Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Hillary On WalMart's Board?

Here’s one I’ll bet you’ve heard: Hillary Clinton once served on the board of directors for the WalMart Corporation, and while there, she did nothing to advance unions or workers’ rights.

It is indeed true that Hillary once was a board member of WalMart. Sam Walton, the founder of WalMart, was having a growing P.R. problem back in the mid-eighties, as his board had no women on it, and this was seen as typical “good-ol’-boy” misogyny. Furthermore, Sam’s wife Helen was giving him quite an earful over the issue every night at dinner. He finally had to do something.

Well, the logical choice was Hillary Rodham Clinton. Not only was she a top-notch lawyer, she was the wife of the governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton, and WalMart was headquartered in Arkansas. This was both good for WalMart and for the Clintons. After all, Arkansas felt about WalMart the same way we in Milwaukee feel about Miller Brewing Co. or Harley Davidson Motorcycles. She served on the board six years between 1986 to 1992 The Clintons got political cred with voters, and WalMart got fem power cred from Hillary.

Well, fine, but what did she do there? Did she defend workers’ rights? To an extent, she did. She used her position to speak out in favor of women’s rights in the workplace, women’s issues as they related to climbing the corporate ladder, and the importance of maintaining a good benefits package. This didn’t do much to sway her fellow board members, but it did give the company a better image, and that’s what she was expected to do.

What about unions?

No, she did not defend unions. In fact, when her fellow board members went off on the sort of tirades which were all-too-typical for corporate bigwigs, Hillary said nothing.

One quarter of a century later, do we hold Hillary accountable for this?

I argue no. Why? Because unions being a major part of retail labor is a modern-day movement, and one which was simply unheard of in most quarters prior to Y2K. There were some retail stores which were unionized, both then and now. Bloomingdale’s and Macy’s for example. But these are high-end stores where higher prices and service are expected. Unionizing a WalMart or a K-Mart was unheard of. For the most part, unions were something for manufacturing labor, specialized trades or the municipal workforce. Speaking out for labor unions at low-end retail stores makes sense in today’s political climate. But in the late 80’s to early 90’s? That was something that was simply not on anybody’s radar!

We might also look at what speaking out in favor of unions would have done back then. It would almost certainly have gotten her kicked off of the board, which would have been politically damaging to her husband, and to herself. It would also have accomplished nothing. The remaining board members would have shaken their heads, clucked their tongues, and said “That silly liberal! Did she really think speaking out would change our minds?” Then they’d go play another round of golf.

What does a corporate board member even do? Well, he or she helps evaluate the performance of the CEO, votes to approve or disapprove quarterly and annual budgets, helps to set the compensation and salaries of management, develops shareholder reports, develops and helps enact broad company policies, and ensures accounting standards. In Hillary’s case, she was one of fifteen board members, and so got a 1/15th vote on all of that.

That’s all the power she had. 1/15th.

Hillary is a pragmatist. It’s her one, big strength as a candidate. And as such, she knew that speaking up for unionizing WalMart was tantamount to throwing herself on her sword for nothing. So she didn’t. How can we blame her? Her position on the board was crucial for helping young women dream that anything was possible; for showing corporate executives that women were just as capable as men at such jobs; for smashing through glass ceilings.

Why, WHY would she throw that away on a tactical error?!

So now here we are, 24 to 30 years later. Some among us are trying to apply modern standards to Hillary’s youthful past. It seems strange that we would even consider judging a 69 year old woman on the standards of her 39 year old self, while applying the standards of 2016 to something that happened in 1986. But ever since John Kerry got swift-boated in 2004, such dirty tricks are apparently kosher with some people.

Well, I think that only Republicans should play so dirty. Democrats should be above such nonsense, especially when dealing with one of their own.



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