Friday, February 1, 2008

Wal-Town – A Documentary Recommendation

Wal-Town – A Documentary Recommendation

In 2004 and 2005, a group of young activists toured Canada, their goal being to inform people and perhaps change their attitude about Walmart’s presence in their community. While their mission was not altogether successful, and the first part of the film has a rather sluggish pace, probably owing to the frustrating indifference with which they are largely met, the film succeeds because of the questions the viewer is left to ponder.

By now, probably everyone knows some of the reasons many people oppose the Walmart behemoth:

• Its predatory pricing that has forced a host of manufacturers to move offshore to meet the cost expectations of their biggest buyer.
• Its use of suppliers who regularly abuse human rights and exploit child labor
• Its monumental efforts to prevent the unionization of its employees
• Its driving out of small businesses that often have a very long history in the community
• Its refusal to pay decent wages to its ‘associates’

The film doesn’t shy away from what attracts people to the store – low prices – and the fact that a cross section of people, not just those on limited income, finds ways to stretch their dollars by shopping there. Also, as one of the young activists says, people are not affected emotionally by references to such practices as sweatshop and child labor, since they don’t know anyone personally involved in such exploitation.

However the documentary’s strongest moments occur when some fundamental questions are asked. For example, why can’t a corporation that, if it were a country would be the 22nd largest in the world, choose to share with its workers a tiny amount of its many billions of dollars of profits instead of providing them what is essentially minimum wage, no benefits, and largely part-time employment? Such questions in turn force some of us, especially the more affluent, to question whether our pursuit of bargain pricing is worth encouraging such business models. It was such a question that I asked myself about five years ago after being educated about Walmart by two of my colleagues. Although I claim no special virtue, it was at that point I decided not to patronize the store any longer. This despite the fact that there are few people who enjoy a bargain more than I do.

And yet the purpose of the Wal-Town campaign was not so much to encourage a boycott as it was to educate people, with the ultimate goal, I assume, of bringing consumer scrutiny and pressure to bear on the corporation. Indeed, the documentary really invites us to ask how we define ourselves. Are we consumers first, and citizens second? If not, then we should be mindful of such democratic rights as freedom of association, which includes the right to form a union, simply a banding together of people to try to ensure better wages and working conditions for the collective.

Perhaps one of the most poignant moments of the film is the closing of the Jonquiere, Quebec Walmart as a direct result of a successful union drive. Such a move was an obvious ploy to send a strong chill throughout the Walmart chain to discourage further indulgences in democratic rights. In fact, in December of 2005 the company was found guilty by the Quebec labour board of closing the store to avoid dealing with the unionized workers, not because it was losing money as it had claimed. Compensation for the illegally fired workers was pending.

This is a film that definitely deserves your consideration. Should you wish further information on Wal-Town, or more information on Walmart’s practices, I recommend the following three sites:

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