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UC Labor Study Union-Backed, Wal-Mart Says

August 11, 2004|Abigail Goldman | Times Staff Writer

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. is fighting back against a UC Berkeley Labor Center report that contended the company costs California taxpayers millions by giving workers inadequate wages and benefits.

The Bentonville, Ark.-based retailer said it questioned the center's fairness because it receives funding from organized labor, which has fought Wal-Mart's staunch opposition to unionizing its U.S. stores. The fact that the researchers never contacted Wal-Mart to verify information, the company said, was further evidence of their lack of objectivity.

"It's disingenuous of the labor center's researchers to tout their study as a fair, balanced assessment of Wal-Mart's impact on California taxpayers," Wal-Mart spokeswoman Cynthia Lin said in a statement released late Monday.

"Information shows the labor center, dubbed a 'union think tank,' has strong ties to organized labor, which has long targeted Wal-Mart. It would be a huge disservice to the people of California for us not to set the record straight on this."

In their report, researchers Arindrajit Dube and Ken Jacobs contend that more than other retail workers, Wal-Mart employees rely on a variety of public aid programs, including food stamps, Medicare and subsidized housing.

Dube and Jacobs estimated the assistance at $86 million annually, using statewide data on wages paid by large retailers, the numbers of workers throughout the retail industry who use state assistance programs and information gleaned from lawsuits about Wal-Mart's pay and benefits.

Though the researchers acknowledge that the labor center receives "a small portion" of its funding from unions and has union members on its board, they deny that their research was biased.

"Just because we have union members on our board doesn't influence the conclusions we draw from the data; the data speaks for itself," Jacobs said. "As part of a university research institute, we do solid work and we stand by our work."

The researchers said the study in question was not funded by outside sources.

For the 2002-03 school year, the last full year for which Dube and Jacobs have data, unions funded 11% of the center's $1.4-million budget. Most of those funds came from leadership training programs attended by union members, the researchers said.

Wal-Mart maintains that 90% of its workers are covered by health insurance; about 50% through the company and 40% through "other sources" such as a spouse, a parent, a retirement plan or Medicare.

The researchers said they hoped Wal-Mart would join them in asking the state to release data about where recipients of state aid are employed.

Wal-Mart also said the researchers did not include the ways in which Wal-Mart benefits the state, such as paying $46.5 million in corporate income taxes, $31 million in property taxes and $10.5 million in unemployment taxes.

Dube, of Berkeley's Institute of Industrial Relations, and Jacobs, of the school's Center for Labor Research and Education, said they did not contact Wal-Mart in preparing their report because they believed they had adequate data from public records.

Wal-Mart contends that the wage data the researchers used comes from a partisan source.

Across the country, citizen groups and politicians increasingly have debated whether Wal-Mart benefits or hurts communities. In California, some communities have opposed the company's expansion plans.

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