Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Seeing the movie; making a difference

I attended the USM screening of Wal-Mart: The High Price of Low Cost last evening. Sponsored by a broad-based coalition of groups including Maine NOW and P.O.W.E.R. (Portland Organizing to Win Economic Rights), as well as various labor organizations, the movie was worthwhile, despite some early technical glitches that delayed the start of the showing about 25 minutes. The nearly packed Luther Bonney auditorium became a bit antsy waiting for members of Maine NOW to figure out how to use the projection technology. The frustrating delay, the movie’s 98 minute running time and my desire to get home after a long day prompted me to join numbers of people foregoing the discussion taking place afterwards.

The movie hammered home many points that I was already familiar with. Yet, seeing them grouped together, with stories of actual people economically, physically and emotionally harmed by Wal-Mart provided added motivation for me to do more to stop the Wal-Mart juggernaut.

NOW was handing out buttons with the slogan, “Wal-Mart Always Discriminates”, a play on the company’s slogan of “Wal-Mart—Always the Lowest Prices”. Wal-Mart violates so many basics of human decency, that make it deserving of much of the criticism and actions beings directed its way.

An employer with a miserable record towards women and minorities, it has built its international retail empire by denying workers a living wage, adequate health benefits, and equal opportunities to advance.

The most powerful part of the film for me was the real life struggles faced by two families and their businesses that Wal-Mart crushed when they came to town. The Hunter family’s hardware business in Middlefield, Ohio, started by the grandfather in 1962, was forced to close its doors after 43 years, after the gala opening of a Wal-Mart. Additionally, three IGA stores, owned by Red Esry, went out of business in 1995, when Wal-Mart came to Cameron, Missouri. Esry, founded his first supermarket in 1970. When Wal-Mart came to the area in 1995, aided by millions of dollars in subsidies, Red lost almost half of his business overnight. He appealed to the local government and cut costs, but refused to stop paying his employees a decent wage and continued to provide them with full health-care benefits and a pension package in reward for their loyalty and hard work. None of the subsidies given to Wal-Mart were made available to the Esry family. What did Red Esry get for his efforts at being an honest and ethical businessman and a model business owner? After two painful years of Wal-Mart’s unfair practices, Red was forced to close down.

The end of the film highlights the many communities that are taking a stand against Wal-Mart’s predatory practices and jihad on small town America. Rather than merely magnifying the negative, portraying Wal-Mart as an evil empire, the last part of the film provides positive empowerment to ordinary citizens, helping them to adopt the belief that they have the power to organize and stand up for the values that built their communities.

As I sat in the auditorium, seeing municipality after municipality, roll out the red carpet with tax breaks and incentives given to Wal-Mart that weren’t offered to other business, I thought about my local paper, and its coverage of a taxpayer revolt occurring in Auburn, Maine. Knowing that Wal-Mart had come to town a decade ago, only to close its existing building recently and move across the street to build a super center, I wondered how many irate taxpayers in Auburn were regular shoppers at the local Wal-Mart. Recognizing that the community now had an empty building that will become difficult to fill, due to its size, I wondered how Auburn’s tax policies towards Wal-Mart and many of the other big box albatrosses that the town has acerbated with these tax increases. As I glanced at today’s front page of the Lewiston Sun Journal, there is a picture of the Wal-Mart store, with a graphic showing Wal-Mart receiving nearly $80,000 in tax breaks. Meanwhile, local homeowners have seen 50 percent increases in their property taxes.

The moral to this story and my pseudo review of this worthwhile documentary is this; our actions do have consequences. We can’t have everything we want, when we want it, without others suffering from our selfishness. To watch this film and be aware of the pain and exploitation that Wal-Mart perpetuates and not find better alternatives seems suicidal, if you care about people and place and the communities of Maine and other areas of the country.

I am more optimistic after seeing the film, knowing that others are taking up this cause. I think the tide has turned and more and more Americans are looking for alternatives to shopping at Wal-Mart, choosing to forego mindless consumerism, for a more thoughtful and deliberate way of purchasing their products.

No comments: