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Fascinating piece this morning in the New York Times reporting that “after waging an aggressive public relations campaign against Wal-Mart for three years, the company's full-time, union-backed critics, who once vowed never to let up, are lowering their pitch forks. Shrill condemnations and embarrassing leaked documents are being replaced by acknowledgements of progress - and, in the case of Wal-Mart Watch, free advice.”

Exhibit one in this report is the existence of a nine-page report that has been circulating through Wal-Mart’s headquarters, “proposing sweeping changes to its employee health care plans,” that was “commissioned, paid for and given to Wal-Mart by its longtime foes, the Service Employees International Union, and a group the union finances called Wal-Mart Watch.”

The Times reports: “The union-financed campaigns were launched in 2005. As the groups turned up the heat on the company, Wal-Mart was at first defensive, but eventually it responded in ways few of its critics expected. The company expanded its health care plans to cover more workers, though still not enough to satisfy the unions. And it made commitments to the environment, like becoming the biggest U.S. seller of more efficient light bulbs.

“Indeed, Wal-Mart has gone so far on some initiatives, like the environmental ones, that it is drawing attacks from the right, particularly from a group called the National Legal and Policy Center, which has accused the company of giving in to political correctness. Now, the union-backed groups appear to have concluded it would be more constructive, sometimes, to engage Wal-Mart. That leaves them navigating a complex situation in which they have to decide, issue by issue, whether to shake hands with the company or to slap it.”

And there has been some impact within Wal-Mart, as well. “The less antagonistic approach from the union-backed groups is evident inside Wal-Mart, which had hired dozens of new employees to combat the negative public relations onslaught,” the Times writes. “Over the past several months, the company has disbanded a campaign-style war room set up in 2005 to do battle with Wal-Mart Watch and WakeUpWalMart.com. The latter group is financed by the United Food and Commercial Workers Union.

“And Wal-Mart has killed off an advocacy group, called Working Families for Wal-Mart, intended to rally support for the company (and serve as a counterbalance to the anti Wal-Mart groups).”

KC's View:
It sometimes seems extraordinary that even in 2008, it is a revelation to some folks that talking is always better than fighting, that constructive discussion almost always leads people and institutions to a better place where understanding – even amid ongoing suspicion – is at least possible.

Give both sides credit here.

They likely never will agree on everything. And maybe both labor and management will be stronger for providing a counter-balance to the other.

And shame on those on either side of the aisle who would prefer open hostilities and lack of progress, who think that there is no room for mutual respect.