Monday, November 12, 2007

Monday Morning Java

Wal-Mart Nation: New film premieres tomorrow night on Canadian television

A new film about Wal-Mart, the world's largest corporation and retailer, premieres tomorrow evening on Canadian television's popular CBC Newsworld program. The film, produced and directed by Canadian writer and director Andrew Munger and CBC Newsworld, is titled Wal-Mart Nation. The film is expected to debut in the U.S. before the end of the year.

The film chronicles the stories of communities throughout the U.S. and Canada where people have fought the building of Wal-Mart stores, especially large Supercenters. A centerpiece of the film is what was a ten-year fight in the Canadian province of Guelph to keep Canadian developer Smart! Centre from building a big box retail shopping center, which included a large Wal-Mart Supercenter, in the city's north end.

The film features not only Guelph residents and others who opposed and fought the development but also a number of residents, such as the owner of a popular local coffee shop, who supported Wal-Mart.

Wal-Mart and Smart! Centre won the battle, and a Wal-Mart opened to anchor the shopping center shortly before Christmas in 2006. However, as a voice over in the film points out, the residents who opposed the Wal-Mart location in the city's north end got a bit of revenge: "One week after the Wal-Mart opened Guelph voted in it's civic election," says. "Every candidate who supported Wal-Mart, including the mayor, was defeated." Munger, the film's director, spent nearly a year in Guelph observing the battle for his movie.

The film also profiles an interesting and eclectic group of Americans and Canadians involved in the anti-Wal-Mart movement.

For example, Carolyn Sapp is personally and politically the opposite of what most people would imagine an anti-Wal-Mart activist to be. She's a former Miss America (1992) who became a feminist. She's also a Ronald Reagan Republican and an anti-abortion activist. Ms. Sapp is the founder of Wal-Mart versus woman, a group that was involved in the largest civil rights case in U.S. history on the behalf of woman workers at Wal-Mart, who filed a class action gender discrimination suit against the retailer.

There's also Canadian Anna Liu. Ms. Liu is a 23 year old Chinese Canadian labor union activist who lead a campaign to attempt to unionize Canada's Wal-Mart workers. The film follows Ms. Liu and members of her group as they blitz Wal-Mart stores throughout Canada trying to get workers to sign up for a labor union.

The film also profiles an American that many call "Wal-Mart's Number One Enemy." Al Norman is a balding, plain looking guy. But when the subject of Wal-Mart and urban sprawl come up in the same sentence, Norman turn into his alter ego-the "Sprawlbuster." Ten years ago Norman, who is well-connected in the Democratic party, launched a campaign that ended- up preventing Wal-Mart from building a store in his Massachusetts hometown. His victory over the giant retailer from Arkansas awakened some sort of dormant spirit in thousands of people throughout the U.S. and the organized anti-Wal-Mart movement was born.

Film director Munger says he personally isn't anti-Wal-Mart. Rather, he says he's against building big box stores in the wrong locations, like the city core in Toronto where developer Smart! Centre and Wal-Mart are currently trying to build a new Supercenter.

Ironically, this piece of Toronto's city core where the Wal-Mart Supercenter is being proposed is home to Toronto Film Studios, a place where Munger got his start in the film business assisting directors. The developer filed a proposal with the city of Toronto to rezone the film studios (Smart! Centre is a 50% owner of the studio property) and adjacent acreage to make room for a 700,000 square foot big-box retail shopping center anchored by the Supercenter. The city of Toronto denied the change of zoning proposal but Smart! Centre is appealing it to the Ontario Municipal Board, which has the power to overturn the city's decision.

The proposal by the developer came after Munger's film was completed. He says he's against the big-box center at the film studio location, not because he is anti-Wal-Mart, but rather because he views it as poor city planning.

A coalition of Toronto residents, activists, artists, film makers and small business people have organized to get the Ontario Municipal Board to not overturn the city of Toronto's decision. They said the timing of the film should help their cause. The coalition includes numerous members who are pro-Wal-Mart overall. They said they just don't want a Supercenter and other big box stores in the location. Wal-Mart recently opened six new Supercenters in Canada in the same week. Canada is one of the fastest growing regions for Wal-Mart, and their stores are popular with the majority of Canadian consumers, evidenced by high sales and an aggressive new Supercenter building program by the retailer.

Wal-Mart is the world's largest corporation with about $300 billion in annual sales. It's also the world's largest private employer. The giant retailer employees 1.6 million associates in nine countries. Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer with over 3,700 stores globally, also is the world's most sued corporation. It's currently dealing with about 6,000 active lawsuits.

In many ways Wal-Mart is a corporate nation state. For example, if the retailer were an independent country it would have the world's 23rd largest economy. Wal-Mart, which opens a new store about every other day, is China's 7th largest trading partner.

A company this large and successful obviously offers plenty of fodder for both its critics and supporters. If the retailer wasn't liked overall by the majority of consumers in the countries it does business in, it wouldn't be such a huge success story. A business can't become the largest corporation and retailer in the world without having a loyal following. Those $300 billion in annual sales come out of the pockets of lots of consumers worldwide.

The process of becoming the world's largest corporation however also offers plenty of reasons for people to dislike some or a number of the retailer's practices. Many of its policies deserve genuine criticism. City's and communities have the right to decide if they want big-box stores like Wal-Mart in their neighborhoods--at least in democracies like the U.S. and Canada they do. The company's labor and health care policies also deserve close scrutiny we believe. On the other hand, we think Wal-Mart is doing an excellent job with its environmental initiative and is proving to be a leader among global corporations on green issues.

Wal-Mart Nation, is a first-person account of a year in the life of the anti-Wal-Mart movement and its members. A such, it focuses primarily on the activists and the ways in which they oppose Wal-Mart. It's not however "anti Wal-Mart" in and of its self--although it doesn't offer Wal-Mart's take on the issues the activists' oppose.

Many of the activists are "true believers." For example, even if Wal-Mart discovered a cure for cancer and world hunger, and tripled the salaries of its associates tomorrow, they would still find fault with the company overall. In other words, they use the wide-brush approach. Other activists though make excellent points in their opposition to various Wal-Mart practices. And many do so in very thoughtful and reasoned ways. It's these activists (and consumers) we think Wal-Mart should listen to and engage in dialogue with.

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