Wal-Mart supporters on Tuesday formed a steering committee of Working Families for Wal-Mart to talk about positive contributions of the retailer and counter criticism from Web sites like WakeUpWalMart.com and a popular documentary, “Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price.”

“Wal-Mart will create a projected 100,000 jobs this year, pays its associates competitive wages, offers health insurance for as little as $11 per month, and donates nearly $200 million to charities annually–90 percent of it at the local level,” steering committee member Suffragan Bishop Ira Combs said in a press release.

“Just like Sam Walton believed every consumer deserves the opportunity to benefit from discount shopping, every working family deserves to benefit from the savings and opportunity of a Wal-Mart in their community,” Combs said.

According to the Associated Press, a Wal-Mart spokesperson said the company is the largest financial backer of the new group but would not disclose how much the Arkansas-based retailer is contributing to the effort.

Chris Kofinis of WakeUpWalMart.com dismissed the group as a “publicity stunt” composed of people who do business with Wal-Mart. Funded by the United Food and Commercial Workers union, WakeUpWalMart.com is leading the charge of criticism alleging that Wal-Mart’s business practices harm workers and are bad for America.

“It is amazing that a company that says they can’t afford better healthcare for their workers finds millions of dollars to pay for consultants, celebrities and publicity campaigns,” Kofinis told EthicsDaily.com. “Wal-Mart has come to the conclusion that publicity stunts matter more than real change. That’s the tragedy of their action.”

Combs, pastor of Greater Bible Way Temple of the Apostolic Faith in Jackson, Mich., was quoted last month in a news story reporting that Wal-Mart was quietly courting African-American clergy, making the case that Wal-Mart creates jobs for poor people. According to the Jackson Citizen-Patriot, Combs said the fact he has been active in Republican politics might have led to his selection on the steering committee.

The most recognizable name on the Working Families for Wal-Mart steering committee is entertainer Pat Boone. Boone, 71, is a regular contributor to Republican causes associated with the Council for National Policy, a secretive right-wing group. He is an elder in Jack Hayford’s (Foursquare Gospel) Church on the Way in Van Nuys, Calif., where Trinity Broadcasting Network founders Paul and Jan Crouch also are members.

Other members of the steering committee include state representative Jennifer Carroll, the first black female Republican elected to the Florida Legislature and Charles W. Baird, director of the Smith Center for Private Enterprise Studies at California State University.

Baird has written extensively in opposition to labor unions. He is an associate scholar with the Acton Institute, a conservative public-policy organization based in Grand Rapids, Mich., dedicated to promoting “a free and virtuous society characterized by individual liberty and sustained by religious principles.”

Tom Chung, chief executive officer of Asian Rehabilitation Service, has traveled to China to promote trade with the United States. Wal-Mart imports many of its goods from China.

Carroll Cocchia, another steering committee member, reportedly founded the Native American Chamber of Commerce in June, 2000, so American Indian entrepreneurs would have proper representation. A Houston Press article profiling her in 2002, however, described her as saying she is one-third Indian and trying to bring local Native Americans together, while detractors said she is white and helping to tear them apart.

Ron Galloway is co-producer of “Why Wal-Mart Works & Why That Drives Some People Crazy,” a documentary designed as a counter to Robert Greenwald‘s “Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price.” Galloway’s movie has sold about 10,000 copies, while Greenwald’s film criticizing Wal-Mart sold nearly 100,000 DVDs in its first month after release.

Other members of the steering committee are Lupita Colmenero, a Hispanic newspaper publisher in Dallas; Maria de Lourdes Sobrino, founder and CEO of Lulu’s Desserts; Barbara Kasoff, an advocate for women in small business; Barbara King, pastor of a non-denominational church in Atanta; Chris Lewis of the Wheelchair Foundation; Courtney Lynch, a motivational speaker; Betty Miller, an educator from Florida; cartoonist Martha Montoya; and Catherine Smith, a women’s business consultant.

Chris Sanders, a seminary-trained labor lawyer and member of Highland Baptist Church in Louisville, Ky., said the name “Working Families for Wal-Mart” is a misnomer.

“The working families I know aren’t for Wal-Mart, because Wal-Mart doesn’t pay a living wage for families,” Sanders, general counsel for United Food and Commercial Workers Local 227 in Louisville, told EthicsDaily.com. “Wal-Mart is not for working families.”

Economists say supercenters like Wal-Mart’s save consumers money both directly–through offering lower prices than traditional supermarkets–and indirectly, by forcing other outlets to lower prices to remain competitive.

But studies also suggest those savings come at a cost. In many parts of the country, grocery workers are unionized. Wal-Mart is not, and as a supercenter gains a market share in a community, wages and benefits for grocery workers can fall significantly.

A recent study by three economists at the Public Policy Institute of California found that while there is some evidence that the opening of a Wal-Mart store increases a community’s overall employment by about 2 percent, it reduces employment in the retail sector by 2 to 4 percent and reduces total payrolls per person by nearly 5 percent.

Wal-Mart is the largest retail chain in the world. Since opening its first store in Rogers, Ark., in 1962, it has grown to employ more than 1.2 million workers in about 3,600 stores. That accounts for just below 1 percent of the total employment in the United States and nearly 10 percent of retail workers. It exceeds the number of high-school or middle-school teachers, and is just under the size of the elementary-teacher workforce.

With the opening of its first supercenter in 1988, Wal-Mart entered the grocery sector, capitalizing on its already strong customer identification. Today it is the nation’s largest grocer, with a 19 percent market share, and the third-largest pharmacy.

In 1985 Wal-Mart launched a popular and well-publicized “Buy American” campaign, pledging to buy American when possible and paying a premium for goods produced in the U.S. In 1992, “Dateline NBC” aired a segment alleging that Wal-Mart was producing private-label clothes in Bangladesh, smuggling Chinese garments in excess of U.S. quotas and placing imported clothes on racks marked “Made in the U.S.A.”

References to the “Buy American” campaign disappeared both in the press and Wal-Mart publications by 1993, perhaps because the growth in the number of stores surpassed a threshold where buying American could continue to maximize profits.

Today Wal-Mart accounts for 10 percent of U.S. imports from China. While Wal-Mart does not publicly disclose its import volume, media have reported that Wal-Mart accounted for about $18 billion in imported goods from China in fiscal 2004. Estimates are that 80 percent of Wal-Mart’s global suppliers are in China and that 70 percent of its products are made there.

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.

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