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Big labor group eyes Wal-Mart protests?
AFL-CIO considering action to coincide with chain's first media fest in Arkansas: people familiar.
March 25, 2005: 4:19 PM EST
By Parija Bhatnagar, CNN/Money staff writer

NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - The nation's leading labor organization is considering activities in Wal-Mart's hometown as the world's No. 1 retailer tries to burnish its image at a two-day media conference early next month, CNN/Money has learned.

While details about the events were not immediately available, people familiar with the matter said that the AFL-CIO was considering this week possible actions its members could take at the conference, set for April 5-6 in Bentonville, Ark., or other cities.

Additionally, other North American labor unions are pondering ways to make their presence felt as they seek to draw the attention of the gathered media to their grievances against Wal-Mart (Research).

Wal-Mart, whose 1.5 million employees make it the nation's largest private-sector non-union employer, has been hit by for dozens of lawsuits against it alleging wage-and-hour violations and gender discrimination. It announced an overhaul of its pay and promotion policies last summer.

The company has also successfully resisted organized labor's efforts to unionize workers at its stores.

Some 200 Wal-Mart workers in Jonquiere, Quebec, will be watching closely to see if any labor protests and demonstrations at Wal-Mart headquarters next month will convince the company to change its mind about closing the store on May 6.

Wal-Mart decided in February to close the store, where workers were close to reaching a union contract, citing ongoing losses.

Just last week, Marie-Josee Lemieux, president of the local chapter of the United Food and Commercial Workers (Canada), who had spearheaded efforts to unionize the store in Quebec, died of a sudden heart attack at the age of 40.

Image polishing

Wal-Mart's two-day meet-and-greet is a concerted effort by the company to polish up its image. The company says it's to "ensure that [the media] has accurate information on Wal-Mart,"

Indeed, Wal-Mart has been on an aggressive campaign to court the media in a bid to rebuild its reputation after a string of damaging publicity.

Last year, Wal-Mart was accused of allegedly hiring illegal immigrants through a contractor and underpaying those employees, and earlier this month it agreed to pay $11 million to settle the matter. It's also facing stiff opposition to its "big-box" format in New York and other cities.

It also shot back at critics by launching a nationwide media blitz in January, including ads in more than 100 newspapers, touting the company's wages, employee benefits, economic impact and charitable contributions.

Wal-Mart spokesman Gus Whitcomb said the company was not aware of labor groups planning protests in Bentonville next month.

"However, as we've said before, union demonstrations that seek to harm a company seem an odd way to tell that company's people that you have their best interests at heart," Whitcomb said in a statement e-mailed to CNN/Money.

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