Supermarket giant Wal-Mart was in the papers recently accused of paying $24 million in bribes to Mexican officials to smooth its aggressive expansion in that country.
But even as the company was conducting false internal investigations and citing its record of corporate ethical responsibility, it was conducting a similar campaign involving lavish use of funds to force itself into the untapped market of Chicago, and in particular its African-American communities.
In the Mexico bribery scandal the Justice Department is looking at charging Wal-Mart with violation of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which makes it a crime for US corporations and their subsidiaries to bribe foreign officials.
But in the US, says Chicago labour activist James Thindwa, there are no laws to criminalise Wal-Mart's practice of open bribery, which often targets key community groups and state and local legislators with "donations" to help the company advance its agenda.
In 2006 it set up Working Families for Wal-Mart, hiring civil rights legend Andrew Young at a reported $1 million a year to press support for Wal-Mart and opposition to living wage ordinances and unions in low-income communities.
Participants recruited by the group "have, among other things, spoken in favour of Wal-Mart at zoning meetings and testified before a federal agency reviewing Wal-Mart's application to open a bank."
Thindwa says Young "moved around the country neutralising African-American organisations" who might have supported labour-backed living wage Bills aimed to protect the community against Wal-Mart's notorious low wage practices.
In Chicago, Young hosted a lavish "clergy luncheon" to help enlist black ministers to Wal-Mart's side.
On July 20 2006, prominent South Side black pastor Leon Finney turned out 1,000 community members to rally against a city council living wage Bill.
The Chicago activists say Finney and/or his organisations received $50,000 worth of donations from Wal-Mart.
And in the fiscal year 2007 Wal-Mart executive vice president Charles Holley wrote Finney's community service group the Woodlawn Organisation a company cheque for $25,000.
Eventually, backed by then mayor Richard M Daley, some of those same clergy and other powerful forces, Wal-Mart succeeded in opening its first Chicago store.
Subsequently, in opening another store in the Lakeview neighbourhood - home to a large gay and lesbian population - the company bestowed donations on a number of well-known gay and lesbian community organisations. It has moved as aggressively to expand in Chicago as it did in Mexico, planning to open some 100 stores in the city.
In Mexico it "targeted mayors and city council members, obscure urban planners, low-level bureaucrats who issued permits - anyone with the power to thwart Wal-Mart's growth."
A former Wal-Mart Mexico executive said the bribes "bought zoning approvals, reductions in environmental impact fees and the allegiance of neighbourhood leaders."
Campaign co-ordinator for Chicago Neighbourhoods First Janel Bailey said: "When we see the means by which they are getting that done, it is raising questions about what is being done in Chicago."
Chicago Neighbourhoods First is a labour, community and small business coalition seeking to "preserve and amplify neighbourhood voices in how economic development proceeds in their communities."
The group says: "Neighbourhoods need to be proactive in ensuring their community reflects their needs rather than the wishes of outside corporations.
"One of the biggest threats to local living economies is the entry of global retail corporations."
On April 24 coalition members and Wal-Mart workers went to the office of local Wal-Mart board member Linda Wolf to present her with a "D-Day" disciplinary action slip for her negligence as a board member.
The group says Wal-Mart's cover-up actions and the promotion of the man who was the ringleader of the Mexico bribery "shows that Wal-Mart doesn't care if its actions are ethically or legally wrong as long as there are profits."
Bailey called Wal-Mart's approach "predatory capitalism," which undermines workers' living standards and puts small businesses out of business in pursuit of ever higher stock prices.
Bloomberg notes that Wal-Mart's Mexico scandal "follows more than a decade of allegations that the company violated laws on illegal immigrant workers, overtime, gender bias and preservation of evidence in pursuit of larger profits."
In Congress, Reps Elijah Cummins and Henry Waxman are investigating Wal-Mart's bribery scandal and the company's possible role in trying to weaken the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.
With public pressure, perhaps they will also turn their attention to Wal-Mart's seemingly legal "donations" and influence-purchasing in the US.
This article appeared in People's World
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