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Clouding the Waters

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Tomorrow, something called the Global Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety is set to release its plan to improve working conditions in Bangladesh following the April fire that killed more than 1100 workers. Sounds great, right? We all want Bangladeshi worker safety improved!

Nope. It turns out this is a front group for Wal-Mart, Gap, JC Penney, Target, Sears, and other American retailers who are trying to avoid the real accord that actually could do something for worker safety, the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh. What’s more, the industry group is relying on the Bipartisan Policy Center, a centrist think tank funded in part by these very same corporations, to get the word out. Lee Fang has the story:

The Bipartisan Policy Center, however, has significant financial ties to the retailers they are assisting.

In its most recently published annual report, the Bipartisan Policy Center notes that the law firm Alston & Bird, one of Wal-Mart’s many registered lobbying firms, is among the organization’s corporate donors. Earlier this year, former Senator Blanche Lincoln (D-AR) registered as one of Wal-Mart’s representatives through the firm. Alston & Bird also represents the National Retail Federation, a trade group that counts many of the nation’s leading retailers as members.

Others affiliated with the Bipartisan Policy Center work for the retailers involved in the rival accord. The Bipartisan Policy Center’s “Democracy Project” advisors include former Senator Don Nickles (R-OK), who is now a lobbyist for Wal-Mart, as well as Don Fierce, founder of Fierce, Isakowitz & Blalock, a firm that helps the Retail Industry Leaders Association influence Congress. The RILA, yet another trade group supporting the alternative labor agreement, is led by a board that includes the CEOs of J.C. Penney and Wal-Mart.

In May, the Bipartisan Policy Center even received direct funding from Wal-Mart to sponsor an immigration policy event.

Wal-Mart’s financial links to the groups associated with the upcoming labor plan are a reminder of the corporation’s extensive political reach, which extends well beyond campaign contributions and other traditional forms of influence. As The Nation reported earlier this year, the company has ramped up efforts to co-opt civil rights groups and other advocacy organizations as they have pushed to expand their presence in urban centers. Wal-Mart has also won highly publicized support from the White House (including a partnership with Michelle Obama and a role in President Barack Obama’s push to hire veterans), while claiming victory on major legislative battles, from defeating sweeping federal labor reforms to credit card swipe fee legislation to the recent law to compel online companies to collect sales tax. At times, Wal-Mart’s aggressive public affairs approach has backfired. In June of last year, a lobbying firm working for Wal-Mart in the Los Angeles-area was caught sending a young staffer to pose as a reporter and gather information from labor activists at Wal-Mart affiliated warehouses.

Of course, the real benefit for these corporations is that such an action clouds the waters, confusing even people who do want to see working conditions improve in Bangladesh. Global capitalism relies on hiding the costs of production from consumers. It was seeing and experiencing these costs that helped spur the environmental and labor movements of the 20th century. Corporations fled to other countries precisely to get around new regulations that would affect the bottom line, however slight the dent in profits often was. The last thing the apparel industry wants is for American consumers to know the details of its responsibility for these deaths, not to mention the dumping of clothing dyes into watersheds, crushing labor unions, etc. By tapping into the politician-lobbyist network, it can even say that Democrats like George Mitchell and Blanche Lincoln give their approval. It makes it awfully hard for the average concerned person to know what’s going on. And that’s just how corporations like it.

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