Business reporter Michael Barbaro has long patrolled the Wal-Mart beat for the Times and has taken his journalisticnight stick out on the retail giant onseveral occasions. Thursday's Business section story, "Wal-Mart's Detractors Come In From the Cold," heralding the successes of two anti-Wal-Mart groups, Wal-Mart Watch and WakeUpWalMart.com, is both a coronation and at last, an investigation. Barbaro has been pumping up Wal-Mart Watch in particular for years, but only today, when it appears that the pressure group has gotten much of what it wanted, does he go into the full extent of the Service Employee's International Union (SEIU) involvement in the creation of Wal-Mart Watch.
Out of a total of 27 stories on WMW (most by Barbaro) sincethe group'sfirst mention in the Timesin March 2005, the Times hasdisclosed the connection between it and SEIU, the left-wing union that created it, five times - not exactlytotal disclosure. Other stories did call it "union-backed." In that first story, labor reporter Steven Greenhouse made a Potemkin Village out of Wal-Mart Watch, calling it a "coalition of community, environmental and labor groups," not even mentioning its founder, SEIU.
Barbaro divulged in Thursday's edition:
Over the last several months, a confidential report has circulated within the headquarters of Wal-Mart Stores, proposing sweeping changes to its employee health care plans.
It looks like a typical corporate planning document, but it is not. The nine-page report, written by an Emory University professor, Kenneth E. Thorpe, was commissioned, paid for and given to Wal-Mart by its longtime foes, the Service Employees International Union, and a group the union finances, called Wal-Mart Watch. They are known for attacking the chain, not cooperating with it.
But after waging an aggressive public relations campaign against Wal-Mart for three years, the company's full-time, union-backed critics, who once vowed never to let up, are putting down their cudgels.
Shrill condemnations and embarrassing leaked documents are giving way to acknowledgments of progress - and, in the case of Wal-Mart Watch, free advice.
The union-financed campaigns were started in 2005. As the groups turned up the heat on the company, Wal-Mart was at first defensive, but eventually it responded in ways few of its critics expected. The company expanded its health care plans to cover more workers, though still not enough to satisfy the unions. And it made commitments to the environment, like becoming the country's biggest seller of more efficient light bulbs.
Indeed, Wal-Mart has gone so far on some initiatives, like the environmental programs, that it has started to draw scattered attacks from the right, particularly from a group called the National Legal and Policy Center that has accused the company of giving in to political correctness.
Now, the union-backed groups appear to have concluded it would be more constructive, sometimes, to engage Wal-Mart. That leaves them navigating a complex situation in which they have to decide, issue by issue, whether to shake hands with the company or to slap it.
Now that thetwo groupsare basically declaring victory and packing up, the Times finally shows its readers the deep union roots of the anti-Wal-Mart movements:
Since late 2006, Andrew L. Stern, the head of the Service Employees International Union, which provides the majority of financing to Wal-Mart Watch, has met repeatedly with the chief executive of Wal-Mart, H. Lee Scott Jr., to discuss solutions to the country's health care crisis.
Mr. Stern said his dialogue with Mr. Scott "does not end the need for the vigilance of Wal-Mart Watch."
Wal-Mart Watch has always insisted that it does not take orders from Mr. Stern, even though his union provides most of its financing. But those with knowledge of Wal-Mart Watch's operations say Mr. Stern's growing relationship with Mr. Scott has inevitably influenced the group's behavior.
Late in the story, Wal-Mart Watch spokesmen admit the media overdosed on the Big Bad Wal-Mart story.
But Mr. Nassar and Ms. Scott acknowledge that the appetite for criticism of Wal-Mart, which seemed insatiable at first, has waned, especially in the news media. "There has been a certain amount of fatigue about writing the Wal-Mart-is-bad story," said Mr. Nassar. Ms. Scott described "a cooling down of the Wal-Mart story."