By Josephine Hearn - 02/09/06 12:00 AM EST
Members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC) met with Wal-Mart CEO H. Lee Scott yesterday morning, the first such meeting between the largely liberal group and the controversial company’s top official.
Sources close to the caucus described the meeting as largely civil but said the lawmakers asked critical questions about Wal-Mart’s labor practices. Many of the CHC’s stances on issues as diverse as union organizing, wages, healthcare and pensions differ markedly with the giant retailer’s positions.
The meeting is the latest in Wal-Mart’s effort to reach out to members of Congress. Wal-Mart executives met members of the Congressional Black Caucus last spring.
Rep. Ed Pastor (D-Ariz.), who chairs the CHC’s labor task force and arranged the meeting, asked the executive about pensions, healthcare and livable wages.
Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) asked about child labor and selecting sites for new stores.
Grijalva said afterward that he was not impressed with Scott.
“I think he danced around my questions. I understand that, but the questions I asked persist,” Grijalva said. “It was a courtesy call in my opinion. It didn’t satisfy me. It didn’t change my mind.”
Other members attending the breakfast meeting were CHC Chairwoman Grace Napolitano (D-Calif.) and Reps. Joe Baca (D-Calif.), Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), John Salazar (D-Colo.) and Silvestre Reyes (D-Texas).
At one point, under intense questioning from lawmakers, Scott said he was concerned that adopting some of the group’s proposals to provide better health and retirement benefits would hurt the company financially.
“We don’t want to become the new GM. We’re concerned about the bottom line,” he said, according to one attendee.
During one particularly heated moment, Baca called Wal-Mart executives “poverty pimps,” arguing that they exploited the Hispanic community, then tried to make up for it by contributing to Latino organizations, according to a House Democratic aide with ties to the CHC.
The CHC’s labor task force has pressed for a better environment for union organizing and for a hike in the minimum wage. Wal-Mart has opposed an increase in the minimum wage and recently closed a Canadian store after its workers joined a union.
Wal-Mart has been aggressively courting the CHC in recent months, sources close to the caucus said. Last fall, shortly after the company suffered a public-relations setback with the publication of an internal memo on healthcare practices, the retailer hired D&P Public Strategies, a lobbying firm known for its work with Hispanics, to approach members of the Hispanic Caucus on its behalf.
“If you have any questions or concerns that you would like to discuss regarding the health care benefits or other issues related to Wal-Mart or the Memo that was in the press recently we would be happy to sit down with you to further discuss,” read an e-mail one of the firm’s principals, Ingrid Duran, sent to a Capitol Hill office in November.
As of yesterday afternoon, however, the firm had yet to file a disclosure report indicating it was representing Wal-Mart. The Lobbying Disclosure Act requires firms to file such reports no later than 45 days after acquiring a new client.
Calls to Duran and the firm’s other principal, Catherine Pino, were not returned before press time.
Wal-Mart’s campaign to woo the CHC will likely face significant opposition from labor unions, which have made the company their No. 1 corporate target.
Coming out of the meeting yesterday, Scott was greeted by a protester from a liberal advocacy group WakeUpWalMart.com who handed him a letter calling on the company to change its policies on wages, healthcare and other issues.
WakeUpWalMart.com is funded by the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union.
Another group, Wal-Mart Watch, receives its funding from the Service Employees International Union, among other groups.
A spokesman for Wal-Mart Watch, Nu Wexler, took a dim view of Scott’s meeting with Hispanic members: “Lee Scott has an extremely tough row to hoe with Hispanic Caucus members, and they have every right to be skeptical of his promises,” he said. “Wal-Mart’s political contributions can’t cover up its ugly record of discrimination lawsuits, illegal hiring practices, EEOC complaints and immigrant labor exploitation.”