February 7, 2007
Wal-Mart and a Union Unite, at Least on Health PolicyBy MICHAEL BARBARO and ROBERT PEAR
They have established one of the fiercest rivalries in the American economy, attacking one another’s organizations through dueling blogs, newspaper advertisements and news conferences.
But this morning, in an extraordinary meeting in Washington, the chiefs of Wal-Mart Stores and the Service Employees International Union will stand together and agree on a series of goals for achieving universal health coverage, according to people briefed on the matter.
The two men might even shake hands.
The meeting between H. Lee Scott Jr., the chief executive of Wal-Mart, and Andrew L. Stern, president of the S.E.I.U., which caps months of secret conversations, could be the beginning, however tentative, of a détente between the nation’s largest employer and its labor critics.
At least on one issue. But the issue providing affordable health insurance is arguably the biggest facing both Mr. Stern and Mr. Scott. Wal-Mart, which insures fewer than half its workers, has identified health care as potentially the biggest vulnerability to its image and business, and the S.E.I.U., one of the country’s biggest unions, has called it the No. 1 priority for its members.
So during today’s meeting, Mr. Stern and Mr. Scott will announce a campaign to seek public acceptance of several principles of health policy. One goal is universal health coverage by a specific date, somewhere around 2012. Another is the idea of shared responsibility, emphasizing that individuals, businesses and government all play roles in financing health care and expanding coverage.
Executives from AT&T, Intel and several nonprofit organizations will also participate in today’s meeting.
The agreement is unlikely to end the rancor between Wal-Mart and unions, largely because the retailer’s fiercest critic is the United Food and Commercial Workers, the union behind WakeUpWalMart.com.
In a statement, WakeUpWalMart.com divulged last night for the first time that it had met with a Wal-Mart executive in December to discuss the company’s health insurance, among other things, but decided the retailer was not serious about significantly improving its benefits.
“No one, in good conscience or without a real commitment from Wal-Mart to make substantive changes,” the statement said, “could look the other way and ignore the awful fact that Wal-Mart still fails to provide company health care to over half of its employees.”
Mr. Stern is likely to keep criticizing Wal-Mart on several fronts, according to people who work with him who spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to talk publicly.
But the fact that Mr. Scott and Mr. Stern are speaking, let alone agreeing on something, is somewhat surprising.
In 2004, Mr. Stern authorized the creation of an S.E.I.U.-backed group, called Wal-Mart Watch, that has relentlessly criticized the retailer, leaked internal company documents to the news media and pressed it to change its labor policies.
Mr. Scott, in turn, has lashed out at union-backed critics like the S.E.I.U. and Wal-Mart Watch, calling them special-interest groups spreading misinformation and half-truths about the chain.
But in July, the icy relationship between the men began to thaw after Mr. Stern wrote an op-ed article encouraging large corporations to work with unions to create alternatives to the employer-based health coverage system, which he said was collapsing. Mr. Stern sent the article, by certified mail, to hundreds of chief executives seeking their help.
Mr. Scott, who has already expanded Wal-Mart’s health care benefits, responded, beginning a confidential series of conversations that will culminate in today’s news conference.
Representatives for both Mr. Stern and Mr. Scott declined to comment last night.
Harley Shaiken, a professor specializing in labor issues at the University of California, Berkeley, said the meeting represented “a combination of pragmatism, idealism and desperation on the part of Wal-Mart and S.E.I.U; health care has become a devastating issue for both.”
But Mr. Shaiken said that with Wal-Mart’s reputation for fighting unionization and Mr. Stern’s advocacy for the labor movement, the pair are unlikely to become the best of friends. Wal-Mart is not unionized in United States.
“Lee Scott is willing to sit in the same room with Andy Stern,” Mr. Shaiken said, “he just doesn’t want to sit across a bargaining table from Andy Stern.”