Since 1994, when Wal-Mart swallowed 122 Woolco stores, the Canadians have greeted Wal-Mart with a Big Chill. Today the giant retailer controls 305 stores in Canada, and is in the early stages of a superstore rollout across the provinces. But Wal-Mart's history north of the border has been marked by bitter union battles, and increasingly fractious encounters with local residents. It was in Canada, after all, where Wal-Mart shut down a newly-minted store -- rather than see it unionized.
In the middle of his new film, Wal-Mart Nation, Toronto-based Andrew Munger quotes a member of an Arkansas group called "Against the Wal" saying, "We'd all be a lot better off if Wal-Mart was less greedy." That pretty much epitomizes Munger's film, which has been shown thus far only to Canadian audiences -- but opens this coming week in a couple of American film festivals. Munger borrows a few iconic American symbols -- like Miss America, and Presidential candidate John Edwards -- to reveal the underside of Wal-Mart Canada.
Munger spent several years compiling this documentary, filming in 3 Ontario communities, 7 U.S. cities and towns, and 3 countries. "There's never been a company like Wal-Mart," Munger explains in the opening narration. "It's the world's most hated company." Munger's camera travels throughout America and Canada to profile what he calls "the growing army of activists" that comes "from the deep south to the chilly north." Munger says he wanted to find out, "Who are these people, and why were they so obsessed with a big box store?" He also wanted to answer the primary question, "If Wal-Mart is so bad, why do so many people shop there?"
That question is answered in the film by Diana Reid, the owner of Clubhouse Donuts, a small bakery in the town of Guelph, Ontario. She tells Munger that when she heard Wal-Mart was coming, "We were all thrilled -- until all this opposition came. All of us are in a familiar position where we have to be very careful with our money." But her comments stand in contrast to the Wal-Mart worker in the Wake Up Wal-Mart TV spot shown in the film, who is told that it would take her 1,000 years to earn as much as Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott makes in a year. "A thousand years?" repeats the astonished Wal-Mart employee, Charmaine Givens. "I'm getting upset."
Among the anti-Wal-Mart army regulars tracked by Munger are: Anna Liu, a young labor organizer for a Canadian local of the United Food and Commercial Workers, who conducts undercover leafleting of Wal-Mart stores; Carolyn Sapp, the 1992 Miss America winner, who speaks nationally for the rights of women workers at Wal-Mart; Ben Bennett, the Guelph, Ontario resident who fended off Wal-Mart for a decade, before losing the end game; Chris Kofinis, Communications Director of Wake Up Wal-Mart, the multi-million campaign funded by the United Food and Commercial Workers union; and Al Norman, founder of Sprawl-Busters.
Wal-Mart Nation opens at the Fayetteville, Arkansas Annual Shareholders' meeting, with thousands of chanting employees and investors. Munger interviews Arkansas residents about the huge retailer, asking one woman in a soccer Mom t-shirt, how she feels about all the controversy surrounding Wal-Mart. "I wasn't aware there was," she says flatly. The narrator adds: "Wal-Mart's best allies are its customers: average folks in search of a bargain."
Wal-Mart Canada's Director of Corporate Communications shrugs off all the criticisms of his company. "As the world's biggest corporation, you become the world's biggest corporate target for any range of criticisms. The bottom line is, we need to tell our story better." Munger's film won't help that storyline.
Former Miss America, Carolyn Sapp, is shown working a bullhorn in a Wal-Mart parking lot in Las Vegas. "We know that they abuse women and men -- their hard-working employees," Sapp says. After reading of the massive class action lawsuit filed on behalf of 1.6 million Wal-Mart female workers, Carolyn Sapp found her mission. "You know what? This is abuse. It's not physical abuse, but it's emotional abuse. Its time we as consumers say: Wait a second. Why are we all supporting the wealthiest corporation in America if they don't treat their women with dignity?" Sapp found a good use for her beauty pageant crown. "If I can use the Miss America title to entice people to learn about this, and to educate them, then it's OK. There's a good use to the Miss American title."
Munger explores the prolonged Wal-Mart controversy in Guelph, a small town in Ontario that cost the retailer 10 years of delay. Activist Ben Bennett pursued Wal-Mart in town hall, and through the courts. Bennett and his group helped collect over 12,000 names on a petition against Wal-Mart. In the end, the store is built -- in between two cemeteries and a Jesuit retreat--but the victory cost Wal-Mart millions of dollars in lost sales, and gave them a public relations black eye.
Munger flew to London to capture the protests in Queens Market -- one of the last open air markets in the city -- a site coveted by Wal-Mart's operating front in the U.K., the ASDA chain. "My family's been here for 120 years," says one of the local British small merchants protesting Wal-Mart. And his family will remain there -- because ASDA pulled out of the Queen's Market deal.
There's even some American presidential politics in this film -- though not where you'd expect it. Munger does not focus on Hillary Clinton, who sat on Wal-Mart's board of directors, and is seated in a 1990 photo between Sam Walton and David Glass as the only woman on the board. Wal-Mart Nation rolls a clip of then-candidate John Edwards recounting the day his six year old son Jack told the family his brother Alex had gotten new shoes. "That's bad," young Jack explains. "He got them at Wal-Mart. They're bad to their workers." Then Edwards adds, "If a six year old can understand it, America can understand it."
Andrew Munger carefully pieces together these clips from Wal-Mart Nation, above and below the Canadian border -- knowing full well that there really is no single Wal-Mart Nation -- only a deeply divided, and conflicted series of populations. There are the Wal-Mart shoppers versus the Wal-Mart Haters -- and they have been hammering one another for the past twenty years.
This is perhaps best reflected in the film's end. Munger pans the camera across the huge Wal-Mart store on its opening day in Guelph, after a stormy decade of battles. The narrator explains that one week after the Wal-Mart opened in Guelph in November, 2006, every candidate up for election that was pro-Wal-Mart -- was defeated. The film cuts to a hired Santa Claus in front of the Guelph Wal-Mart, whose post-election comment is simply, "Ho, Ho, Ho." But Wal-Mart's painful entry into Guelph was anything but merry, and since then, the company has continued to brace itself from the arctic blasts from union organizing and citizen's groups across Canada.
It's not likely that the Wal-Mart Canada brass who let Munger film some of their activities, still have him on their Christmas card list.
Wal-Mart Nation was produced by Ultramagnetic Productions in association with the CBC. DVDs of the film are available from www.walmartnation.com. The film will have its first American screenings at the Oxford, Ohio Film Festival, April 11 & 13, and the Independent Spirit Film Festival, Colorado Springs, CO, Saturday, April 26.
Al Norman is the founder of Sprawl-Busters. Forbes Magazine has called him" Wal-Mart's #1 enemy."