On Wal-Mart, Politics, and Corporate Lobbying

On NPR this morning there was a story about Wal-Mart. The company had, according to the report, asked its store managers to vote Republican this November. The reason? Unionization.

Legislation is pending in Congress that would make it easier for workers to unionize. The NPR report indicated that this was a Democratic-backed initiative, and electing Republicans would help to kill it. Wal-Mart asking its managers — and, presumably, through them, their employees — to cast their votes for Republicans who would defeat the measure is an example of a company using its employees to achieve a political solution to the benefit of its economic interests — if not necessarily its employees’ economic interests.

Take, for instance, this example.

Many, many years ago I worked for Payless Shoe Source. Payless is known for selling inexpensive shoes made in China. At the time I worked for the company, it was a recurring political issue as to whether or not China would be granted “Most Favored Nation” trading status, which would make Chinese goods cheaper and more widely available. Congress debated on a regular basis whether or not to extend this every few years, and when it came time for Congress to vote on the issue, Payless stores would receive a package from corporate.

The package contained a corporate memo about the importance of MFN to Payless’ business model and continued profitability, a list of our Senators and Representatives and their offices’ mailing addresses, an example letter for employees to use as a model when writing our Washington representatives about the importance of MFN, and pre-stamped envelopes. And this package went out to four thousand stores. Payless corporate wanted its employees to lobby for Most Favored Nation.

I read the memo. I read the sample letter. I thought. I pondered. I scratched my nose.

A week later, my District Manager, a venal toady named Gus Hulcher, asked me if I had written a letter about China’s Most Favored Nation status. He knew, he said, that he could could count on me to write it — and to write it eloquently.

I had written the letters, I told Gus.

That my letters to my representatives argued for ending China’s MFN status because China is a brutal, repressive, totalitarian regime… well, that I left unsaid.

That I also wrote in my letters that my company, Payless, wanted me to write in support of MFN, but that I could not, in good conscience, support a policy that rewarded China by granting its products easier access to American markets for their undemocratic and inhumane acts like the squelching of dissent and the Tiananmen Square massacre… well, that would have blown Gus’ mind.

Of course I used the company-provided envelopes for my letters. How could I not? The company wanted me to support a policy I found morally reprehensible.

But the company-provided memo and letter? Not nearly as useful to my purposes.

A few days later, the company sent out an e-mail to stores, asking employees not to write their elected representatives. Whether this was connected to my lobbying efforts, or just a coincidence, I will never know.

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