Nathan Newman

DC Wonks Undermine Anti-Wal-Mart Campaign

When Wal-Mart's trucks break down, no one expects the government to pay to repair them. Wal-Mart pays to fix them and the costs are included in the price of the goods they sell.

Yet some moderate Democrats apparently think that when workers get sick, companies don't have the responsibility to "repair" their workers. The new talking points from some in think-tank Washington is that it's not Wal-Mart's responsibility to take care of sick workers. Take this little excerpt from a recent New York Times article:

"The controversy over Wal-Mart's benefits may mask what some experts see as an unraveling of the employer-based system of health coverage. 'These are indications of the gaps in the health care system that are exposed by Wal-Mart,' said Len Nichols, a health economist at the New America Foundation, an independent public policy group in Washington. 'You can't blame Wal-Mart.'"

So it's nice to know that when we on the labor left mobilizing against Wal-Mart feel the knife in our back, we know who put it there.

But what's odd is that this is the same kind of coterie of "moderate free trade" Democrats who usually tell workers that you must allow the marketplace to set the price of products, workers' jobs be damned (not theirs, of course). But when it comes to including the market costs of health care for workers within the goods sold by corporate America, that's the point where the D.C. free trade crowd suddenly argue for artificially lowering the costs of goods to benefit corporate profits.

So why not have taxpayers subsidize machine repair for corporations? Or let corporations pollute the environment at will and leave it to the taxpayers to clean up the toxic spills? Why do corporations get a free pass in responsibility for healthcare costs, but not the other social costs like pollution -- "externalities" in wonk speak -- that business inflicts on society?

Now, there is a pragmatic argument to relieve companies of that responsibility for healthcare costs to gain an advantage in global trade, but that's just a variant on a whole range of trade subsidies that I thought the free trade crowd was against.

On basic economics, this new talking point from the D.C. wonks is nonsensical and a bit hypocritical from folks who seem to be heartless about manufacturing workers losing their jobs to "free trade," but awfully compassionate about the burdens on corporate profits from healthcare costs due to that same international competition.

In the abstract, I'd love to have single-payer health care, as well as fair trade, and worker-owned companies for that matter. But at the moment, with a GOP filibuster sitting there to block the creation of single-payer government-run health plan, this DC wonk strategy of attacking the employer-based healthcare system is ridiculous, especially the talking point that Wal-Mart is not a bad actor just because they provide less health care to their employees than other large employers.

Strategically, the moderate D.C. wonks are rhetorically screwing over the labor unions and other groups that have spent the last few years attacking Wal-Mart to force the company to provide better health care. Some of that pressure led to Wal-Mart increasing its health-care coverage and other benefits as it feels the pressure from union organizing drives.

And on the legislative front, right now the broadest and currently most successful campaign for expanding health care for Americans is based on strengthening the employer-based health-care system by requiring employers not providing health care for their employees to do so. New York City and Suffolk County, N.Y., just passed laws requiring large retailers like Wal-Mart to provide health care to their employees -- and Maryland passed a similar law through their legislature, only to see their GOP governor veto it.

And what was the rhetorical strategy used to get those laws passed? Arguing that companies have a responsibility to provide health care for their employees. See the following language used in flyer from the campaign that successfully enacted the New York City Health Care Security Act:

"This New York City law would help responsible businesses to continue offering health care and expand access to health care for tens of thousands of working New Yorkers. The new law would level the playing field for businesses. Many responsible business owners are being hurt by unfair competition from owners who recklessly cut health benefits to lower their costs.

"Irresponsible employers who refuse to provide health care -- despite the fact that their competitors are doing so -- are shifting to taxpayers the cost of caring for their workers.

"Responsible business owners support this bill because it helps them continue providing health care for their employees without worrying about being hurt by competitors that cut employee benefits in order to lower costs."

This is the message progressives are trying to deliver at the grass roots.

Obviously, D.C. wonks like the New America Foundation have the free-speech right to say anything they want, but when groups like that deliberately promote rhetoric that undermines current progressive organizing efforts, it's clear that they can't be trusted as allies by grassroots organizations.

Here's the difference between conservatives and a lot of D.C. liberal intellectuals: Conservatives are actually disciplined in using the privileges they have in think tanks to support the conservative movement out in the field. But much of the D.C. liberal policy-wonk crowd -- whether supporting free trade or the new talking point that Wal-Mart has no responsibility to provide health care -- seem to not give a damn if they are writing Wal-Mart's campaign ads.

Believe me, Wal-Mart will happily quote the New America Foundation to bolster their case on why New York City or various state governments shouldn't be forcing them to provide health care to their employees. And they will turn around and lobby against any universal health plan that the D.C. crowd promotes.

The only way Wal-Mart won't lobby against a broader health plan is if the company has already been forced to provide health care for their employees. New York City and Suffolk County have already done this in their jurisdictions, and the more states follow suit, the less the Wal-Marts of the world will fight more universal health care solutions.

But with Wal-Mart employees showing up at emergency rooms with sick children whose parents had been unable to afford care until their medical problems became critical, it's just an obscenity to excuse Wal-Mart, one of the richest corporations on earth, for its failure to provide health care to its employees.

Nathan Newman is director of Agenda for Justice (, an organization that supports progressive policy campaigns, and is a longtime union and community activist. Email or see

From The Progressive Populist, Dec. 1, 2005

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