Why is MALDEF Honoring Walmart?

The other day I received an invitation from the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) for its annual fundraising dinner in Los Angeles.  But what struck my eye was the icon in the middle of the invitation: “Walmart: Gala Chair.”

Let’s be clear what it means to be a gala chair: it’s essentially something of an honor in exchange for a contribution.  For Walmart, it means that they get the public relations benefits of being a MALDEF supporter; MALDEF, of course, gets the check.  All of this is good and mutually beneficial.

Except that, as is well known, Walmart has one of themost egregious employment records of any large American company.  It underpays its workers, and sometimes doesn’t even pay them at all.  As Harold Meyerson documented in a superb article last year, Walmart helps run a collection of warehouses where the workers suffer in terrible conditions.  Oh, and most of those workers are Latino.

Every nonprofit has to deal with a fundamental problem: advancing the organization’s mission and preserving the organization itself do not always dovetail.  Compromises have to be made.  When I was a board president of a legal service organization in East Los Angeles, we received decent-sized grant from Altria, the new name of Philip Morris.  No one likes tobacco companies, but if we didn’t take the grant, we would have been forced to lay off two lawyers and close down an effective program.  We took the money.

But this is different.  It’s one think to take some money: it’s quite another to honor the organization and place it high in your promotional materials.  And Walmart isn’t just another company: it’s the world’s largest retailer, with gross receipts in excess of many countries’ GDP, which is at the heart of an American business structure actively seeking to undermine workers’ rights and eviscerate middle class jobs.  This is a compromise too far.  It attacks the very constituencies that MALDEF claims to be working for.

I often wonder about why the nations’ progressive movement is so weak, especially in comparison to the Right.  There are many reasons, of course, but perhaps one of them is the inability of organizations to work together in coalition, to not take the easy way out if it would mean undermining their coalition partners.  My contacts at the AFL-CIO and Change To Win told me that neither organization was even aware of this, much less being able to voice their opinions when it was being considered.  In and of itself, MALDEF’s poor choice isn’t the cause of the Right’s ascendancy, but it does show that sometimes the biggest obstacle to progressive change are some alleged progressive organizations.

Author: Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic - Land Use, the Environment and Local Government. He grew up and still lives in the San Fernando Valley, about which he remains immensely proud (to the mystification of his friends and colleagues). After graduating from Yale Law School, and while clerking for a federal appeals court judge in Boston, he decided to return to Los Angeles shortly after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, reasoning that he would gladly risk tremors in order to avoid the average New England wind chill temperature of negative 55 degrees. Professor Zasloff has a keen interest in world politics; he holds a PhD in the history of American foreign policy from Harvard and an M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge University. Much of his recent work concerns the influence of lawyers and legalism in US external relations, and has published articles on these subjects in the New York University Law Review and the Yale Law Journal. More generally, his recent interests focus on the response of public institutions to social problems, and the role of ideology in framing policy responses. Professor Zasloff has long been active in state and local politics and policy. He recently co-authored an article discussing the relationship of Proposition 13 (California's landmark tax limitation initiative) and school finance reform, and served for several years as a senior policy advisor to the Speaker of California Assembly. His practice background reflects these interests: for two years, he represented welfare recipients attempting to obtain child care benefits and microbusinesses in low income areas. He then practiced for two more years at one of Los Angeles' leading public interest environmental and land use firms, challenging poorly planned development and working to expand the network of the city's urban park system. He currently serves as a member of the boards of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (a state agency charged with purchasing and protecting open space), the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice (the leading legal service firm for low-income clients in east Los Angeles), and Friends of Israel's Environment. Professor Zasloff's other major activity consists in explaining the Triangle Offense to his very patient wife, Kathy.

4 thoughts on “Why is MALDEF Honoring Walmart?”

  1. Just a bit curious – Did you speak to anyone affiliated with MALDEF to get their perspective before you posted this item? If so, what is their justification? If not, is there any reason in your mind they could have made the decision, which didn’t sit well with you, that would at least explain such a juxtraposition?

    Politics does make for strange bedfellows, and just as that woman’s rights organization invited Bill O’Reilly to speak to it even after his record has been known regarding his belief that some women dress for rape, so too the subject organization in this case may have its reasons.

    I would be interested to hear from a MALDEF rep. as to just how they came to the decision to honor Walmart.

    1. I put in a couple of calls, but haven’t heard back. If I do, I’ll update. I would be willing to say that basically it’s a combination of 1) we really need the cash; and 2) Walmart has done SOME good things; and 3) it’s really not such a big deal. But we’ll see.

  2. My own experience, shopping at Wal-Mart, is that there are a lot more ugly people working there than at Target, Costco, etc. Missing teeth, tats, fat, etc. This seems to me to be evidence that they are not discriminating on looks – I think that’s really important. So I’m a lot fonder of them than you are.

  3. The question should be reversed: why would a company which provides massive employment to a diverse group of Americans, be willing to muddy their reputation by affiliating with a radical organization which has done all that it can to undermine our immigration laws? Any calls in to Wal-Mart to find out?

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