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Films Battle over Wal-Mart's Public Image

ED GORDON, host:

Retail giant Wal-Mart has recently sparked controversy in communities across the country. Now the fight has gone Hollywood. There are two documentaries with radically different views of the Arkansas megaretailer. Robin Urevich reports.

ROBIN UREVICH reporting:

In recent years, Robert Greenwald's cinematic targets have included Fox TV, the war in Iraq and the Patriot Act. His new film is called "Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price." In this clip, former Wal-Mart worker Edith Arana describes the moment she asked her manager about a promotion.

(Soundbite of "Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price")

Ms. EDITH ARANA (Former Wal-Mart Employee): He just bluntly told me, `There's no place for people like you in management.' And I said, `Well, what do you mean, people like me?' And I said to him, I said, `That I'm a woman or that I'm black?' He said, `Well, two out of two ain't bad.'

UREVICH: Arana has joined a massive class-action lawsuit against Wal-Mart for gender discrimination. Greenwald's other subjects recount stories of how Wal-Mart destroyed mom-and-pop competitors or how workers earned so little that they relied on government programs for health care and sometimes food. The company has shot back with video spots like this one on its Web site.

(Soundbite of Wal-Mart video spot)

Unidentified Man: It seems the special interest propaganda machine behind the attacks against Wal-Mart now includes video-maker Robert Greenwald. The truth is, Wal-Mart is one of the most diverse employers in America and was recently named by Black Enterprise magazine as one of the 30 best companies for diversity.

UREVICH: Wal-Mart has set up a campaign-style war room to counter its critics. It's staffed by some of the nation's top political and public relations professionals. The company has also embarked on a sort of charm offensive, calling for an increase in the federal minimum wage and lower health insurance costs for some workers. But a Wal-Mart spokesman says it can't raise its own workers' wages and still remain competitive. Here's CEO Lee Scott at Town Hall Los Angeles earlier this year.

(Soundbite of Town Hall Los Angeles)

Mr. LEE SCOTT (CEO, Wal-Mart): If we keep our prices low and raised our average wage substantially, we would, in fact, decrease our profitability disproportionately. On the other hand, if we raised our prices to cover those costs, we would betray the commitment we have had to tens of millions of customers, many of whom struggle to make ends meet.

UREVICH: Like Lee Scott, filmmaker Ron Galloway is a self-described `free-market guy.' The ex-stockbroker has made an unabashedly pro-Wal-Mart film, "Why Wal-Mart Works and Why That Makes Some People Crazy." The company gave him access to its stores where he interviewed workers like this woman, identified only as Sharon.

(Soundbite of "Why Wal-Mart Works and Why That Makes Some People Crazy")

SHARON (Wal-Mart Employee): I had no work history, and he just sat there for a minute and he goes, `You know what? I see something in you. I'm going to take a chance on you. Do not let me down.' And he gave me a shot and I got the job, and I've been with Wal-Mart ever since.

UREVICH: Galloway's film has generated some buzz and he says he might sell a few more DVDs because of its timing. It comes just as controversy over Wal-Mart is reaching a boiling point. This fall, Wal-Mart Watch, a coalition of labor unions, environmentalists and religious leaders, launched its first nationally coordinated effort against the megaretailer. The group's immediate goal is to organize 7,000 screenings of the Greenwald film at house parties, union halls and churches.

Reverend JARVIS JOHNSON (Wal-Mart Watch): We got Protestant and Catholic. We have Church of God in Christ; we got Baptist, we got CME churches, we got...

UREVICH: In Inglewood, California, just south of Los Angeles, Reverend Jarvis Johnson of Wal-Mart Watch is meeting with a couple dozen of his fellow ministers. Johnson wants to enlist them in a campaign that he says is as crucial for 21st-century workers as civil rights was for black Americans in the 1960s.

Rev. JOHNSON: If we change Wal-Mart, then the rest of the companies will follow the Wal-Mart model. They're following it now in paying low wages. They're following it now in not giving adequate health benefits. So if we change Wal-Mart, the rest of the industry changes and America also changes.

UREVICH: No one is predicting just how much the company will bend. Film director Robert Greenwald has some ideas for reforming Wal-Mart, and he says he's invited CEO Lee Scott to discuss them.

Mr. ROBERT GREENWALD (Filmmaker): I spent a year of my life studying this corporation now, and I think these policies are ultimately costing them profit.

UREVICH: Scott hasn't responded to Greenwald's invitation. Both Wal-Mart films are available on DVD, but you won't find them at Wal-Mart. A company spokesman says its holiday shoppers prefer DreamWorks and Miramax to Galloway and Greenwald.

For NPR News, I'm Robin Urevich in Los Angeles. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Robin Urevich