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