The War on Walmart: Once Hot, Now Not

by Nathan L. Gonzales April 8, 2013 · 1:12 PM EDT

Not long ago, Democrats and organized labor were railing against Wal-mart as the arch nemesis of organized labor. Now, President Barack Obama has tapped a high-level Wal-Mart official to be a member of his Cabinet and put her at the forefront of one of the most important issues of the day. What happened?

Last month, President Obama nominated Sylvia Mathews Burwell to be the next director of Office of Management and Budget. Most recently, she ran the Walmart Foundation, the retail giant’s philanthropic arm.

At first glance, the Burwell appointment is a stark contrast for a Democratic Party that was once energized by anti-Wal-Mart groups such as Walmart Watch and Wake Up Wal-Mart, which were funded by organized labor in order to pressure the company into improving wages, benefits, and conditions for its workers and to protest the lack of unionization.

But these are different times. “The president can’t ignore the largest company in the country,” according to one veteran of the anti-Wal-Mart movement. But there is also wide expanse between dialogue with the company and putting someone from Wal-Mart in charge of the nation’s budget.

Burwell might be President Obama’s attempt to avoid a bitter confirmation process (which starts on Tuesday) by choosing someone from a company that is held in higher regard among Republicans, even though there is a deep distaste for Wal-Mart within the Democratic Party.

“She was a real person before she went to Wal-mart,” explained one Democratic operative. Burwell was chief of staff to former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, president of the Gates Foundation’s Global Development Program, and deputy OMB director during the Clinton Administration, giving Obama a connection to the days of balanced budgets which both parties are fond of for different reasons.

It also doesn’t hurt that Burwell is a woman, particularly when the President has been criticized for the lack of diversity in his second term cabinet.

But the Burwell announcement also comes at a time when the anti-Wal-mart movement is at an all-time low.

In late January, the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union formally agreed to stop trying to unionize Walmart employees after the company complained to the National Labor Relations Board that the union illegally picketed the company’s stores last fall. UFCW funded one of two major anti-Walmart campaigns, Wake Up Wal-Mart, in the middle of the last decade. Service Employees International Union funded the other, Walmart Watch.

“There is no movement now,” admitted one Democratic operative who is close to organized labor about a decline that started before the recent UFCW news.

After failing to unionize Walmart workers, was the entire movement a bust?

“She wouldn’t have been nominated in 2005,” according to one Democratic operative about Burwell, who added that the movement had some success considering “Wal-Mart isn’t in the news every day for being a ‘bad actor.’” Wal-Mart made strides in the areas of energy efficiency and supporting sustainable fisheries, which could reshaped how the company is viewed within the Democratic Party and taken some of the venom out of its attackers.

Wal-mart’s political contributions have also diversified over the last decade and reach deeper into Democrats’ pockets. Wal-Mart Stores Inc PAC for a Responsible Government gave an average of $1.2 million each cycle over the last dozen years. But its contributions have evolved from 78 percent to Republican candidates in the 2002 cycle to an even split between Republican and Democratic candidates in 2012.

The Burwell appointment is just the latest chapter in a complex relationship between the President Obama and Wal-Mart.

During the 2008 Democratic presidential primary, the Illinois senator used Wal-Mart to attack then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D- N.Y. "While I was working on those streets watching those folks see their jobs shift overseas, you were a corporate lawyer sitting on the board at Walmart," Obama said to his opponent in a debate. Earlier in the race, he said, “I won’t shop there,” in reference to Walmart and Michelle Obama resigned from the board of directors of a major Wal-Mart supplier, Treehouse Foods Inc., where she had been for almost two years.

Last year, President Obama relied on former anti-Wal-mart organizers to get out the vote for his re-election effort. National Operation Vote Director Buffy Wicks (along with her nickname: Buffy the Wal-mart Slayer) and National Field Director Jeremy Bird are veterans of Wake Up Wal-Mart. National GOTV Director Rachel Haltom-Irwin and White House Director of New Media Macon Phillips worked with Walmart Watch before the Illinois senator was first elected president.

But more recently, President Obama announced Burwell’s appointment on March 4, just a few days after the First Lady praised the company in a Wall Street Journal op-ed and at an event at a Walmart in Springfield, Missouri. “For years, the conventional wisdom said healthy products just didn’t sell,” she said. “Thanks to Wal-Mart and other companies, we’re proving the conventional wisdom wrong.”

The relationship between the White House and Wal-Mart could get even more complex if the Administration relies on the retail giant to implement part of the President’s biggest legislative victory. “California officials” plan to leverage Walmarts and other retail stores to inform shoppers about their new, government-subsidized health care options and sign them up for the state’s new health insurance exchange, according to a March 7 Los Angeles Times story. Of course some union officials disagreed with the potential relationship between the government and Wal-Mart.