacked it. The letters will include "fact checks", describing "politicians' misinformation" about its employment practices.

Wal-Mart has previously tried to promote a softer image, focusing on its green credentials and its efforts to extend health insurance to more staff. The dirtier business of attacking critics has largely been left to company-funded lobby groups such as Working Families for Wal-Mart.

But Wal-Mart has now been stung into taking on a more aggressive stance itself. That is likely to continue, after Working Families for Wal-Mart suffered a significant blow to its reputation last week. Andrew Young, the veteran equal rights campaigner, resigned as its chairman after making disparaging remarks about ethnic minority shopkeepers.

In the most recent example of its own more active stance, Wal-Mart tried to pre-empt negative publicity from union-backed rallies last week in Iowa, which were addressed by several leading Democrats vying to become the party's candidate for the 2008 presidential race. Senators Joe Biden, John Edwards and John Kerry have all demanded that the company improve conditions for workers, while Hillary Clinton - an erstwhile member of the Wal-Mart board when her husband was governor of the retailer's home state of Arkansas - returned its campaign contribution.

In a letter to Iowa employees, Wal-Mart wrote: "We have an obligation to tell you when politicians are saying something about your company that isn't true. We want you to know that your voice matters when these political candidates attack your company. We urge you to talk with you friends, your family and your neighbors about the good Wal-Mart does."

Wal-Mart supporters believe that the Democrats' attacks on the company may subside when candidates move their focus from winning their party selection battles and begin to talk to the wider electorate.

But Wake Up Wal-Mart, the union-backed campaign that has chartered a bus to travel the US, vowed to keep up the pressure. Its director, Paul Blank, said: "We plan to launch a comprehensive, nationwide, voter education programme of our own because the American people are sick and tired of big, powerful corporations like Wal-Mart taking our country down the wrong path."