Joe Hansen says he's "pissed," and it's no mystery why.
Hansen, the president of the United Food and Commercial Workers, which represents the nation's unionized supermarket workers, is dismayed that when first lady Michelle Obama meets tomorrow at the White House with representatives of retailers who have markets in underserved areas, Wal-Mart will be in attendance.
"We've been fighting Wal-Mart in New York, Chicago, and here in D.C.," Hansen told me this afternoon. "They take jobs away from workers in unionized chains -- jobs that pay decent wages and have decent benefits. No company has done more to reduce the wages and benefits of American workers than Wal-Mart."
"I'm a supporter of the president and his efforts to create good jobs," Hansen continued, "but they've got to get their act together here. I give the first lady all the credit in the world for promoting nutritious food, but Wal-Mart employees often can't afford to buy that food."
With its sales and share value stagnating, Wal-Mart is pushing harder than ever to enter the big-city markets from which liberals have until recently blocked its expansion. As historian Nelson Lichtenstein documented in the May issue of the Prospect, one way Wal-Mart is endeavoring to win city council approvals for opening urban stores is to announce its intent to build stores in underserved minority communities. That's the exception, though, to the Wal-Mart rule. In cities where it's encountered no resistance -- Memphis, Houston, Atlanta, Cleveland, St. Louis -- it has built just one or two inner-city stores in each. "More than its competitors," Lichtenstein writes, "Wal-Mart builds its stores largely in white, middle- and lower-middle-class neighborhoods, and in recent years, increasingly in more affluent exurbs."
Even if it does open inner-city stores and hires inner-city residents to staff them, those employees (or as Wal-Mart calls them, "associates") will not exactly be thriving. Pollster Celinda Lake recently conducted a survey of full-time Wal-Mart workers that revealed a work force that's little short of desperate. Asked what their biggest economic concern was, fully 60 percent of Wal-Mart workers answered, "Not making enough money to pay the bills" -- dwarfing the number who answered "losing your job" (which came in second at 27 percent); paying off debt (third, at 23 percent); and rising health-care costs (fourth, at 18 percent).
Wal-Mart's strategically driven discovery of the inner city is surely worthy of White House notice. But it's a cause more for concern than celebration.