Sunday, December 01, 2013

For Small Business, One Day A Year

How quaint and heartwarming (feel-good photo, below).  Talking Points Memo contends

President Barack Obama is doing his part to support small businesses.

Obama and daughters Malia and Sasha dropped in Saturday at Washington's Politics and Prose bookstore and purchased what he said was a "long list" of books that included "The Kite Runner," ''Harold and the Purple Crayon," and "The Sports Gene".

The president said he bought a reader for every age, from 5 to 52 -- his age. He paid by credit card. The total was not announced.

Obama sent a tweet earlier Saturday about the importance of supporting small businesses.
The Saturday after Thanksgiving has become known as "Small Business Saturday." It's designed to drive business to mom and pop shops between the whirlwind of Black Friday sales offered by large retailers and Cyber Monday deals from online sellers.

The eminent and profitable Politics and Prose bookstore, sold in 2011 for a reported $2 million, apparently is President Obama's idea of small business, unsurprising given the Administration's enthusiastic support for America's premier killer of small business.  Two months ago, Salon's Josh Eidelson wrote

Since President Obama’s first term, administration officials have joined Walmart executives for events devoted to issues ranging from boosting U.S. manufacturing to hiring returning veterans, including a series of appearances by First Lady Michelle Obama touting Walmart’s role in providing healthy and affordable food. A Walmart press release following a February 28 event at a Springfield, Missouri store quoted the First Lady saying that while before “the conventional wisdom said that healthy products simply didn’t sell…Thanks to Walmart and so many other great American businesses, we are proving the conventional wisdom wrong.”

“It irritates me,” Joe Hansen, the president of the 1.3 million-member United Food & Commercial Workers union, told Salon in a recent interview.

Hansen said that a few years ago, when the UFCW first received word that the First Lady planned to do a Walmart event, “We thought we could ask them not to do it, and we had allies in the administration at the time – we still do, I think, but the ones we had then – and they could not persuade her.” Hansen said the First Lady had “decided that it was more important [to promote] what she considers this healthy food, which really irritates me because you can get just as healthy food in Safeway and Kroger and other places.”

Hansen added that after the first such event, he met with White House advisor Valerie Jarrett, and “she felt we ought to have a conversation. I said I’m willing to do it. The phone still hasn’t rung. And that’s a couple years ago.”

Asked about Hansen’s account, White House Spokesperson Matt Lehrich e-mailed, “We’re proud that many companies…have answered the First Lady’s call to hire veterans and provide healthy foods. The President remains focused every day on building a strong and growing middle class and an economy that works for everyone.”

Critics have questioned whether the numbers announced by Walmart on hiring veterans and U.S. product sourcing are substantial, whether the jobs Walmart is offering vets are worth celebrating, and whether the federal government’s definition of “food deserts” lacking access to healthy food options presupposes large chain stores as the solution.

The UFCW is the largest private sector union in the AFL-CIO. As I’ve reported, it’s also the key player behind OUR Walmart, a non-union workers’ group which has mobilized hundreds of employees in Walmart retail stores for protests over wages, benefits, and working conditions, including a high-profile one-day Black Friday strike last November. Within the six months following that work stoppage, Walmart released a January press release in which the First Lady urged “every business in America to follow Walmart’s lead” in hiring veterans; Michelle Obama made her healthy food-focused visit to the Springfield store; she was introduced at a March business roundtable event by Walmart CEO Mike Duke; and Barack and Michelle Obama and Joe and Jill Biden held an April announcement on veteran hiring with Walmart US CEO Bill Simon at the White House.

Twenty OUR Walmart members have been fired since participating in a longer strike in June, and fifty-some other strikers have been disciplined in what OUR Walmart alleges is a wave of illegal retaliation; Walmart denies targeting strikers. (The company did not respond to a Friday inquiry.) Last month, a civil disobedience action by fired Walmart workers in Washington, DC,took place the same afternoon as a Walmart US Manufacturing Summit in Orlando featuring Obama’s Secretary of Commerce, Penny Pritzker.

