No sooner did retailers wrap up Black Friday in cash register green with a big red bow on top did an equally colorful war of words erupt between the self-proclaimed “Voice of Retail” and America’s largest retail chain over how best to deliver affordable healthcare to retail workers.
The National Retail Federation (NRF); the world’s largest retail trade organization, and Wal-Mart; the nation’s largest private employer, have become embroiled in a heated exchange of public statements and letters to Congress since last summer when Wal-Mart dropped the first lump of coal in NRF’s Christmas stocking.
“We are for an employer mandate which is fair and broad in its coverage, but any alternative to an employer mandate should not create barriers to hiring entry level employees,” reads the open letter to President Obama, signed by Wal-Mart CEO Mike Duke on June 30. “…With smart, targeted policies, we can create a financially-viable health care system that enables workers to change jobs without losing their care, and allows businesses to become more nimble.”
Wal-Mart the Grinch?
As if the retail giant’s oddly pro-reform stance on employer-based healthcare weren’t enough, the Superstore King risks looking like the Grinch Who Stole Healthcare in his strategic snub against the NRF (of which his retail empire is, not by coincidence, a non-member). The highly publicized letter was signed by two of Duke’s biggest industry thorns in his side — The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the Center for American Progress.
The three suddenly friendly foes are beginning to raise eyebrows amongst Wal-Mart employees and industry analysts alike. Turns out, the SEIU and Center for American Progress have unabashedly and very actively recruited Wal-Mart employees for years to rally against Wal-Mart for alleged wage and hour violations.
To throw yet another log on the Yuletide fire, the SEIU has also been accused of actively mounting smear campaigns against Wal-Mart for its alleged tactics to avoid providing affordable health care to its workers. The union alleges that Wal-Mart caps its employee’s hours at what amounts to perpetually part-time status, making it impossible for the majority of its workforce to become eligible for full-time benefits, including group healthcare.
NRF Making a List, Checking it Twice
The letter to the President, along with its motley assortment of signatures, didn’t escape NRF’s public relations radar for long. Before the letter had a chance to arrive at the White House, Federation officials accused Wal-Mart of playing Reindeer Games in a nasty statement to the media denouncing its cries to Congress for the Public Option and employer mandates to provide health coverage.
“NRF cannot support an employer mandate of any type, whether pay-or-play, set penalty, or ‘free-rider’ in nature,” NRF Senior Vice President for Government Relations Steve Pfister said. “We are a labor-heavy industry that operates on a thin profit margin. We cannot afford any new labor cost.”
Days later, the NRF continued to pounce on what it calls 飄霧眉 Wal-Mart’s action to “undercut a 30-plus year, unified employer community position against employer mandates.” This time, the NRF named its not-so-anonymous target of shame.
“NRF strongly criticized the action taken by Wal-Mart, which is not an NRF member,” reads the bullet-pointed statement on its Web site, as if Santa Claus himself were shaking his finger at CEO Duke for being a bad little boy. “Wal-Mart is, of course, entitled to its own views. Nevertheless, our job is to protect the health care reform interests of retailers small and large just got a little more difficult after Wal-Mart’s unwise decision. It is not a choice NRF would have made or would recommend to our members.”
All of this back-and-forth might be classified by some as a healthy exchange over healthcare reform in the interest of its constituencies. That’s if it didn’t come at the most critical time of year for an industry already financially crippled but still cutting prices to never-before-seen lows.