In a rare rebuke of a generally labor friendly group of Members, the Service Employees International Union last week sent a letter to members of the Congressional Black Caucus. It chided them for giving retail giant Wal-Mart “an opportunity to fashion a false image as a friend of African Americans and of working people generally.”
While some members of the caucus said they didn’t give the letter much thought, some CBC members and aides say the letter hit a sour tone. And advocates for Wal-Mart in Washington, D.C., immediately took issue with the letter.
“My whole concern is the paternalistic tone of the letter, using words like ‘disappointment,’” said one source familiar with the letter.
This source added that some CBC members had received a call from labor officials before a recent CBC political action committee reception, encouraging the CBC not to accept donations from Wal-Mart. “Who’s to say that tomorrow it’s not UPS or McDonalds” that the union wants to distance Members from, the source added.
The SEIU referred inquiries for this story to the letter itself.
Lanier Avant, chief of staff to Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), said his boss’s initial reaction to the letter was that, “of all Members, the Black caucus aren’t the Congresspeople who need to be lectured to about labor issues.”
Avant points to his boss’s 100 percent lifetime rating in the AFL-CIO’s voting scorecard. “The letter is comical, almost,” he said. “Back home, some folk would call it preaching to the choir, and this is a choir that just doesn’t need to be preached to about this issue.”
Avant added that CBC members met with the CEO of Wal-Mart several weeks ago, and doesn’t want to be told whom to meet with. “The letter seems to be an effort to put Black members of Congress in their place, and that’s not why people like Bennie Thompson came to Washington,” he said.
The one-and-a-half-page letter points to Wal-Mart’s anti-union stance and decries its labor practices.
“The letter’s not offering any new information. It’s not a revelation,” Avant said. “We read the papers and watch television too, we have access to the Internet.”
Another aide to a CBC member said the letter “is not the way to start a new Congress.”
In the meantime, Kimberly Woodard, director of federal government relations for Wal-Mart, says she was disappointed that the union would send a letter of “this tone and circulate it to members of the Congressional Black Caucus.”
Woodard added that Wal-Mart is the nation’s largest employer of black people, and “to me, it just makes sense that we would want to develop relationships with the CBC and vice versa.”
“I don’t want to portray that I think Wal-Mart is a perfect company,” Woodard said. “We recognize that there’s always room for improvement.”
Rep. Albert Wynn (D-Md.), chairman of the CBC’s PAC, said Monday that the group is “not dismissing” SEIU’s concerns and is willing to sit down with the labor group to discuss them.
He added, however, that the CBC cannot brush aside the interests of businesses like Wal-Mart that employ thousands of black Americans and help fuel the economy in minority communities.
Because of that, Wynn said it isn’t surprising that Wal-Mart would be supportive of the CBC.
“We are prepared to have a dialogue with both labor and business to promote the interests of African-Americans,” Wynn said.
Wynn said the PAC has not discussed returning Wal-Mart contributions. He stressed that the CBC has “taken the responsible and objective approach” to Wal-Mart, challenging the company on issues such as health care benefits and working conditions. He said that to suggest that the CBC has allowed Wal-Mart to employ certain business practices “is inaccurate.”
In the 2004 election cycle, Wal-Mart’s PAC contributed to several CBC members, including Reps. Harold Ford Jr. (D-Tenn.), who collected $10,000; Ways and Means ranking member Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.), who received $5,000; and Wynn, who took in $2,500.
CBC Chairman Mel Watt (D-N.C.) said the union is “entitled to have their opinion about these things. … The CBC of course, or the CBC PAC, is not in a position — none of us are in a position — to cut off communications with anybody,” he said. “For anybody to think we could just stop talking to somebody because they don’t like their views seems pretty cavalier.”
Watt added that he hopes the situation “doesn’t adversely impact our relationship with SEIU.”
He also said that when he bumped into SEIU President Andrew Stern at a dinner last week, the union leader told Watt he didn’t know about the letter. It was signed by Anna Burger, the union’s international secretary-treasurer.
“That’s why we have meetings with Wal-Mart — to encourage them to respect the communities in which they are working and to improve the conditions of their work force,” said Watt. “I don’t know that our interests or SEIU’s interests are different on that point.”
Christy Setzer, a spokeswoman for the AFL-CIO, says her group and other labor groups are embroiled in an effort to change the way Wal-Mart does business.
“It has an abysmal record,” she said. “We’re talking about a company that is essentially turning back the clock on labor progress. We’d like to see them raise the standard of living for their employees, treat their employees more fairly with better health benefits, and a wage its employees can live on.”
Erin P. Billings contributed to this report.