Wal-Mart now the darling of our liberals?

The National Retail Federation says it is “flabbergasted” that Wal-Mart has decided to offer its unqualified support for an employer mandate requiring companies to provide health insurance to their employees.
The traditionally anti-union company also received the endorsement of the Service Employees International Union for the surprise move, as well as the left-leaning think tank, Center for American Progress, which has startled Wal-Mart watchers even more.
Liberals for Wal-Mart?
What’s up?
Wal-Mart, as most the world knows, has long been the dart board for critics of all political stripes and configurations. They don’t like the company’s size, and fear its impact on others.
And the focus of much of the criticism has always been how the company treats it employees; how little they were paid, the lack of job security, and the paltry level of benefits, in particular, health care benefits.
And Wal-Mart’s now had a change of heart? Should we be “flabbergasted?”
Well, yes and no.
Yes, the company has offered its employees improved health care benefits, and the benefits extend to a larger percentage of its employees than in years past. In truth, the company had long performed better than its critics would admit, but, at the same time, the public pressure to do better also worked. So, yes, the company has improved its offerings and is deserving of the accompanying praise.
But no, the company has not had a change of heart. Nor should we be flabbergasted. They don’t do feel good things. The company’s focus is still on the bottom line. Almost exclusively. And although offering improved health care benefits costs the company more, the reason the company has embraced an employer mandate is that the mandate would reinforce its advantages. If Wal-Mart is going to pay more, then they would like their competitors to pay more as well. A lot more.
It’s all about advantage.
In a letter to the president, Wal-Mart writes: “... reforming health care is necessary not just to improve the health of all Americans, but also to remove the burden that is crushing America’s businesses and hampering our competitiveness in the global economy.”
There is no question that our health care costs make us less competitive internationally. The companies abroad don’t carry health care as part of the cost of their products. We do. Take a look at General Motors. Wal-Mart’s correct, if the president’s plan to reform health care can spare our industries that cost, then perhaps we can be more competitive.
But the proposal is not all upside, which is why the president and Congress need to exercise caution as they move forward.
Wal-Mart’s competition is not just international, it’s local. If a blanket mandate on all employers was imposed — regardless of size — then the company that benefits most is Wal-Mart and the ones hurt the most are Wal-Mart’s competitors, the small retailers who don’t have Wal-Mart’s leverage.
Wal-Mart employs 1.4 million Americans. The company negotiates as a single entity, not store by store. They can also self-insure, which means they avoid any of the costly requirements that may be imposed by states like Vermont. Wal-Mart is not alone in this practice. Most large multi-state companies have the same advantages. But the advantages are overwhelming. Wal-Mart’s per employee health insurance costs are about half what it would cost a small retailer. The same advantages are enjoyed by Target, or Lowe’s, or Home Depot, which is why this isn’t a Wal-Mart issue. If all employers were forced to match Wal-Mart, but paid double their rates, they would have little choice but to raise their prices.
Advantage: the big guy. Name your company.
We understand the need for competition. And we understand the value to the American consumer of Wal-Mart’s ability to offer products at reduced prices. But as a country, we need to be wary of “mandates” that confer an advantage to the large at the expense of the small. As Congress and the president push forward, they should do so with an eye toward fairness. If the “too-big-to fail” mentality contributed to the fiscal mess we’re in, then it should not be perpetuated in health care policies that favor the large over the small.
If we’re all in this together, as the Wal-Mart letter to the president suggests, then we wonder if Wal-Mart’s change of heart would include offering their health insurance rates to their competitors? If we are going to compete, then let’s compete on service, on our relationships, and on our price and product. But let’s not allow health care coverage — essential to all — to be the wedge that drives small mom and pop retailers out of business.

by Emerson Lynn
The St. Albans, Vt., Messenger