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.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff is a professor of law at the University of California, Los Angeles.