Mark Kaufman

The timing couldn't be worse for Wal-Mart. With bad press piling up against the corporate giant, this week filmmaker Robert Greenwald's latest documentary, Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price, comes to Portland. Using interviews from former employees, the film outlines the company's dreadful and careless business practices. Unlike Michael Moore's documentaries, which often rely on shrill tactics and antics, Greenwald's latest film is a remarkably calm insider's look at everything from Wal-Mart's destruction of local economies to their sweatshop practices in Central America.

The film is destined to land a heavy blow against the superstore, which over the past few weeks already has taken some major PR hits. Last week, the New York Times revealed that the Arkansas-based corporation had quietly hired Leslie Dach (one of Bill Clinton's spin doctors) to help set up a "war room" in order to push back the crush of bad press.

Then, in a surprise move late last week, Wal-Mart announced they had begun lobbying Congress to increase the national minimum wage. However this attempt to clean up their image backfired almost immediately when an internal memo was leaked to the press. That memo instructed Wal-Mart managers to trim back employees' health benefits and to dissuade "unhealthy" people from seeking employment at the company. (It was also embarrassingly reported last week that one of their executives was caught trying to bootleg a press screening of Greenwald's film on his cell phone.)

Wal-Mart is also suffering from surprise setbacks closer to home. For the past several months, the megastore has tried to muscle into a 7.5 acre site along the Sellwood-Milwaukie border. Vocalizing their opposition, citizen groups have complained against everything from unfair business practices to local businesses losing revenue and traffic headaches. In September, those efforts paid off when the site's owner, Howard Dietrich, said he was listening to residents' concerns and offered the site to TriMet as a possible transit mall. At the time, though, he also said he ultimately wanted to make money from the property and gave TriMet 90 days to make up their mind.

That deadline is quickly approaching and TriMet has yet to bite. A TriMet spokesperson said they simply don't have enough money to buy the site. In a last ditch effort, this Monday, November 14, a committee consisting of officials from Metro, Portland, and Milwaukie are meeting to determine if they can hustle up enough cash to purchase the land. If that effort fails, observers believe Dietrich will apply as soon as Thanksgiving for the permits needed to begin building Wal-Mart on the site.

But even if TriMet fails to purchase the site, Dave Mazza—editor of the Portland Alliance and spokesperson for Neighbors Against a Sellwood-Ardenwald Wal-Mart—is confident that legal challenges will derail the big box. Mazza explained that the only real access point to the site is the overpass along SE Milwaukie, which could produce a crush of traffic.

"We're not only talking about customers," Mazza adds, "but those Wal-Mart trucks. It's screwy."

Mazza points out that in Gresham a proposed Wal-Mart was rebuffed in August because of traffic concerns. (An appeal by Wal-Mart from that decision was denied on November 1.) He says access to the site in Sellwood is even more limited than in Gresham.

"You don't want to be totally confident," he concluded, "but it does look fairly strong."

Locally, Greenwald's documentary will be shown this week at the First Unitarian Church. As with his film Outfoxed, Greenwald is sending DVDs and videotapes to community groups for private screenings—a distribution method that stays true to his grassroots, back-to-the-community message.

Sun Nov 13, First Unitarian Church, 1211 SW Main, more info call 665-3957, 7 pm, $5 donation requested