Get in the game.
November 7th is rapidly approaching. With all the hype, it's easy to overlook the fact that historically an election like this comes along only once in 20 years. All 435 members of the House are up for election as well as 33 senators. The majority in Congress is up for grabs, and the next president may appoint as many as four Supreme Court justices. There are serious philosophical differences between the candidates that will be played out in national policy.
Democracy is not a spectator sport. It's little short of a national disgrace that nearly half the eligible voters in this country sit in the stands come election day. Even worse, they spend the rest of the time moaning, jeering and complaining about the politicians they didn't elect.
What's that got to do with the price of groceries? Plenty. Your business and the lives of your customers will be affected one way or another by the outcome of this election. As business owners/operators, employers, private citizens and members of the community, retailers have the opportunity and responsibility to play a significant role in the democratic process.
Any grocery store company or operator can tick off ways the government impacts business category by category. And each one is connected to regulations, legislation or proposals now under consideration. Labor? There's minimum wage, OSHA's ergonomics rule, expansion of union authority and comp time, to name a few. Finance? Try interest rates, capital gains taxes, individual and corporate taxes, estate taxes and access to capital. Food safety? How about in-store E.coli testing, HACCP requirements, labeling of biotech foods, imported foods, food recalls and safety inspections. Let's not forget federal programs such as food stamps and WIC in which the grocery industry is a direct participant. All these programs, proposals and regulations--to say nothing of the overall state of the economy, which determines how much people have to spend in grocery stores--will be affected by the outcome of next month's election.
"The grocery industry is among the most heavily regulated in the country," says John Motley, senior vice president governmental and public affairs for the Food Marketing Institute (FMI). "We understand that government will be our partner always. We have to participate in the education process called the elections."
Motley points out that the stakes are high. "Experience shows that organizations which are aware and participate and understand their positions on issues and whose employees and stockholders can explain and defend their practices are able to change things and work with government to see that things work smoothly," he says.
The message is getting across. All the major food industry organizations are now mounting strong government affairs activities, FMI representatives took an active role in both the Republican and Democratic conventions and submitted testimony to the platform committees.
Even more important, companies themselves are getting into the act. Albertson's, Publix, Safeway, Kmart and Wal-Mart all participated in the conventions; some for the first time. They, as well as other retailers, have established state or national political action committees (PACs) through which they support various candidates. It's no longer uncommon for a company to interview a candidate to ascertain his or her views on particular issues.
Companies may have more clout than they realize. Publix, for example, is the largest employer in the state of Florida. Candidates respond to companies that can reach voters and turn out the vote.
"A lot of our members are opening their stores or warehouses to candidates from all parties to allow them to visit with customers and employees," says Tom Wenning, vice president and general counsel for the National Grocers Association (NGA). "It also gives retailers the opportunity to take someone through the store or warehouse and show how specific policies and regulations affect the business. It's a two-way dialogue."
And when it comes to elections, the food industry's employees represent tens of thousands of votes. Together they form a powerful block that can have an impact politically. While it's incumbent upon employers to remain nonpartisan, they can actively encourage their associates to vote. "Our most important untapped resource is our employees," says Motley.
What's more, grocery stores are unrivaled in their ability to reach the public. As an integral part of virtually every community in the nation, food retailers can play an important role in promoting civic responsibility. "I'd love to see our members pass out voter registration cards, especially in areas where there is a critical race," Motley says.
In fact, many retailers do get involved, arranging for voter registration drives, hanging posters throughout the store, placing reminders on shopping bags or otherwise supporting the process. Companies also can help educate consumers about specific issues and the implications of new or proposed regulation.
NGA and FMI provide tools to help their members be more active participants in the political process. NGA has developed an information packet that provides suggestions on organizing candidate visits, store tours and meetings with companies.
FMI's website contains direct links to sites where members can check out the voting records of politicians on specific issues of importance to the industry, as well as get descriptions of the industry's positions. In addition, FMI will supply consultants to companies seeking to become more politically involved.
"If you are going to participate in a free-market enterprise system as well as membership in a democracy, it is incumbent to participate," says Wenning.