ITVS Presents Micha Peled’s STORE WARS: WHEN WAL-MART COMES TO TOWN
Documentary about One Town’s Struggle to Define Its Future to Air on PBS on
Thursday, June 7 at 10 p.m. (check local listings)
“Robert E. Lee came here to fight
In my home town
Stonewall Jackson just spent the night<
In my home town
Hard to believe, but it’s true
Now we’ve got some body new
‘Cause Sam Walton wants to come here too In my home town.”
-Protest Song by Woody Tucker,
STORE WARS, written, produced and directed by Micha Peled, follows the one-year conflict that polarizes Ashland, Virginia, population 7,200, when Wal-Mart decides it wants to build a megastore on the edge of town. The ensuing debate pits neighbor against neighbor in a battle as protracted and bitter as those fought in the Old West between ranchers and farmers over land-use issues. The struggle between conflicting versions of the American dream has on one side those who want to preserve their seemingly idyllic small-town way of life versus those who believe in the positive economic benefits Wal-Mart promises. A truly American story, STORE WARS is about the right of a community to determine its own future: Which values are most important? Who gets to decide? Presented by ITVS, STORE WARS will be broadcast on PBS on Thursday, June 7 at 10 p.m. (check local listings).
Ashland, Virginia, situated just off Interstate 95 north of Richmond, is a town where the grocery store allows charge accounts and the doctor makes housecalls. It is the only town in America where Amtrak pulls into town and lets passengers off right on Main Street. School bus drivers and morticians serve on the Town Council and the residents are fiercely protective of their small-town character. But this gentle way of life is jolted when Wal-Mart announces it wants to build a supercenter on the edge of town.
STORE WARS follows the events in Ashland from the first public hearing that galvanizes residents’ opposition until the Town Council takes a final vote one year later. Arguments for the store include increased tax revenues, low prices for shoppers and new jobs. Franklin Jackson, an African American town councilman, wants to bring in those jobs and some of the old timers don’t believe government should stand in the way of progress. Those adamantly opposed, including local business owners and transplants who came to Ashland for its quality of life, feel the store will destroy the small-town atmosphere, increase traffic and provide only low-end minimum-wage jobs. Hot debates ensue in churches, on sidewalks and in the local coffee shop. Says town historian Rosie Shalff, who narrates the film: “The town has never faced an issue that has stirred up as much emotion as this one.”
The cast of characters includes Mayor Tommy Herbert and Town Council members who will eventually make the decision, Wal-Mart representatives and the “Pink Flamingos,” a grassroots citizens group opposed to the store. Mary Leffler, an occupational therapist, mother of four and head of the Pink Flamingos, is thrown into the political fray for the first time: “I feel as if we are about to compete in the Olympics but we’ve just learned the sport.”
Between events in the town, STORE WARS introduces Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retailer and the second largest employer (behind only the federal government) in the United States. Colonizing the world through relentless expansion, Wal-Mart opens a new megastore every two business days and has expanded on average into one new country every year. A truly global company, Wal-Mart has redefined the shopping experience for the American consumer. The film takes us inside a stockholders meeting, where Wal-Mart “associates” and top executives give a rousing rendition of the Wal-Mart cheer and salute and are wowed by Kathie Lee Gifford.
Wal-Mart lawyer Jay Weinberg, who has won four previous battles against towns who did not want the stores, comes to Ashland from Richmond. His first presentation to the Planning Board for a shopping center as big as all the stores in Ashland combined, is met with overwhelming resistance, and Weinberg loses the first round. But after being presented with concrete concerns as to the size and appearance of the shopping center, Weinberg is soon back with a more generous proposal designed to overcome citizen’s objections. Wal-Mart also begins an aggressive public relations campaign, buying multiple full-page ads in the local newspaper, presenting the town council with a video about its supposed success in neighboring Tappahannock and sending in a community relations executive from headquarters in Arkansas.
Meanwhile, the Pink Flamingos go to work holding street demonstrations and bringing in their own consultant, Sprawl Busters founder Al Norman, a small-town David who has stood up to Goliath before. Norman explains why Wal-Mart would want to build in Ashland, when another Wal-Mart is only ten miles away in Richmond: “Wal-mart operates on a saturation strategy. They place stores so close together that they become their own competition. Once everyone else is wiped out, they’re free to thin out their own stores. Wal-Mart currently has over 390 empty stores on the market today. This is a company that changes stores as casually as you or I change shoes.”
