Havre Daily News
Prior to viewing “Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price” Wednesday night, Sarah Windy Boy was happy that the world's largest retailer is preparing to settle west of Havre.
Now, she's not sure what side she's on.
“I've got to think about it,” the Montana State University-Northern student said. “There's two sides to every story. (The movie) kind of sheds some new light on it.”
Windy Boy said the movie made her think about what the big-box behemoth's move here will mean for area workers and locally owned businesses.
Last month, Wal-Mart purchased land west of Kmart along U.S. Highway 2 with the intent of building a 105,000-square-foot supercenter - with a grocery department, tire and lube shop, garden center and gas station - tentatively set to open in early 2007. Like Windy Boy, many local business owners and shoppers have mixed reactions about the retailer's move to Havre. Some think it will benefit Havre by bringing in more traffic, while others worry that the store will drive out local merchants.
Almost 100 people, many of them MSU-Northern students, viewed the documentary Wednesday night at the school's Hensler Auditorium in the new Applied Technology Center on the campus. The showing was put on by MSU-N assistant professor Terry Blosser and Carol Reifschneider, college chair of education, arts and sciences, and nursing.
Blosser and Reifschneider said the goal of the showing and subsequent public forum was to get people talking about how Wal-Mart may affect Havre.
“The purpose was to get the community looking behind the low prices,” Blosser said. “This is a new neighbor and we ought to be aware and thinking critically and asking questions.”
Blosser said the movie addresses issues that are important to many Americans: quality of life, community spirit and fairness.
“Wal-Mart is kind of a raw nerve on a lot of those issues,” he said. “Just because we can get something cheap doesn't make it right. Not when it's on the backs of Americans who are being put out of work by Wal-Mart's business practices.”
Blosser said he's not aware of any organized effort to stop the retailer's move here - and he's not looking to lead one - but he hopes the movie will motivate people to take action.
The movie is a compelling, 98-minute study of Wal-Mart and how some of its practices negatively affect its own workers - both in the U.S. and in Chinese factories - and the communities where it builds supercenters and stores.
It contrasts statements made by numerous former Wal-Mart employees - from sales associates to managers at various levels - with statements made by company CEO Lee Scott and commercials that promote Wal-Mart as a company with family values.
The film tells of the Hunters of Middlefield, Ohio, and the Esry family of Hamilton, Mo., two three-generation family business owners who lost their businesses - a hardware store and small IGA grocery chain, respectively - when Wal-Mart opened its doors in their town.
Longtime Wal-Mart managers talk about how employees are encouraged to apply for public assistance in order to provide health care for their families. The movie says Wal-Mart costs taxpayers more than $1.5 billion each year in public support for its employees. It details the thousands of workers and families on public assistance programs in various states.
Managers tell how employees are coerced into working overtime hours without pay. They tell of store managers doctoring payroll records to eliminate overtime payments.
One manager tells of receiving a flier from an employee that simply read “We need a union.” The same day he reported the flier to a superior manager. Wal-Mart flew a three-member rapid response team to the town and took over operation of the store.
The film tells of how stores install security cameras and use undercover spy vehicles to watch suspected union organizers in its stores.
Former employees talk about racist incidents that were reported but went unpunished. They talk about discrimination against women.
A small-town mayor and fire chief talk about not having enough emergency personnel on the payroll, thanks to Wal-Mart's decision to leave a huge store in town empty and move two miles down the road - just outside the city limits.
Factory workers in China tell of 15-hour days and seven-day workweeks for wages of less than $3 a day. A toy made in China costs the company 18 cents and retails for almost $15.
The movie's Web site quotes Wal-Mart officials as describing the film as “fabricated,” “sensationalized” and a “contorted vision.”
Company spokesmen have defended Wal-Mart's record and say some studies have shown that the company stimulates job and wage growth in communities.
A Wal-Mart spokesman in an interview last month described the company as an “economic engine” that will bring shoppers to Havre. Spokesman Dan Fogleman said the company has improved its health insurance plan to make it 40 percent to 60 percent cheaper in 2006.
The retail chain has developed its own Web site to highlight contributions made to local communities, respond to criticisms and provide its stance on pending lawsuits, and provide information about the company.
In a group discussion after the film, several people in the audience talked about the kinds of choices buyers can make.
“It's ultimately how people want their society to be,” Reifschneider said. “We have a choice and we can use our dollars to back that choice.”
MSU-Northern electronics professor Lloyd Stallkamp said such choices extend to Havre consumers.
“I think we need to think twice about what kind of community we want to have,” he said.
One audience member spoke about another kind of choice. He asked what will happen to local shoppers' choices of products if Wal-Mart drives other businesses under.
Rocky Boy resident Jim Morsette called the retail chain's actions “pure capitalism.”
“I don't believe in total capitalism,” he said. “There's got to be a balance there.”
Bob and Maureen Schmitt, owners of Chinook Veterinary Clinic, were shocked at the movie's assertions that Wal-Mart doesn't pay its employees for the hours they work.
“They have to follow the same rules we do,” Bob Schmitt said.
“If they're big enough that everybody turns their head - that's pretty unfair,” Maureen Schmitt said.
Bob Schmitt said he was curious to see how much of the documentary was agenda-driven and how much was truth.
“There's got to be some truth there,” he said.
The movie's Web site provides the sources of much of the information presented in the film. Some of the statistics come from academic studies, such as a University of California, Berkeley study that found Wal-Mart drives down retail wages by several billion dollars each year. The film quoted the figure at $3 billion, and an update on the Web site said the final figure in the published study was actually $4.7 billion. Other statistics come from lawsuits, news articles and statements by public officials.
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