President Obama in the Mountain View Walmart (photo: Kevin Lamarque, Reuters)
President Barack Obama took time during his trip to the Silicon Valley last week to visit a Walmart—the nation's leader in low-wage jobs, owned by the nation's richest family and the bane of progressive Democrats—to praise its use of green energy.
The president was not unaware that many of his supporters would be dismayed by his choice of venue to encourage private-sector energy efficiency and assured them, “This may look like a typical Walmart, but it's not” because of its solar panels, LED lighting and refrigeration systems.
Former U.S. Labor Secretary and UC Berkeley professor Robert Reich said it looked like a typical Walmart to him. “Walmart is one of the nation's largest and worst employers—low wages, unreliable hours, few benefits, discrimination against women, and anti-union,” Reich wrote on Facebook. “Most of the rest of us are subsidizing Walmart by paying for the food stamps and Medicaid its workers need because Walmart doesn't pay them enough to keep them out of poverty.”
He wanted to know, “What numbskull in the White House arranged this?”
By the sound of Obama's remarks, the answer may have been The President. He used the occasion to announce his energy reform plan to convert more government buildings, homes and businesses to solar power. “We are blessed when it comes to energy, but we're much more blessed when it comes to the innovation and the dynamism and the creativity of our economy,” he said.
Obama announced that he was taking executive action, in light of a congressional disinclination to do much on the alternative energy front, to pump another $2 billion into energy-efficient upgrades of federal buildings, expand mortgage loans for waters-saving improvements, work with 27 affordable-housing organizations on solar implementation, and do deals with retail, tech and health care companies to do more green energy conversions.
The President's engagement with Walmart has evolved since his candidacy in 2008, when Obama and his supporters roasted his primary opponent, Hillary Clinton, for having served on Walmart's board of directors. He told supporters the year before, “I won't shop there,” according to the Chicago Sun-Times. That was at about the same time his wife, Michelle Obama, resigned from TreeHouse Foods Inc. because it was a Walmart vendor.
Walmart gets about 3% of its energy from solar power. But because there are so many Walmart stores, the company is sixth on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) list of “green power” companies. Three of the top five are in Silicon Valley: Intel (1), Microsoft (3) and Google (5). Apple is eighth.
Democratic National Committee member Chris Stampolis, a West Valley/Mission Community College Board trustee from Santa Clara, wondered why the President couldn't have chosen some other energy-efficiency award winner, like Apple up the road, to praise private enterprise. “Unfortunately, choosing this location has created a bit of distrust between the leaders of organized labor here in the Bay Area and the Democratic Party,” he told the San Francisco Chronicle.
Organized labor has no greater antagonist than Walmart. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) filed an amended complaint in January accusing the company of illegally firing and disciplining nearly 70 workers. Some of the them were punished for going on strike, according to the pro-worker group Making Change at Walmart.
“So we actually were a little . . . perplexed as to what the choice point was regarding this particular facility,” Stampolis said.