INVESTIGATION: 'Socially conscious' Democratic lobby firm working for Wal-Mart to kill labor bill

In the world of cut-throat Washington lobbying, Virginia-based D & P Creative Strategies wants you to think they're different.

The slogan of the small firm - which proudly states on its website that it's "100% minority and woman-owned" - is "Consulting with a Social Conscience." As if to separate themselves from the image of the mercenary, anything-for-the-money culture of K Street, the company instead projects an image of mission-based lobbying with values:

We are devoted to the creation of business, philanthropic and legislative initiatives that help elevate the social, economic and political status of the communities we come from.

But those who see labor unions as a key way to "elevate" their "economic status" may not agree. According to federal lobbying records obtained by Facing South, since 2005 one of D & P's most reliable clients has been Wal-Mart -- a company long targeted by unions due its checkered labor history.

What's more, the lobbying records show that at least since mid-2008, D & P has been specifically hired by Wal-Mart to lobby against the Employee Free Choice Act -- the labor reform bill that has been the top legislative priority for unions this year.

According to federal records, D & P has received $165,000 from Wal-Mart since 2005 to lobby for the retail giant's interests. Starting in summer 2008, D&P's three latest filings April 2009, January 2008, and October 2008 specifically show Wal-Mart hired D & P to "discuss" the Employee Free Choice Act with members of the House and Senate from Wal-Mart's perspective -- in other words, to lobby against it.

(D & P's 2005 report also lists labor issues as a focus of its Wal-Mart lobbying, but doesn't mention the EFCA.)

The irony is that Democratic-leaning lobbying firms like D & P are enjoying unprecedented access under the Obama administration and Democratic-controlled Congress -- electoral victories due in no small part due to massive backing from organized labor, and bitterly opposed by Wal-Mart.

Indeed, last August the Wall Street Journal reported that Wal-Mart was "mobilizing its store managers and department supervisors around the country" to warn workers against voting for Democrats -- mostly because it would allegedly invite more unions due to the Employee Free Choice Act:

"The meeting leader said, 'I am not telling you how to vote, but if the Democrats win, this bill will pass and you won't have a vote on whether you want a union,'" said a Wal-Mart customer-service supervisor from Missouri. "I am not a stupid person. They were telling me how to vote," she said.

While Wal-Mart was mobilizing against Democrats in 2008, labor was working feverishly to elect them, constituting the single biggest source of money and muscle behind the party's victories last November. Unions dispatched thousands of organizers and volunteers into key districts to get out the vote. Over 200 labor PACs spent $66.1 million in campaign contributions to candidates -- 92% of that going to Democrats.

No one questions the Democratic credentials of D & P Creative Strategies. The "D" in "D & P" is Ingrid Duran, a veteran of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute and President Clinton's Advisory Commission on HIV/AIDS, who says her "passion for social justice was sparked at the young age of 5."

The "P" is Catherine Pino, who has worked for the National Council of La Raza, worked in the office of New Mexico Sen. Jeff Bingaman, and states "a deep commitment to social justice and civil rights issues." Together, Duran and Pino made $77,400 in campaign contributions in the 2008 election cycle -- all to Democrats.

Which makes the firm's decision to fight on Wal-Mart's behalf against unions -- the Democratic Party's best-organized allies -- all the more curious.

It should be noted that, in the big-stakes lobbying that has surrounded the Employee Free Choice Act -- the U.S. Chamber of Commerce alone pledged at least $20 million to fight the bill -- the $70,000 that D & P has received from Wal-Mart while lobbying against the EFCA may seem small. And D & P can argue that even socially conscious lobbying outfits need to take corporate clients that don't square with their mission.

But Wal-Mart isn't your everyday corporate client. The biggest retailer in the world, Wal-Mart employees over 1.3 million workers and has been singled out by labor and worker advocates for criticism of its treatment of employees. Groups like Human Rights Watch, American Rights at Work, Wal-Mart Watch and the AFL-CIO have issued a flurry of scathing reports chronicling Wal-Mart's history of labor rights violations:

* According to a 2007 report by Human Rights Watch, "[W]hile many American companies use weak US laws to stop workers from organizing, the retail giant [Wal-Mart] stands out for the sheer magnitude and aggressiveness of its anti-union apparatus. Many of its anti-union tactics are lawful in the United States, though they combine to undermine workers' rights."

* Wal-Mart Watch reported last December that "Wal-Mart violated the law more than 2 million times over a six-year period by denying workers time for breaks and forcing them to work "off the clock" for no pay, a Minnesota judge has ruled. Dakota County District Judge Robert King ordered the company to pay $6.5 million in back pay. In addition, Wal-Mart faced fines as high as $2 billion for the wage-and-hour violations. The case ultimately ended in settlement, with Wal-Mart paying out $54 million in lost wages."

* In 2005 American Rights at Work issued a study arguing that Wal-Mart's history of employee intimidation was a case study in why workers needed the Employee Free Choice Act: "Among the [National Labor Review Board] complaints [against Wal-Mart] were 41 charges of terminating employees for union activity, 59 charges of surveillance of union activity, 59 charges of interrogation, and 47 charges of unlawful promises or benefits to dissuade workers against organizing."

Wal-Mart has also come under increasing fire from advocates for Latinos and Hispanics, a demographic dear to D & P's mission. In 2006, an entire shift of 200 Spanish-speaking workers walked out of the Wal-Mart in Hialeah, Florida, protesting "inhuman" treatment, including slashing of pay and punitive employment policies.

Labor advocates also point out that Latino workers stand the most to gain from unions, which the Employee Free Choice Act would make it easier to join. Studies by the Economic Policy Institute [pdf] and Center for Economic Policy Research say that Latinos benefit more than any other racial or ethnic group from unionization:

According to research by the Center for Economic and Policy Research, unionization raises Latino workers' wages on average 17.6 percent--or about $2.60 per hour--compared to non-union Latino workers with similar characteristics. Unionized Latino workers are also 26 percentage points more likely to have employer-provided health insurance and 27 percentage points more likely to have a pension plan than their non-union counterparts.

In signing on with Wal-Mart, D & P joined one of the most powerful foes of the Employee Free Choice Act. Wal-Mart has been a leader in the multi-million campaign waged by business groups to defeat the act. As Facing South reported earlier, Wal-Mart has weilded its political muscle especially in Arkansas, where it likely played a role in influencing Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln to defect from supporting the bill, helping to scuttle its chances in Congress.

So how to explain D & P's decision to work for Wal-Mart to battle the Employee Free Choice Act -- a choice seemingly out of line with its mission and opposed to the interests of Democrats, labor and other constituencies who helped change the political climate that is bolstering D & P's influence?

D & P Creative did not immediately return a request for comment.

But as Thomas Frank observed in a Wall Street Journal column this week (which first noted D & P's involvement in Wal-Mart's anti-labor campaign), "Maybe it's just the money."

For more on Democratic lobbying groups working against the Employee Free Choice Act, see our post yesterday here.