Discount retailer agrees to earmark funds for specific causes rather than making unrestricted gifts to groups
NEW YORK A conservative group that had called on supporters to boycott Wal-Mart’s post-Thanksgiving Day sales to protest the retailer’s support of gay-rights groups withdrew its objections two days before “Black Friday” the day after Thanksgiving that is traditionally viewed as the start of the holiday shopping season.
The American Family Association, which had been asking supporters to stay away from Wal-Mart on the Friday and Saturday after Thanksgiving two of the busiest shopping days of the year said it was pleased that Wal-Mart had pledged in a statement to stay away from controversial causes.
Wal-Mart said it would make changes in the way it contributed to such groups, earmarking funds only for specific causes it supported, such as workplace equality, rather than giving unrestricted gifts.
Joe Solmonese of the Human Rights Campaign, said the change was minor, and he praised Wal-Mart for sticking with its commitments to diversity and equality despite the threats from the American Family Association.
“I don’t see it as backpedaling by Wal-Mart,” Solmonese said. “I think the AFA failed, and thought to themselves, “‘Let’s declare victory and hope nobody notices.'”
However, another group critical of Wal-Mart was skeptical.
Wal-Mart’s statement “is a confusing contortion of words that make it completely unclear whether Wal-Mart still supports equal rights for the [gay and lesbian] community or not, and worse, raises real questions as to whether they caved to the pressure from the religious right,” said Chris Kofinis of WakeUpWalMart.com.
While stressing its support for diversity and nondiscrimination, Wal-Mart said in its statement that it “will not make corporate contributions to support or oppose highly controversial issues unless they directly relate to our ability to serve our customers.”
Wal-Mart spokeswoman Mona Williams said the company would continue working with the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce and other gay rights groups on specific issues such as workplace equality. She indicated, however, that the company would henceforth avoid unrestricted donations that might be used for causes Wal-Mart did not endorse.
“Going forward, we would partner with them on specific initiatives. … as opposed to just giving blanket support to their general operating budget,” she said.
The company’s statement, she said, resulted primarily from concerns expressed by customers and employees, not from the boycott threat.
The corporate actions that had triggered the protest plans were little different from those taken by scores of major companies in recent years Wal-Mart paid $25,000 this summer to become a member of the Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce and donated $60,000 to Out and Equal, which promotes gay rights advances in the workplace.
However, some conservative activists depicted Wal-Mart’s engagement as endorsement of same-sex marriage and a pledge to give gay-owned businesses preferential treatment assertions Wal-Mart denied in its statement on Nov. 21.
Conservative leaders had viewed Wal-Mart’s actions as a betrayal of its own traditions, which have included efforts to weed out magazines with racy covers and CDs with explicit lyrics.
“This has been Christian families’ favorite store and now they’re giving in, sliding down the slippery slope so many other corporations have gone down,” said the Rev. Flip Benham of Operation Save America. “They’re all being extorted by the radical homosexual agenda.”
Justin Nelson, president of the Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce, said earlier on Nov. 21 that conservative activists had misrepresented his business-oriented group as a leading advocate of gay marriage in order to tarnish Wal-Mart.
“Their campaign has not been to educate, but to mislead,” he said.
Wal-Mart ranks in the middle among companies rated by the Human Rights Campaign for workplace policies toward gays. Scores of companies now have a perfect 100 rating, while Wal-Mart’s rating has risen from 14 in 2002 to 65 this year as it added sexual orientation to its nondiscrimination code and offered some domestic-partner benefits.
Tim Wildmon, the American Family Association’s president, said Wal-Mart had been responsive to conservative pressure on a different issue, approving use of the word “Christmas” in advertising and employee greetings this season after shifting to a “happy holidays” phrasing last year.
That campaign was one of the first times Wal-Mart came under sustained criticism from the right. Far more often, it has been a target of left-of-center groups, including WakeUpWal-Mart.com, complaining that the company pays low wages, skimps on employee benefits and outsources too many jobs.
The company has responded by adding low-cost health care plans, launching environmental programs and increasing diversity among employees and suppliers.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition, December 1, 2006.