When Wal-Mart became a major blip on labor's radar screen in the early '90s, the obvious answer was, of course, to organize. But organizing retail is different from organizing, say, a factory. Even large stores require much less capital than industrial plants, a fact that allows Wal-Mart to easily shutter upstart stores or departments (in 2000, for example, when the ufcw organized the meat-cutting department of a Texas store, Wal-Mart closed its meat-cutting departments nationwide two weeks later). Not that many stores have ever gotten to that point. Wal-Mart--which is the nation's largest private employer and the world's largest company (with annual revenue that exceeds the GDP of Sweden)--trains its managers in anti-union tactics and, as a last resort, even dispatches anti-union response teams. "Straight-up organizing in this country is difficult enough under the law," says one ufcw representative. "And, when you're going up against a nation-state company (my bold), it doesn't behoove you to go after one store at a time."
With both sides pursuing Washington strategies--and with Washington politicos starting to take notice--it's almost a foregone conclusion that Wal-Mart will become an issue in the next elections. For one thing, as Kerry found last year, the company makes a great stand-in for the issues that many Democrats want to focus on: Health care, wages, and offshore outsourcing. "They will be held up as bad guys in '06 on particular issues," says Jennifer Palmieri, a 2004 presidential campaign veteran now with the Center for American Progress. "They're Democrats' best talking point on why we need more progressive policy."
Finally, the company's newfound Washington presence, ironically, could end up hurting it politically. With most of Wal-Mart's lobbyists coming from Republican ranks--and more than 80 percent of its contributions going to the GOP--Democrats will have an easy time linking their opponents to Wal-Mart's misdeeds. "All the money in the world isn't going to change the facts," says Blank. "It's their business decisions that are coming back to haunt them."
Where's Winnie when we need him? Well, dead, the slacker, but I can hear his whisky-voice: "We will fight them in the parking lot. We will fight them in the personal grooming products aisle..."