Back in 2008, bashing Walmart was one of the hottest topics on the left, inspiring activist groups, muck-raking left-wing journalists and Michael Moore-style documentaries. Even White House candidates jumped.
Five years and a recession later, things are much different. It is really hard to sustain a movement against a retailer that offers the lowest prices in the midst of a lousy economy. Meanwhile, Walmart has gotten more politically savvy. While union groups haven’t given up yet, the liberal movement overall has shifted it focus to other issues.
Nathan Gonzales of the Rothenberg Political Report has a sharp analysis of the shift:
Last month, President Obama nominated Sylvia Mathews Burwell to be the next director of Office of Management and Budget. Most recently, she ran the Walmart Foundation, the retail giant’s philanthropic arm.
At first glance, the Burwell appointment is a stark contrast for a Democratic Party that was once energized by anti-Wal-Mart groups such as Walmart Watch and Wake Up Wal-Mart, which were funded by organized labor in order to pressure the company into improving wages, benefits, and conditions for its workers and to protest the lack of unionization.
But these are different times. “The president can’t ignore the largest company in the country,” according to one veteran of the anti-Wal-Mart movement. But there is also wide expanse between dialogue with the company and putting someone from Wal-Mart in charge of the nation’s budget.
In late January, the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union formally agreed to stop trying to unionize Walmart employees after the company complained to the National Labor Relations Board that the union illegally picketed the company’s stores last fall. UFCW funded one of two major anti-Walmart campaigns, Wake Up Wal-Mart, in the middle of the last decade. Service Employees International Union funded the other, Walmart Watch.
“There is no movement now,” admitted one Democratic operative who is close to organized labor about a decline that started before the recent UFCW news.
After failing to unionize Walmart workers, was the entire movement a bust?
“She wouldn’t have been nominated in 2005,” according to one Democratic operative about Burwell, who added that the movement had some success considering “Wal-Mart isn’t in the news every day for being a ‘bad actor.’ ” Wal-Mart made strides in the areas of energy efficiency and supporting sustainable fisheries, which could reshaped how the company is viewed within the Democratic Party and taken some of the venom out of its attackers.
Wal-Mart’s political contributions have also diversified over the last decade and reach deeper into Democrats’ pockets. Wal-Mart Stores Inc PAC for a Responsible Government gave an average of $1.2 million each cycle over the last dozen years. But its contributions have evolved from 78 percent to Republican candidates in the 2002 cycle to an even split between Republican and Democratic candidates in 2012.