The Town Council does due diligence and goes to visit Tappahannock, Virginia, examining the truth of the Wal-Mart video promoting success in the community. Instead of thriving local businesses as the video implies, the Mayor and Town Councilman Stewart Reid find local stores, in operation for generations, closed down for lack of business.
After intense pressure and with Wal-Mart promising almost $4 million dollars to build roads, the Ashland Planning Commission passes the proposal with one dissenting vote. The Pink Flamingos mount a last stand effort against the store.
Mayor Tommy Herbert finds himself trying to get re-elected in the midst of the controversy, as this happens just in time for the Ashland Town Council elections. Shaking hands and going door to door he tries to straddle the controversy. On Election Day, the polls are jammed in one of the biggest turnouts the town has ever seen. Tommy Herbert is soundly defeated in what is considered to be a referendum on the Wal-Mart issue.
But, cliffhanger to the end, STORE WARS shows a Mayor determined to vote on the issue in his last weeks in office, despite his loss in the elections. Councilman Stewart Reid tries to stop the vote, claiming it is unfair for a lame-duck town council to make this momentous decision. His motion dies on the table without a second.
The die is cast and a vote is taken. The outcome determines whether STORE WARS is a story about the triumph of a determined group of citizens, or a parable of our times and the inevitable expansion of a global corporation.
STORE WARS is produced, directed and written by Micha X. Peled. The associate producer is Monica Z. Lam. Allen Moore is the director of photography, with sound by Bob Silverthorne. The film is edited by Ken Schneider.
In recent years, opposition to megastore chain stores has spread almost as fast as the discount retail chains. In many towns where a discount retailer wants to build store, local grassroots groups hastily organize to oppose it. These groups have become successful enough that mass retailers, such as Wal-Mart, Home Depot and Rite-Aid, are forced to take them into account in their expansion plans. This film focuses on Wal-Mart as the icon of its industry, the object of envy and imitation by its competitors.
- Wal-Mart is the largest retailer in the world, with over 3000 stores in the U.S. and additional store chains in Britain, Germany, China, Korea, Mexico, Brazil and Argentina. Its CEO, David Glass, outlined Wal-Mart’s objective: “First we dominate North America, then South America, then Europe and Asia.” Fortune Magazine forecast that in 2000 Wal-Mart would become the #1 company in the world in revenues. Its current annual volume of sales has surpassed $160 billion (more than Microsoft and IBM combined).
- In the U.S., 100 million shoppers show their support for Wal-Mart stores every week. Its scope of operations uses the world’s largest computer (surpassing the Pentagon) and the world’s largest fleet of trucks.
- Wal-Mart’s rate of expansion is so rapid that every two days it opens a megastore, and by 2004 it will double the number of such stores. These stores measure over 150,000 square feet in size (18,000 square meters), include groceries among their 50,000 items and are open 24/7. In addition, Wal-Mart opens smaller stores. Each year, the company hires 550,000 more employees, replacing those lost to rapid turnover and replenishing its workforce.
- Wal-Mart is the largest employer in the U.S. after the Federal government with over 925,000 employees. Forbes magazine, polling executives (not employees) has ranked Wal-Mart among the best 100 corporations to work for. Yet employees on average take home pay of under $200 a week.Yet employees on average take home pay of under $200 a week. The salary for fulltime employees (called “associates”) is $6 to $7.50 an hour for 28-40 hours a week and is typical to the discount retail industry. This pay scale places employees with families below the poverty line and their children qualify for free lunch at school, which amounts to a form of corporate welfare, as the taxpayer subsidizes the low salaries. One third are part-time employees with no benefits or job security; many of these employees are limited to less than 28 hours and are therefore not eligible for benefits. The company is staunchly anti-union. New employees are shown videotapes explaining that instead of unions they benefit from the Open Door policy, allowing them to take their complaints beyond the supervisors to higher management.
- Fulltime employees are eligible for benefits, but the health insurance package is so expensive (employees pay 35% – almost double the national average) that less than half opt to buy it. Another benefit for employees is the option to buy company stock at a discount. Voting power for these stocks remains with Wal-Mart management.
- In spite of its large volume of sales, Wal-Mart’s corporate contributions are small. Wal-Mart ranked last among major discount retailers, donating 0.4% of its earnings, well behind its competitors (U.S. corporations average just over 1%). A cornerstone of the company philosophy is that it “gives something back” by keeping prices low.
