The battle over Wal-Mart’s image is turning to pulpits.
According to the Los Angeles Times, the company is recruiting sympathetic clergy to speak out against a documentary film being shown in churches that is critical of the nation’s largest retailer.
A recent high-profile publicity campaign targeted more than 200 churches, synagogues and mosques in 100 cities. Participating ministers agreed to preach about what they see as moral problems with the company, such as allegations of poor treatment of workers and promoting a culture of greed.
Last month another group seeking to reform Wal-Mart, WakeUpWalMart.com, coordinated a series of events around Halloween with a theme “Nothing’s Scarier than Not Having Health Insurance,” highlighting a leaked company memo about cutting costs for employee health insurance.
The Arkansas-based retailer is fighting back on several fronts, including churches. According to the Los Angeles Times, Wal-Mart is quietly reaching out to religious leaders with invitations to serve on leadership committees and visit the company’s headquarters in an effort to foster dialogue and build goodwill.
Countering screenings in mainline churches of Robert Greenwald’s critical documentary, “Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price,” Wal-Mart reportedly is turning to black churches to persuade pastors to oppose union-backed efforts to portray the company in a negative light, because it creates jobs for poor people.
The Rev. Ira Combs, a black Pentecostal pastor from Michigan, told a local newspaper he had been recruited for a national steering committee composed of community leaders from across the country.
“My position is: I may be a religious leader, but I’m a capitalist, not a socialist,” Combs, pastor of Greater Bible Way Temple of the Apostolic Faith in Jackson, Mich., told the Jackson Citizen-Patriot. Combs is a National Republican Committee member and has been active in GOP politics, a fact he said may have led to his selection.
Clarence Pemberton Jr., pastor of New Hope Baptist Church in Philadelphia, told the newspaper that a Wal-Mart representative attended a regular meeting of about 75 Baptist ministers in that city.
“It appeared that what he was trying to do was to influence us or put us in opposition to this film that is coming out and will be in the churches,” Pemberton said. “It was implied very strongly that it was about some sort of cash rewards for people who would become partners with Wal-Mart and what they were trying to do.”
Wal-Mart critics contend the company fails to provide health coverage to 60 percent of its workers and buys 70 percent of its goods from China, taking away American manufacturing jobs.
Last month a leaked memo suggested that Wal-Mart should hire healthier employees in order to cut healthcare costs and increase profits.
“It is a national tragedy that Wal-Mart, a company with $10 billion dollars in profits, has such poor health care benefits that one out of every two children of Wal-Mart workers either has no health insurance or relies on a public program,” said Paul Blank, campaign director for WakeUpWalMart.com.
But Combs, the Michigan pastor, said efforts to paint the company as anti-American don’t wash with him.
“Wal-Mart, to me, is very American,” he said. “It is manifest of the American dream.”
Combs said a number of his parishioners are Wal-Mart employees, and all are satisfied with their jobs.
“I think Wal-Mart coming to Blackman Township has been a very good thing for our community,” he said.
The company downplayed the impact of Wal-Mart critics’ Nov. 13-19 “Higher Expectations Week,” featuring more than 1,200 events hosted by more than 400 organizations around the country.
A statement on the company’s Web site claims that Wal-Mart saves the average American household about $2,300 a year and that 100 million Americans who shop at Wal-Mart every week are “tuning out” anti-company groups like Wal-Mart Watch and Wake-Up Wal-Mart.
“Without a single idea, the critics are just talking to the critics,” said a statement on WalMartFacts.com. “And the American people aren’t taking them seriously. We at Wal-Mart pledge to continue talking with our associates, our customers and communities all across America about how we can offer solutions to the challenges we all face together.”
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.