Following a series of tragedies in Bangladesh garment plants that claimed the lives of more than 1,100 in Dhaka and 112 in Tazreen, Western retailers have come under pressure to improve working conditions in their factories. In May, more than seventy companies signed on to a legally binding plan, the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh. It has been largely welcomed by labor rights NGOs for ensuring international inspectors into facilities, greater contractor transparency and for a requirement that retailers fund necessary safety upgrades at garment factories.
But Walmart, Target, J.C. Penney, Gap, Sears and the largest federation of US-based retailers balked, claiming the recent accord would increase their liability. On Wednesday at 10 am, the dissenting retailers are poised to unveil a rival plan, one already panned by critics as a smokescreen designed to help them skirt responsibility for fixing their factory “deathtraps.”
To release their rival accord, called the Global Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, the US retailers turned to George Mitchell (D-ME) and Olympia Snowe (R-ME), along with the Bipartisan Policy Center, a group affiliated with both former senators. The decision to release the plan through an independent, bipartisan think tank may have been made to boost the plan’s credibility. In a letter to inform European counterparts that they would not be meeting to discuss safety plans, Mitchell and Snowe presented their involvement in the rival agreement as neutral brokers. “Under the auspices of the Bipartisan Policy Center, we are independently facilitating a robust and principled dialogue among leading garment retailers and brands as they work to achieve consensus on a single, unified safety plan designed to improve worker conditions in Bangladesh garment factories,” the senators wrote in their June 25 message to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
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 Walmart’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 Walmart’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 Walmart, 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 Walmart.
In May, the Bipartisan Policy Center even received direct funding from Walmart to sponsor an immigration policy event.
Walmart’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. Walmart 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, Walmart’s aggressive public affairs approach has backfired. In June of last year, a lobbying firm working for Walmart in the Los Angeles area was caught sending a young staffer to pose as a reporter and gather information from labor activists at Walmart-affiliated warehouses.
The latest series of scandals, from bribery in Mexico to the man-made disasters in Bangladesh, may test Walmart’s image and its pull within the Beltway.
Reports show that over the past year at least three suppliers to Walmart were using the factory in Tazreen. The company has so far dodged responsibility, claiming the suppliers were not “authorized” to produce Walmart products when the fire took place.
The Bipartisan Policy Center, run by a number of lawmakers turned lobbyists, has faced recent criticism for peddling a pro-polluter “energy blueprint” under the guise of neutral policy. My former colleague David Halperin notes that the group has endorsed efforts that boost offshore drilling, drilling on federal lands, horizontal drilling (fracking), and the Keystone XL, all without action on climate change. The Bipartisan Policy Center, Halperin argued, failed to be upfront about more than ten major fossil fuel corporations that provide it with funding, or the many Bipartisan Policy Center leaders working for oil and gas companies through law firm or lobbying gigs. Like the rival Bangladesh agreement, the “energy blueprint” was offered by two former senators, Byron Dorgan and Trent Lott, also through the auspices of the Bipartisan Policy Center. As Public Citizen’s Tyson Slocum blogged in September, both former senators lobby for oil companies: Lott for ExxonMobil and Shell Oil; Dorgan for Noble Energy.
Despite the conflict of interest, DC media breathlessly reported that the Bipartisan Policy Center’s “blueprint for energy legislation” could “gain traction” because “both [Lott and Dorgan] are held in high regard by their former colleagues, and the BPC is a serious player in the energy debate.”
Of the many questions tomorrow, the Bipartisan Policy Center’s independence in brokering the rival agreement might be one.
Lee Fang is a reporting fellow with The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute, now known as Type Investigations, now known as Type Investigations.