- In the U.S. Wal-Mart has come under attack on a number of fronts. Despite a well-publicized “Made in the U.S.A.” campaign, 85% of the stores’ items are made overseas, often in Third World sweatshops. By taking its orders abroad, Wal-Mart has forced many U.S. manufacturers out of business. The company is also accused of cultural censorship. It compels hundreds of recording artists, primarily alternative rock, hip-hop and rap musicians, to “clean up” their lyrics as a condition of distribution. Wal-Mart is also criticized for deserting stores that underperform, leaving behind 333 empty buildings of such a size that they have no other use.
- Yet hundreds of towns court Wal-Mart. The megastores bring low prices and convenient shopping to rural areas and small towns. They create entry-level jobs and added revenue to local treasuries.
Cast of Characters
Mayor of Ashland as the film begins, but voted out of office in what many consider a referendum on the Wal-Mart issue.
Town Councilman who supports Wal-Mart, believing the promises of more jobs and tax revenue for Ashland.
Full-time occupational therapist, owner of the local coffee shop, mother of four and head of the Pink Flamingos, a group of Ashland citizens who organize to fight Wal-Mart.
With husband and daughter working at Wal-Mart, McKinley supports the store for people on a budget and a tight schedule. She accuses the Pink Flamingos and others against the store of bringing negativity into Ashland by being so vocal about the issue.
Wal-Mart Director of Community Relations, who comes to Ashland to sweeten the deal for the entrance of the store.
Founder of Sprawl-Busters, Al Norman first stopped a Wal-Mart in his hometown of Greenfield, Massachusetts in 1993. Since then has traveled to 42 states, Puerto Rico and Canada with his anti-big box message at the invitation of citizen groups and merchants. Norman’s book, Slam Dunking Wal-Mart: How You Can Stop Superstore Sprawl (Raphel, 1999), has become an underground classic for neighborhood groups.
An “old timer” and vocal member of the planning commission, he accuses the Pink Flamingos of acting like a lynch mob.
Narrator of STORE WARS, a long-time resident of Ashland and author of its only history book.
Lawyer for Wal-Mart from Richmond, Virginia, who has defeated four towns who wanted to keep Wal-Mart out.
About the Filmmakers
Micha Peled’s films have won awards internationally and aired on television in 14 countries, including the U.S., Britain, France and Japan. STORE WARS received a Golden Gate Award from the San Francisco International Film Festival. His films are regularly shown in schools, conferences and community settings. Producer/director credits include the hour-long documentaries You, Me, Jerusalem, the first Israeli-Palestinian co-directed film (1996), Inside God’s Bunker (1994), an up-close portrait of extremist Jewish settlers in the West Bank, Will My Mother Go Back to Berlin? (1992), about mother-son and Jewish-German relations. He was the Senior Producer of Mad Mundo, a global current affairs magazine for Britain’s Channel Four (1997) and produced for the CNBC magazine on technology and society, Scan. Short documentaries include Within Our Reach (1987), A Good Planet Is Hard to Find (1985), and Teatro Latino (1984).
In 2001, the Independent Television Service (ITVS) celebrates a decade of television for a change. ITVS will mark its 10th anniversary this summer with special screenings at film festivals and retrospectives at major museums, including the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and a month-long July retrospective at The Museum of Modern Art in New York (for a complete list of anniversary events, please log on to www.itvs.org). Public television stations around the country, including WNET and KQED, will also be saluting ITVS with special anniversary programming. In addition, a record number of ITVS productions – five – will premiere this summer on the PBS series P.O.V., including the recent Sundance Film Festival award winner, SCOUT’S HONOR.
Since its inception in 1991, programs produced by ITVS have transformed, reinvented and revitalized the relationship between the public and public television. From ground-breaking series like THE FARMER’S WIFE and AN AMERICAN LOVE STORY to specials including Emmy Award winners SING FASTER: THE STAGEHANDS’ RING CYCLE; SCHOOL PRAYER: A COMMUNITY AT WAR; GIRLS LIKE US and NOBODY’S BUSINESS, and Peabody Award-winners TRAVIS, A HEALTHY BABY GIRL, COMING OUT UNDER FIRE and THE GATE OF HEAVENLY PEACE, ITVS productions have dared to bring TV audiences face-to-face with the lives and concerns of their fellow Americans. In the process, ITVS has changed minds, opened hearts, inspired dialogue and brought viewers out of the box and into their communities and communities they might never have known about.
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Store Wars: When Wal-Mart Comes to Town Web Site: www.pbs.org/storewars
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