September 1, 2009, 12:00 AM

NRF/RILA Bust-up

(Page 2 of 2)

Wal-Mart has worked hard to get that coverage percentage over 50% as it tries to improve its image, says Nelson Lichtenstein, labor history professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara, author of the new book "The Retail Revolution: How Wal-Mart Created A Brave New World of Business," and a self-professed Wal-Mart critic.

He says Wal-Mart brought the percentage of employees covered up from 46% just a few years ago by offering a plan with high deductibles and co-pays and relatively low payment caps. That allows the retailer to offer plans with very low premiums. "They want to get the 25-year-old single males who work for them, and the only way to do that is with low premiums," Lichtenstein says.

Wal-Mart`s push to present itself as mainstream on health care is part of a broader effort to polish its image that includes settling dozens of sex discrimination lawsuits last year, promoting environmental initiatives, reaching out to minority groups and extending benefits to employees` same-sex partners, Lichtenstein says.

Wal-Mart has taken these steps, he says, in response to protests led by coalitions of unions and community groups that have slowed Wal-Mart`s efforts to expand into major cities, including New York, Chicago, Boston and Los Angeles. "The fact they`re shut out of 40% of the consumer market makes them want to be on the good side of Obama and the unions," Lichtenstein says.

That`s not the kind of public relations problem many NRF members would face, but being in the spotlight is a fact of life for Wal-Mart and such other RILA members as Best Buy and Target. And Wal-Mart may be making some headway, as illustrated by President Obama inviting Wal-Mart CEO Michael Duke to have lunch at the White House in late July along with a handful of other corporate executives.

With that kind of access, Wal-Mart may not need any trade association to speak for it in political circles.

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