Local unions and political leaders gave an earful to the world's largest corporation in a recent rally that kicked off the United Food and Commercial Workers' first public campaign under its new federation, Change to Win.

As part of a coordinated national effort, UFCW Local 876 members rallied outside their headquarters April 26 to protest the way Wal-Mart treats its employees. Union members, politicians and religious leaders delivered speeches on workers' rights to a crowd of about 100 people, and then canvassed neighborhoods to spread the word and recruit new members for the consumer-interest group Wake Up WalMart. There are about a dozen Wal-Mart stores in metro Detroit.

Oakland County Commissioner and Oakland County Democrats President Dave Woodward (D-Royal Oak) was one of those speechifying dignitaries.

"Wal-Mart has built a business plan out of trampling workers' rights," Woodward says. "If we're serious about creating jobs in our community, we can't allow companies like Wal-Mart to come here, pay substandard wages and milk taxpayers."

That milking, according to information available at the Web site wakeupwalmart.com, comes mainly from the company's failure to offer health insurance to more than half of its employees. According to a report issued by the U.S. House Committee on Education and the Workforce in 2004, so many of the roughly 1.3 million people employed by the chain received such low pay and benefits that they were eligible for $2.5 billion in federal assistance.

Wal-Mart wasn't amused by the rallies held by the UFCW. It issued a statement reading, in part, "America's working families must be mystified by any group that would rally against an $11 per month health plan, $3 prescription drug co-pays and expanded health coverage for children. Sadly, these rallies are more about politics and publicity stunts than health care."

Unfortunately, the plan Wal-Mart talks about could still be too expensive for most of its Michigan employees, says Chris Kofinis at Wake Up Walmart. That's because the $11 mentioned above is only the plan's premium. The plan's deductible — $1,000 for individual coverage and $3,000 for family coverage — can seem daunting to a Wal-Mart associate in Michigan making $9.87 an hour, he says, especially when "full time" at Wal-Mart is considered 32-34 hours a week. (Wal-Mart doesn't disclose the wages of its part-time employees.)

The UFCW joined six other labor and service unions in splitting with the AFL-CIO last summer, charging that the federation was too focused on electoral politics at the expense of expanding membership. Under the new federation, Change to Win, each of the seven unions chose one company to demonstrate against.

Mark Charrette, spokesman for the Madison Heights UFCW, says Wal-Mart's sheer size made it a tempting target for the local, which represents more than 20,000 members. There are probably other companies that treat their employees in a fashion similar to Wal-Mart, he adds, "but Wal-Mart's scale sets it apart."

But lawmakers can only do so much to alter Wal-Mart's business practices, Woodward says, adding that real change would come from consumers who should look at the big picture when deciding where to shop. In other words, consumers should follow the advice offered long ago by that profound social philosopher Jiminy Cricket and let their conscience be their guide when determining where to drop their dollars.

"Our Legislature has the power to make some changes, but the greater responsibility falls on consumers," Woodward says. "We have to recognize that we may have to pay an extra 10 cents for a loaf of bread."

News Hits is edited by Curt Guyette. Contact the column at 313-202-8004 or [email protected]

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