Anti-chain gang

Public enemy No. 1 to anti-sprawl and labor groups, `Wal-Mart' film preaches to the already converted.


Never mind that no one suspects Wal-Mart of trying to squish one of its 200,000-square-foot superstores into the limited real estate space available in Hampden. But such is the anger that the retail behemoth engenders in some circles that it has become a kind of shorthand for all that is wrong with corporate America.

Take Drew Heles, a local activist, and Benn Ray, an owner of Atomic Books. They sponsored a free screening Sunday night of Robert Greenwald's new documentary, Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price, hoping to use it to highlight the dangers of chains, and help keep such shops as Starbucks or Quiznos out of the quirky, historic 36th Street corridor.

"The film expresses our feelings about the importance of keeping formula retail out of our community," Ray says. "We don't want what happened at the Inner Harbor to happen on 36th Street. People don't realize that if they get together, they can effect a change."

FOR THE RECORD - An article in yesterday's Today section gave an incorrect name for the "morning-after" pill. The morning-after pill is sold under the brand name of Plan B; it is not RU-486, which is known as an abortion pill.

The corporate colossus has become a rallying point for any number of groups, largely on the political left, who blame Wal-Mart for social ills that include urban sprawl, the working poor, families without medical insurance, damage to the environment, the decline of the labor movement -- even for allegedly making moral choices for its customers by declining to stock RU-486, the so-called morning-after pill.

"Retailers should not be making health choices for the community," said Nora Lockshin, 35, of Baltimore, who attended the Hampden screening. "In some small towns, there are no other pharmacies."

Greenwald's film is being shown in a few movie theaters, such as the Rotunda, where it will play through Thursday. But the vast majority of the people who will see the movie will view it at one of the roughly 7,000 private screenings this week throughout the United States.

The director used the same system of "house parties" to distribute two previous films, Uncovered, about the U.S. drive to go to war with Iraq, and Outfoxed, which took on Fox News.

"When you make films concerned with working for social change, it is critical to reach all kinds of people," Greenwald writes on the Web site wal A DVD, he wrote, "can be shown at a church or a school or a bowling alley or at home" and can be viewed by those "not prepared to pay theater prices to see the film."

However, the 35 people who crowded into the Golden West Long Bar on Sunday night didn't have, in the director's view, hearts that necessarily needed reaching or minds that needed changing. Even before screening the film, they were conversant with its values and agreed with its politics.

"It's preaching to the converted," observed Lockshin, a curator for the Smithsonian Institution.

Her seat-mates ranged from a high school history teacher to a medical student and Ray Werbe, 90, a lifelong activist who began his career raising money for the insurgents in Spain's Civil War.

"I've always been in the forefront of the radical movement and supported their causes," he said.

Wal-Mart became the world's largest company by offering goods at rock-bottom prices. However, it has raised fierce opposition among those who claim that the retailer forces local stores out of business, that it uses cheap and exploitative overseas labor and that it pays wages so low that nearly half its employees either go without health insurance or are on Medicaid. Unions -- such as the United Food & Commercial Workers International Union, which ran a full-page, anti-Wal-Mart ad in The New York Times yesterday -- are vehemently opposed to the corporation's stance toward organized labor.

Opponents have successfully prevented the retailer from locating in such Maryland communities as Hagerstown and Chestertown, where Wal-Mart pulled out after a decade of legal wrangling. In Inglewood, Calif., voters defeated a ballot initiative to authorize a Supercenter after an intense campaign that included street fairs, food giveaways and rides to the polls.

The antipathy toward the retailer has grown to the point that legislation in Maryland that would force the state's largest retailers to spend at least 8 percent of their payrolls on health care has become known as the "Wal-Mart Bill." It is that issue that particularly irks Werbe's wife, Martha Little. The 76-year-old doesn't know whether she's angrier at Wal-Mart for not paying more for its employees' health insurance, or at Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. for vetoing the "Wal-Mart Bill." Democrats have vowed to override the veto.

"Wal-Mart is contributing to the deterioration of what I like to think of as our overall quality of life," Little said.

Needless to say, the corporation isn't taking these attacks lying down. Wal-Mart has counteracted with a huge publicity campaign.

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