Wal-Mart has contributed US$500,000 to campaign against a Californian healthcare measure.

Wal-Mart has finally joined the battle against a new Californian ballot measure that would require large businesses to pay at least 80% of workers' healthcare premiums. The decision is a further example of Wal-Mart's strategy of using its corporate bulk to defend its competitiveness, despite the negative publicity that such tactics can generate.

Arkansas-based Wal-Mart has contributed $500,000 to Californians Against Government Run Health Care, a coalition dedicated to defeating a California ballot measure to expand workers' healthcare coverage. The measure, known as Proposition 72, would oblige companies with 200 or more employees to pay at least 80% of workers' health insurance premiums, a move that would substantially increase Wal-Mart's labour costs.

Though nearly 450 private businesses have already been fighting the measure, Wal-Mart has only joined the fray recently having been singled out as providing inadequate healthcare for its employees. New television ads have reignited the controversy over accusations that California taxpayers paid more than $32m in healthcare costs in 2001 to cover Wal-Mart employees lacking adequate health insurance provision.

This latest media attention follows a spate of negative exposure for Wal-Mart. The retail giant is currently facing the largest civil rights class-action case in US history and has garnered still more negative publicity for its anti-union stance. Additionally, Wal-Mart's attempts to open superstores in parts of California have met with strong resistance, and the company has spent a considerable amount in an unsuccessful bid to gain voter approval for the stores.

The timing of Wal-Mart's entry into the debate appears from the outside to be more than coincidental. Californians will vote on the measure on Election Day - less than one week away - and Wal-Mart's new contribution may be crucial to defeating the measure. Indeed, the contribution has already garnered numerous headlines and news stories just as voters prepare to cast their ballots.

Wal-Mart has constantly tried to convey a positive, family-friendly image, citing its $150m-plus of charitable donations as testament to that. Few would argue, however, that the company is clearly capable of using its financial might to defend itself and its bottom line. With so much at stake, 2 November will be a big day for Wal-Mart, as well as the rest of the country.

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