Sweet Victory: Maryland Stands Up To Wal-Mart
by Katrina vanden Heuvel
With the federal government content to let Wal-Mart run amok, it has been left up to the states to protect workers from the retail behemoth's excesses. This past Saturday, April 9, Maryland showed America's largest corporation who's boss.
Maryland's House of Delegates voted 82 to 48 to approve a bill that would require all businesses in the state with more than 10,000 employees to spend at least 8 percent of their payroll on health benefits for workers (or, alternatively, donate the funds to the state's Medicaid program). Wal-Mart, with its 15,000 employees, is the only such company that does not already spend 8 percent on health care for employees--and thus, the direct target of the bill. Spearheaded by Maryland for Health Care, the legislation was supported by a coalition of over 1,000 organizations representing Maryland's health, business, and community interests.
"We're looking for responsible businesses to ante up...and provide adequate health care," said Sen. Thomas M. Middleton (D-Charles). Republican Governor Robert Ehrlich Jr., who is expected to veto the bill, lashed out at Democratic legislators. Cowed by Rush Limbaugh's criticisms of the measure, Ehrlich claimed the bill had made a mockery of Maryland. [Note to Marylanders: when your Governor cares more about Rush's opinion than yours, you're in trouble. Thankfully though, with a wide majority of the Senate having approved the bill, Ehrlich's veto doesn't stand a chance.]
Wal-Mart's critics hope that other states will follow Maryland's lead. The Center for Community and Corporate Ethics, headed by former director of the Democratic Party's Senatorial Campaign Committee Andy Grossman, plans to distribute copies of Maryland's Fair Share Health Care Act to state legislators in all 50 states. Already, seven states are considering similar measures.
The surge of anti-Wal-Mart activity has pushed the corporation into PR crisis mode. On April 6, in its latest attempt to soften its image, Wal-Mart invited over seventy journalists to its corporate headquarters in Arkansas. And on Tuesday--responding to a newly-formed coalition of environmental and labor activists--Wal-Mart announced that it would donate $35 million over the next decade to the National Fish and Wildlife Coalition's preservation efforts.
Don't count on Wal-Mart to become another Ben and Jerry's. But, with continued pressure from activists and legislative action from the states, America's corporations could face a future in which social responsibility is no longer optional.
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Co-written by Sam Graham-Felsen, a freelance journalist, documentary filmmaker, and blogger (www.boldprint.net
) living in Brooklyn.