Against the Wal

By D.R. Bartlette

This week is Wal-Mart’s annual shareholders’ meeting, the largest shareholders’ meeting in the world, bringing more than 20,000 people to Fayetteville. With motivational speakers, musical performances and rounds of the Wal-Mart cheer, it seems more like a massive pep rally than business meeting.

Some come out for the shareholder meeting not to cheer, but to criticize. Against the Wal, a small group of people who disagree with many of the business practices of Wal-Mart have been protesting at the annual shareholders’ meeting for the past four years.

Against the Wal, along with several other groups across the nation, is trying to convince the retail giant to make seven specific changes:
•    Pay a living wage for all its workers
•    Offer comprehensive, affordable health care for all its workers
•    Put an end to discrimination in its workforce
•    Have zero tolerance for child labor
•    Respect the environment
•    Stop union busting
•    Address problems caused by building new supercenters, such as increased traffic, urban sprawl, environmental degradation and the impact on local businesses and workers.

Last month, members of Against the Wal discovered some disturbing allegations that had been published in a Wall Street Journal article (Inside Wal-Mart’s ‘Threat Research’ Operation by Ann Zimmerman and Gary McWilliams, April 5, 2007). The article published allegations made by former Wal-Mart security employee Bruce Gabbard, many of which were confirmed by other former employees and security-industry professionals. In the article, Gabbard alleged that he was part of a larger, sophisticated surveillance operation Wal-Mart uses not only on its own employees, but on customers, vendors, “dissident” shareholders and other critics.

In the article, Gabbard alleged that Wal-Mart company executives were concerned that Against the Wal and ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now) would disrupt the shareholders’ meeting last year. Gabbard told the reporter that Wal-Mart sent a long haired informant wearing a listening device to Against the Wal’s gathering. In the article, Gabbard is also quoted as saying that they followed around the perimeter of the gathering with a surveillance van. In an interview with Democracy Now, McWilliams said that Wal-Mart used the information to alert local police about the protestors’ plans.

Against the Wal spokesperson Roslyn Imrie said that at the time, no one suspected that there was an informant in their midst.

“A few people remembered seeing a stranger and a security van, but only in retrospect,” Imrie said. “Luckily, we have nothing to hide. We are just citizens exercising our constitutional rights.”

In the article, Wal-Mart spokesperson Sarah Clark denied the allegations. Clark is quoted as saying, “It is not the company’s policy to infiltrate organizations or events, and we would not condone any associate engaging in such activity.”

Capt. Dallas McClelland of the Washington County Sheriff’s Department was in charge of monitoring Against the Wal’s protest last year and denied having received any information from a Wal-Mart informant.

“We received intelligence on the group – the same way everyone else does, on the Internet,” McClelland said.

Fayetteville Police Chief Greg Tabor said that the Fayetteville police department did – and does – receive information about potential protests from Wal-Mart personnel. He said that it is not uncommon for the police department to place undercover officers to gather information.

“We even do that at Bikes, Blues & BBQ,” Tabor said. He said the FPD did not have any undercover agents at last year’s shareholders meeting.

But aside from calling on local law enforcement for help, Wal-Mart has its own security team. Wal-Mart’s Global Security Office is headed by former senior CIA agent and FBI senior officer Kenneth Senser. Senser was hired by Wal-Mart in 2003, after he helped create a new unit at the FBI focusing on security.

It was reported that Gabbard alleged it was Senser who pressured him to monitor calls and text messages, including calls between another employee and a reporter at the New York Times. It was for these actions that Gabbard was fired. Gabbard is currently under a legal gag order.

The Analytical Research Center, part of Wal-Mart’s Global Security Office, is headed by Army Special Operations veteran David Harrison. In March, job openings were posted for “global threat analysts” seeking candidates with a background in government or military intelligence work. The job description includes collecting information to “anticipate and assess threats stemming from world events, regional/national security climates and suspect individuals and groups” according to an Associated Press article (Wal-Mart Recruits Intelligence Officers, by Marcus Kabel April 24, 2007).

According to the article, many corporations hire law enforcement officers for their security departments, and the corporate intelligence business is growing. Russell Corn, senior managing director of intelligence broker Diligence LLC, estimated the corporate intelligence business is now a $500 million industry.

To date, the only public comment on the work of the Analytical Research Center was a speech by Harrison at a meeting of security personnel last year, according to the article. In the speech, Harrison said that Wal-Mart was “learning to defend itself using the vast information it routinely collects on its employees, shoppers and suppliers.”

According to the Wall Street Journal article, many of these surveillance and information-gathering tactics are within the law, since U.S. courts have long held that employees have no expectation of privacy when using company-supplied computers or phones.

A May 1 Human Rights Watch report calls Wal-Mart “a case study in what is wrong with U.S. labor laws,” since U.S. laws fall short of international laws guaranteeing the rights of workers to organize.

According to the ACLU, there is almost no limit to what an employer can do to an employee, including tapping phone lines, watching through secret cameras, reading e-mails and searching computer files, all without the employees’ consent or knowledge.

While many American companies use weak U.S. laws to stop workers from organizing, the retail giant stands out for the sheer magnitude and aggressiveness of its anti-union apparatus, according to the Human Rights Watch report.

The report states that Wal-Mart’s aggressive efforts to keep out labor unions often violate federal law and workers’ rights. When Wal-Mart stores face unionization drives, the company “often breaks the law by eavesdropping on workers, training surveillance cameras on them and firing those who favored unions,” the report said.

Steven Aftergood, who runs the government secrecy project for the Federation of American Scientists, is quoted in the AP article as saying that Wal-Mart’s efforts appear to go beyond what most companies are doing, raising questions about corporate intelligence work outside of the oversight process in place for government spying.

In response to Gabbard’s allegations and outraged shareholder requests, Wal-Mart CEO H. Lee Scott issued a letter last month denying allegations that Wal-Mart had surveillance on any shareholders. In the letter, he states, “Our legal department has conducted a thorough review of whether any surveillance or other inappropriate information gathering occurred with respect to shareholder proponents or our Board of Directors.”

In an 11-page affidavit, Thomas A. Mars, executive vice president and general counsel of Wal-Mart, puts forth his findings – namely:
1.    There is no evidence that Gabbard or anyone else ever secretly listened to or recorded meetings of the board of directors, and
2.    There is no evidence that Wal-Mart conducted any kind of surveillance on proponents of shareholder proposals, or organizations with which they were affiliated, or ever sought to obtain information about these individuals or organizations through improper or intrusive means.

The allegations of surveillance of Against the Wal or other non-shareholders that are critical of the retail giant are never mentioned in the affidavit. When asked about this allegation, a spokesperson for Wal-Mart referred this reporter back to Scott’s letter and Mars’ affidavit.

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