Wal-Marts First Lady
Twice in three days last week, Hillary Rodham Clinton basked in the adulation of cheering union members. Her record of supporting collective bargaining, however, is considerably worse than wobbly.
Pity the thousands of unionists at last Tuesday's state Democratic convention who chanted her name, and the hundreds of retired Teamsters at Thursday's luncheon in midtown who had interrupted their Founder's Day meal to hear the corporate litigator turned union-loving Democrat deliver a campaign speech.
They would have dropped their forks if they had heard that Hillary served for six years on the board of the dreaded Wal-Mart, a union-busting behemoth. If they had learned the details of her friendship with Wal-Mart, they might have lost their lunches.
She didn't mention Wal-Mart. Instead, she praised the Teamsters and other unionized workers as a "key movement in creating the middle class," and she pledged to "prevent anyone from turning the clock back," reminding them that "the Republicans are trying to do away with collective bargaining."
As she was leaving the dais, she ignored a reporter's question about Wal-Mart, and she ignored it again when she strode by reporters in the hotel lobby.
But there are questions. In 1986, when Hillary was first lady of Arkansas, she was put on the board of Wal-Mart. Officials at the time said she wasn't filling a vacancy. In May 1992, as Hubby's presidential campaign heated up, she resigned from the board of Wal-Mart. Company officials said at the time that they weren't going to fill her vacancy.
So what the hell was she doing on the Wal-Mart board? According to press accounts at the time, she was a show horse at the company's annual meetings when founder Sam Walton bused in cheering throngs to celebrate his non-union empire, which is headquartered in Arkansas, one of the country's poorest states. According to published reports, she was placed in charge of the company's "green" program to protect the environment.
But nobody got greener than Sam Walton and his family. For several years in the '80s, he was judged the richest man in America by Forbes magazine; his fortune zoomed into the billions until he split it up among relatives. It's no surprise that Hillary is a strong supporter of free trade with China. Wal-Mart, despite its "Buy American" advertising campaign, is the single largest U.S. importer, and half of its imports come from China.
Was Hillary the voice of conscience on the board for American and foreign workers? Contemporary accounts make no mention of that. They do describe her as a "corporate litigator" in those days, and they mention, speaking of environmental matters, that she also served on the board of Lafarge, a company that, according to a press account, once burned hazardous fuels to run its cement plants.
Wal-Mart, though, was the crown jewel of Arkansas, the state's First Company fit for a first lady. During her tenure on the board, she presumably helped preside over the most remarkable growth of any company until Bill Gates came along. The number of Wal-Mart employees grew during the '80s from 21,600 to 279,000, while sales soared from $1.2 billion to $25.8 billion.
And the Clintons depended on Wal-Mart's largesse not only for Hillary's regular payments as a board member but for travel expenses on Wal-Mart planes and for heavy campaign contributions to Bill's campaigns there and nationally. According to reports in the early '90s, before Bill and Hillary moved to D.C., neither was raking in the big bucks, but prominent in their income were her holdings of between $50,000 and $100,000 worth of Wal-Mart stock.
A press report on the Clintons' finances during the early stages of Bill's 1992 run for the presidency showed that most of their income came from her $109,719 annual salary from the Rose Law Firm and tens of thousands of dollars in fees she received from serving on corporate boards. (She was on two others besides Wal-Mart's.) Her honoraria and director fees grew almost as fast as Wal-Mart's profits during the '80srising from $111 in 1980 to $6500 in 1986 to $64,700 in 1991, according to the same source.
During the same period, small towns all over America began complaining that Wal-Mart was squeezing out ma-and-pa stores and leaving little burgs throughout the Midwest and South with downtowns that featured little more than empty storefronts.
But selected small companies were doing quite well, thanks to the Clintons' friendship with Wal-Mart. The Boston Globe reported in January 1992 that Bill Clinton had introduced a brush company's executives to Wal-Mart executives, hoping that the two could do bidness. Executives of the brush company had been rebuffed in previous attempts to sell their products to Wal-Mart. Lucky for the company, it happened to be located in New Hampshire, where Clinton was trying to win a presidential primary. At the time, Hillary Clinton was still on Wal-Mart's board, and the retail giant was still resisting the unionization of any of its workers.
Last week, Hillary was wearing a different hat. She stood in solidarity with the elderly Teamsters as Local 237 president Carl Haynes greeted her warmly, endorsed her, and then left early on what other union officials described as "AFL-CIO business."
But the AFL-CIO was thinking of other business only a few months earlier when the union's leaders, including its chief, John Sweeney, marched specifically against Wal-Mart's oppression of its meat-market workers. According to a Web site run by activists at the AFL-CIO affiliate United Food and Commercial Workers, Wal-Mart "has profited by pushing its workers to the bottom of the wage scale." The union points out that hourly wages "average $2 to $3 per hour less than at unionized supermarkets." More grave for workers everywhere in the United States are these figures spouted by union activists: Wal-Mart is the largest private employer in the country, "yet fewer than 40 percent of its workers are covered by the company's health plan."
The union notes that Wal-Mart's "hometown" judge in Arkansas issued a nationwide temporary restraining order against the UFCW, barring anyone associated with the union from entering Wal-Mart facilities to educate workers about their legal rights in the workplace. The union, however, successfully appealed the ordernoting that the judge holds more than $500,000 in Wal-Mart stock. The case remains in litigation.
Meanwhile, Wal-Mart's first lady, who also benefited from Wal-Mart stock, solicits support from union workers.
Which makes her words to the elderly Teamsters last week especially poignant: "You can count on me to stand up for the right to collectively bargain!"
Right on, sister!
MORE VOICE COVERAGE OF HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON'S SENATE RUN:
Is Sharpton Protecting Hillary? by Peter Noel
Grandpa Al and Reverend Al in Senate Race Endorsement Flap
Mondo Washington: Hillary Babble On by James Ridgeway
Lazio in McCain Mode?
"Town Hall" TV by Ward Harkavy
Hillarys Performance: All Smiles, No Substance
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.