Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Wal-Mart / Obama Connection

First Lady Michelle Obama’s ties to Wal-Mart are nothing new. She once sat on the board of directors of one of the retail giant’s major suppliers – a position she was forced to resign after her husband vowed never to shop at Wal-Mart because of its anti-union stance.

In the spring of 2007, as an Illinois senator beginning his presidential run, Obama told an AFL-CIO gathering in Trenton, NJ, there was a “moral responsibility to stand up and fight the company” and “force them to examine their own corporate values.”

At the time, Mrs. Obama was a director of TreeHouse Foods, an Illinois food processing company - a position she had held since June 2005. Its biggest customer is Wal-Mart. She earned $51,200 a year for the part-time gig, and also received $72,375 worth of stock options in her two-year stint at the company. In May 2007, eight days after her husband blasted Wal-Mart’s labor practices, she resigned. But she denied any conflict of interest as the reason. Asked if she quit because of her husband’s pro-union platform, she told NBC’s Robin Roberts: “Barack is gonna say what needs to be said,” and claimed she was leaving the board to devote more time to her daughters, in light of the stress of her husband’s candidacy.

In a separate interview later in the campaign, Mrs. Obama was asked if she shopped at Wal-Mart. “I’m more of a Target shopper,” she replied without elaborating.

Fast forward almost three years later, and Mrs. Obama is embracing Wal-Mart in its initiative to carry healthier food products with less fat and salt as part of her own “Let’s Move” anti-childhood obesity crusade. The New York Times and other corporate media outlets, including The Washington Post, dutifully parroted the press releases of both the White House and Wal-Mart: the actual process of offering less expensive, more nutritious foods will – you guessed it – be a gradual one. It’ll take five years, officials acknowledged. But it’s a “victory for parents and children”, said Mrs. Obama at a Thursday photo-op with CEO Bill Simon. As Simon praised the first lady as being the sole “catalyst” for the initiative, she added: “When 40 million people a day are shopping at Wal-Mart, then day by day and meal by meal all these small changes can start to make a big difference for our children’s health.”

There were no comments on the difference the addition of the second most admired woman in the world (after Secretary of State and former Wal-Mart board member Hillary Clinton) will make to Wal-Mart’s bottom line. There has been no official word from the White House on what, if any, concessions or tax breaks the retailer behemoth stands to gain due to its altruism. (We are still awaiting a response to a request for clarification from the White House).

But let’s examine a few factoids and connect a few dots. Right before the Christmas shopping season, the President held a closed-door meeting with Wal-Mart officials as part of his reach-out-to-businesses effort. The White House flatly refused to answer questions about what was discussed. A short time later, Wal-Mart raised prices on its toys, just in time for the Christmas rush. It then announced what is in effect a wage cut for its associates by discontinuing the $1 pay differential for Sunday shifts for workers hired after 2010.

To further serve the community (read: increase its stranglehold on global markets) Wal-Mart announced it will build more stores in so-called “food deserts” - urban and rural areas where there are a dearth of grocery stores. Presumably, New York City is one such barren moonscape in the eyes of Wal-Mart, because it has been one of the few surviving outposts to have successfully resisted efforts to let the retailer into its neighborhoods. Now that the Obamas are backtracking and becoming the First Family of Wal-Mart, do you think they’ll be putting any pressure on Mayor Bloomberg to get with the program? Stay tuned.

There has also been no comment from the Obamas on Walmart being the defendant in the largest class action bias lawsuit in history. The lead plaintiff in the case, a 60-year-old greeter named Betty Dukes, claims she was demoted over the act of taking a penny from a cash register without permission. There are millions of women in the case, and the Supreme Court now has to decide whether the women constitute a "class." Walmart stands to be out billions if they lose. Given the current make-up of the Roberts court, it should be a nail-biter.

Meanwhile, there is still no word on whether Mrs. Obama actually plans to forsake Target and begin shopping at Wal-Mart herself. As far as the President is concerned, he will likely stay true to his word that he will personally never shop there again - not that he has decided to alienate his corporate friends and side with the unions as he once promised to do - but because as leader of the free world, he need never have to physically shop anywhere, ever again


DreamsAmelia said...

Looks like D.C. will get a Walmart, but still not get the vote. So many people danced in the streets on inauguration night believing that if anyone was going to finally bring Statehood to D.C., it would be the first African-American president...A statehood which would have revered and preserved the individual flavor of neighborhood precincts in D.C. before allowing in the mind-numbing, known tyranny of Walmart.

How sorely they were deceived...and if you are a nobody like me, with a middle-class job, paying taxes, and simply comment out of concern for our neighbors, representing no special interest group, but championing the rights of people over right of corporations, you must not merely be of "the left," but, automatically, you must be of "the professional left"-- since everyone is a slickster and a huckster and a PR spinner, and grass roots actions in these United States have been literally rolled over with astroturf by claiming to be "movements" fronted by ever sophisticated, anonymous, international business groups...It is simply inconceivable to be a mere person these days...

There are only so many realms of Dante's inferno to fall through, but there are apparently limitless rings through which the mere common mortal human being can marginalized to the deepest recesses of cyberspace---so that any mere human who dared have the intransigence to question the almighty corporation taking over its local neighborhood has to be automatically categorized and ejected to its own special inferno in cyberspace where like-minded non-corporate entities can commiserate about how they have been labeled and unceremoniously deposited there...