Asked what Pritzker’s appearance there reflected about the administration’s view of Walmart as an employer, U.S. Secretary of Labor Tom Perez told me, “Well, we’re working with everyone on the issue of growing this economy…I think what Senator [Ted] Kennedy taught me as much as anything is that idealism and pragmatism are not mutually exclusive.” Noting the late senator’s work with Republicans on healthcare and hate crimes, Perez said it was “important to bring a wide array of stakeholders to the table to engage in a meaningful way in how we grow a vibrant middle class.” Asked about Walmart’s firings of activist workers, Perez said he hadn’t “studied that situation in sufficient detail,” and so didn’t “feel comfortable opining about the specifics of a particular action.”

As Walmart faces heightened attention to its labor practices and resistance to its urban expansion plans, perceived approval from the President – who joined his opponents in criticizing the company during the 2008 Democratic primary – is a valuable commodity. Walmart’s then-executive vice president of corporate affairs and government relations, Leslie Dach, told investors in 2010 that “our reputation” was “a lever” for achieving Walmart’s aims, among them entering “new markets.” The Nation reported in 2011 that “in a historically black Washington neighborhood where the chain wants to open stores, Michelle Obama stood before a giant Walmart banner and overflowing produce bins and endorsed the chain’s new plan to cut prices on healthy foods and open stores in food deserts.”

On Black Friday, according to union organizers, more than 110 individuals (who now face possible retaliation) were arrested in 1500 protests of Walmart policies.  Five Democratic Representatives and two Democratic Senators (Ohio's Sherrod Brown and Massachusetts' Ed Markey) issued a statement arguing "It is time that Walmart pays its workers a fair wage and stops tramplig on their right" and noting the gigantic retailer "has systematically and illegally retaliated against workers who have had the courage to stand up to improve conditions."

On the same day, Eidelson put the struggle of Walmart employees in context as he explained

Chief among the challenges is this: While U.S. law generally bans companies from punishing workers for organizing (whether toward unionization or as part of a non-union effort like OUR Walmart), it does precious little to avert or avenge such retaliation when companies are dead set on maintaining control. In the months after 100-some strikers staged a several-day work stoppage and protest caravan to Wal-Mart’s June 2013 shareholder meeting, 23 of them were fired – exactly the scenario that’s kept many Wal-Mart workers on the sidelines. While “I do not think I have ever hated any one thing in my life” as much as Wal-Mart, one employee told meshortly before those firings began, he’d be keeping his mouth shut because “Wal-Mart does not tolerate dissenters.”

Wal-Mart denies that it retaliated for striking (but not that it punished some strikers for violating its attendance policy, a pretty specious distinction). The federal National Labor Relations Board announced this month that it was prepared to issue a complaint – similar to an indictment – against the company for illegally trying to restrain strikes; that’s a symbolic victory for the campaign and one step in a potentially years-long legal process that could ultimately see fired employees returned to work.

But what neither Wal-Mart nor OUR Walmart can come out and say is this: While core activists say they’re only emboldened by the fear campaign, by all appearances Wal-Mart threats and firings have so far succeeded in stemming the growth of Wal-Mart strikes. (Alternate explanation, per Wal-Mart: “The opportunity is incredible…We’ve never held a good person back.”) Organizers have declined to say whether today’s protests will see more employees out on strike than last year, but touted growth in total protests, civil disobedience actions, worker support and community backing. (Wal-Mart employee participation in a September 2013 day of civil disobedience and protests – not strikes – also numbered in the hundreds, according to the campaign.)

Placerville Wal-Mart employee Dorothy Halvorson told me she was stirred to get more active with OUR Walmart when she saw the company crack down on her co-workers. But she said such retaliation “has put fear back into some of the people that were thinking about joining us.” When three activists were fired in her store, said Halvorson, others “stepped back into like, ‘Oh no, we’ve got to be careful — we might be fired too.’” She said that because of the NLRB’s planned complaint against Wal-Mart, “people are starting to feel more empowered again about doing it.”

The statement from the five members of Congress could have been echoed by the White House, whose current occupant once declared (video, below)

And understand this: If American workers are being denied their right to organize and collectively bargain when I’m in the White House, I will put on a comfortable pair of shoes myself, I’ll will walk on that picket line with you as President of the United States of America. Because workers deserve to know that somebody is standing in their corner.

But that was in the distant past, and Barack Obama now would rather do a photo op at a renowned bookstore than demonstrate any substantive support for the rights of workers.  If he is "standing in their corner," he must be in camouflage.

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