SAN JOSE, Calif. – President Obama is showcasing Wal-Mart, often a target of labor groups and other Democratic constituencies, to promote advances in energy efficiency in his broader campaign to confront climate change.
Obama on Friday was to announce commitments from more than 300 companies and local and state governments to use solar energy technology. He also was announcing executive actions aimed at increasing energy efficiency in buildings and appliances. The White House says the solar effort will power the equivalent of 130,000 homes and the administrative actions could reduce carbon pollution in an amount equal to taking 80 million cars off the road for one year.
The White House chose Wal-Mart because the company has committed to doubling the number of solar energy projects at its stores, Sam's Clubs and distribution centers.
But in choosing the giant retailer as the backdrop for his announcement, Obama triggered a backlash from labor unions and pay equity advocates who say Wal-Mart pays low wages and who archly noted that Obama has made pay equity a central issue of his presidency.
"What numbskull in the White House arranged this?" former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, who served in the Bill Clinton administration, said in a posting on Facebook on Thursday.
"While he's in California, I would hope President Obama would speak directly to Wal-Mart employees and hear from them about their daily struggles to pay the rent and put food on the table," said Maria Elena Durazo, the executive secretary-treasurer of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO.
Wal-Mart says it pays wages that are competitive in the retail industry.
The clashing energy vs. jobs message is not new to the White House. Labor unions, for example, have pressed the Obama administration to approve the Keystone XL pipeline from Canada into the U.S. because it would create jobs. Environmentalists oppose the pipeline, and the administration recently put off a decision on whether to approve it, likely until after the November congressional elections.
Obama was wrapping up a three-day trip mostly devoted to raising money for the Democratic Party.
Complicating things for the White House, Obama on Thursday attended a fundraiser hosted by Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, who sits on Wal-Mart's board of directors.
In promoting the energy efficiency announcement ahead of Friday's event, the White House said solar energy prices have dropped markedly in four years, with solar panels now costing about 60 percent less.
"All of this means more jobs in the industry, which is now supporting more than 140,000 good-paying American jobs and that are increasing at a rate of 20 percent per year," said Dan Utech, a special assistant to Obama on energy and climate change.
The White House said Obama also would announce completion of energy efficiency standards for walk-in coolers and freezers typically used in grocery stores.
The rule on walk-in freezers was proposed last August under an agreement with attorneys general from 10 states and New York City. The states, along with House and Senate Democrats, have been urging Obama to move faster to implement proposed efficiency standards, including those for commercial walk-in coolers and freezers, which were due in 2012.