But you know what? We laugh a lot harder here in this peonage of non-stakeholder, unspecial interests that are all too quirky and, a category few seemingly would understand, human, to us...

Kate Madison said...

I have always had a queasy feeling about Michelle Obama, since she has seemed to me to be a member of what we called in Washington, D.C. "The Black Bourgeoisie," even though she was born to a working class family. I do not blame Ms. Obama for her upward striving or ambition, but I think, as First Lady, she would do well to show more awareness and sense of social justice about terrible places like WalMart. After all, WalMart sells unhealthy food products IN THE MAIN and screws its employees in whatever ways it legally can.

Bottom line: I was hoping for an Eleanor Roosevelt of color, and what we got was a Black Nancy Reagan! More is the sad.

Lafayette said...

The article is full of innuendo. Three words stick out, "WalMart", "Board Member" and these phrases "earned $51,200" and "received $72,375 worth of stock " -- all of which separately mean little but together condemn Michele Obama.

She's fit for hell, or worse, never ever shopping again at WalMart.

It seems thusly inconceivable that the lady new perfectly well what she was doing. Nope -- she was surely under the influence of the God of Mammon and therefore had compromised her whiter-than-white principles.

Innuendo makes for poor journalism, especially in a country that does not know how to eat healthily -- and whose eating habits have resulted in its present obesity pandemic. (Pandemic is worse than epidemic, look up the word.) Which could well turn into one of the worst health-disasters in America since AIDS.

So, obviously, given these facts (of which the press and the writer of the above article are evidently ignorant) Michele Obama can do no good. Neither with WalMart nor with the Chinese president because the loonies also complain she was "wearing red".

Heavens above, what is this crap that passes for "objective journalism". It's propaganda, that's what.

EarRe Feeling said...

All that concerns me now is that the farmer/producer will be squeezed and out of business, the middleman destroyed, and "healthy" products will become the sole province of massive producers, all so that YOU my friend can have a low price. Wal-Mart's business model does not lead to a "low price utopia" but a "low price hell" for the working families of the world. A low price a Wal-Mart is just a wage or job cut for you. Enjoy.

Karen Garcia said...


Thanks for your astute and heartfelt comment. Many of us follow your posts in the NY Times as well. Welcome to a place that will never censor,reject or otherwise squelch legitimate commentary (unlike "that other publication").


Karen Garcia said...


Since Wal-Mart taints everything it touches, it's unfortunate that Mrs. Obama chose to cast her lot with it. I am well aware of the obesity pandemic, and applaud her efforts in fighting it, but just wish she would have chosen a different venue, that's all. Public officials have to be careful of even appearing to have a conflict of interest, even though their intentions may be pure. I noticed that, with a few exceptions, mainstream publications pretty much acted as stenographers for this story. Think back to how Hillary was treated as first lady and I think you will agree that Mrs. Obama is being very fairly and positively portrayed by the press.(the rightwing gasbags are not included, of course).--KG

knitwit said...

I think MO means well and would gladly hold her nose while praising Wal Mart for this move. MY gripe is that the deal has been in the works for some time and is not the result of MO's work on the obesity issue. The other thing is how little they are really doing. It's only their store label that is directly affected--and everyone knows that store brands have even more "fillers" (salt, sugar, unhealthy fats) than the already unhealthy regular brands of packaged food. They are supposedly going to lower the price of produce as well, which I cannot criticize, but we shall see. The fact remains, however, that their stores are crammed with soda and other "beverages" that are not even mentioned in this deal. I do not shop at WM, but go in now and then to see what's going on in there. The food prices tempted me, but I resisted.

I think it is all right for MO to work with any company that will truly help her move her initiative forward, regardless of whatever boards she sat on in another lifetime. I don't care what she wears or who designs her clothes, but I DO care about public health and the efforts of WM and others to cut unhealthy additives by very small amounts over fairly long periods of time is nothing but a wolf in sheep's clothing to try to get regulatory bodies off their backs.

Want to reverse the obesity epidemic? Quit eating packaged food/soda. Easy for me, but what about kids? They need adults to act responsibly on their behalf. FOTUS is very well-intentioned, but so much of our society is now in the hands of the most craven corporations, I think there is very little room for meaningful change. If you own shares in Mac Donald's or Wal Mart, you are part of the problem. Someone told me the other day, "my kids aren't fat"--yeah, but he owns stock in these companies. It's the same as conservatives not wanting "socialized" medicine. We're losing our cohesion as human beings. We only want to help when there's a 9/11, instead of everyone putting in a little all along so that everyone gets a shot at the "dream".

Anonymous said...

Ms. Garcia -
i always look forward to - and appreciate - your reader's comments in the NYTimes, where i just learned of this blog.
with best wishes -

Anonymous said...

Just wanted to say that I appreciate your comments, both in the NYTimes and now here as well. I now read that paper more for the comments to various articles and op-eds than I do for the so-called journalism they peddle.

C said...

Great post Karen. Congratulations on the new blog. I look forward to reading it!

Best regards, Chris Doyle
SF, Ca.