Activists pledge not to shop Wal-Mart for school supplies

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Rallying outside the Midway Wal-Mart in St. Paul, labor and community activists joined students and teachers in calling on American families to do their back-to-school shopping elsewhere this year.

The event last Thursday kicked off the “Send Wal-Mart Back to School” campaign, spearheaded locally by United Food and Commercial Workers Local 789. The St. Paul action coordinated with similar events in 50 other cities nationwide.

Wal-Mart “has a lot to learn if they want to do business in our community,” said Don Seaquist, president of Local 789.

Seaquist cited the retailer’s record of failure – represented visually at the rally in a banner titled “Wal-Mart’s Failing Report Card” – when it comes to gender discrimination, paying living wages, child-labor practices and, of course, providing affordable health coverage for its employees.

“In 2005, Wal-Mart received $1.3 billion in health-care subsidies from taxpayers,” Seaquist said. “Imagine what that money could do in our communities on a positive aspect rather than subsidizing an employer that needs no help from us.”

The money taxpayers spend on health care for Wal-Mart employees could provide dramatic improvements to the nation’s public schools, said Mary Catherine Ricker, president of the St. Paul Federation of Teachers.

“Wal-Mart could be a community partner,” Ricker said. “That’s why we need to keep telling Wal-Mart, ‘We’re ready to welcome you into a partnership, but you need to be accountable.'”

Still, union leaders and activists pledged that until the world’s largest retailer becomes a more responsible employer, they will urge families to shop for school supplies elsewhere. And at the rally, supporters signed cards pledging to do just that.

“We will teach Wal-Mart that there’s a retail model that works in our community,” Seaquist said. “We will teach Wal-Mart until they go from an ‘F’ to an ‘A.'”

St. Paul School Board Member John Brodrick said he doesn’t expect Wal-Mart to learn its lesson overnight.

“It’s a sad, sad thing that we have to come back here again and again,” Brodrick said. “But we’ve got to be like a bulldog – bite on and don’t let go.”

Michael Moore edits the St. Paul Union Advocate newspaper. E-mail him at advocate@stpaulunions.org