Working Families for Wal-Mart, a national nonprofit founded late last year, recently named a 12-member state steering committee in Colorado. The organization is the first of its kind in the nation, and is charged with returning a smiley face to the behemoth discount retailer. Wal-Mart increasingly has gained a reputation for paying paltry wages, strong-arming its way into small towns and busting unions.
Kevin Sheridan, a spokesman for the group, says "tens of thousands" of small business owners, local officials, Wal-Mart workers and a diverse group of others are tired of seeing Wal-Mart attacked.
For months, Wal-Mart has faced a relentless barrage of criticism from a rival nonprofit, Wal-Mart Watch, an umbrella organization made up of unions and left-leaning groups, such as the Sierra Club.
Last year, Wal-Mart Watch placed a slick advertisement in The New York Times, claiming the retailer's low prices cost American taxpayers at least $1.5 billion annually in Medicaid, public housing and other welfare upon which many Wal-Mart employees depend.
Colorado's share of that cost is about $30 million, the organization estimates.
As it announced Colorado's steering committee, Working Families for Wal-Mart issued counter research by Barry Poulson, a University of Colorado economics professor and adjunct scholar for the ultraconservative Heritage Foundation. Poulson, who is preparing studies for several cities, concluded Wal-Mart saved the average Denver family $1,364 in 2004.
Andrew Young, a former Atlanta mayor, is Working Families for Wal-Mart's national chairman. Wal-Mart Stores is paying Young's consulting group, GoodWorks International, an undisclosed sum for the campaign, Sheridan says.
Among those on Colorado's steering committee are Ken Crumb, a former Greeley city councilman who fought to bring Wal-Mart to that city, and Eva Martinez, a 52-year-old former Wal-Mart cashier from Colorado Springs.
In a conference call monitored by Sheridan, Martinez told the Independent that Wal-Mart Stores are a place where, with hard work, a cashier may rise to become a manager.
"I'm not afraid to speak out," Martinez said. "They were very good to me."
David Paraday, part of a neighborhood group that last year lost a bitter battle to prevent Wal-Mart from opening shop in Woodland Park, hadn't heard of Working Families for Wal-Mart, but became annoyed when told of its mission.
"They're just trying to clean up their image," he said.
Wal-Mart, he alleges, manipulated public opinion in Woodland Park to gain support for a store that will be built there soon.
Steering committees will next pop up in Atlanta and Detriot, Sheridan says.
Their emergence coincides with union-backed legislation proposed in some two-dozen states that would require big business to pay more for employee health coverage. In January, Maryland approved such a measure, which technically applies only to Wal-Mart.
In Colorado, Rep. Judy Solano, D-Brighton, sponsored a bill that sought to force businesses with more than 3,500 employees to pay 11 percent of their payroll to health care. It died in committee earlier this year amid staunch opposition by large corporations.