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Tense annual meeting awaits Wal-Mart

By ROBERT TRIGAUX
Published June 3, 2005


Tampa Bay area squabbles over Wal-Marts trying to spring up on St. Petersburg's Gandy Boulevard, in Tarpon Springs or in Tampa's Ybor City may seem distant and petty today in Arkansas.

But local Florida concerns will be there in spirit. If the 31 Wal-Marts that dot west-central Florida from southern Hillsborough north to Citrus County seem plentiful enough, just wait.

One of the world's biggest corporations - 1.7-million employees, $288-billion in annual sales and $10-billion in profits - parties and parries this morning with thousands of people in Bud Walton Arena at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville.

Festivities before Wal-Mart's annual shareholders meeting start bright and early at 7 a.m. One lucky employee from each Wal-Mart store is chosen to attend at company expense. Many come days early in a near-holy pilgrimage to visit the Wal-Mart headquarters in nearby Bentonville and the original five-and-dime store of company co-founder Sam Walton.

Many other people will arrive to press for change at Wal-Mart, the poster corporation for protests. Tired of the attacks, the company in January launched a public relations counteroffensive to boost its image as a consumer-friendly, good-for-America company.

Wal-Mart has much to counter.

The company faces the nation's largest class-action lawsuit, in which more than a million current and former employees claim Wal-Mart discrimination.

The company was criticized anew this week by a group called Wake-Up Wal-Mart for paying its workers too little. The company also routinely ranks at or near the top in each state for the number of its workers who rely on public health care. Based on that dubious achievement, is Wal-Mart subsidized by a form of corporate welfare?

The company prides itself on selling products at low prices. But many U.S. suppliers to Wal-Mart say they were pushed to shift their work to cheap labor overseas. The result? A loss of U.S. jobs so Wal-Mart can continue to lower the sales price of its goods.

Don't forget Wal-Mart's investors. Many company shareholders will want to know why the value of their stock dropped 20 percent in the past year.

Others seeking to influence Wal-Mart chose this high-profile week to unveil their own plans.

Robert Greenwald, director of the jabbing documentary Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism , said he will produce and direct a movie called Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price . It will open in theaters this fall.

Greenwald said the idea for the film hit him after he met a neighbor, a sales clerk working full-time at Wal-Mart who was unable to afford the company's health plan. The film will include Wal-Mart workers or former workers from Florida and the Tampa Bay area, Greenwald says.

"The problem is there is quite a terrible environment of fear that Wal-Mart creates," Greenwald said. "That is one reason I went public with plans for the movie."

Outfoxed cost $400,000 to make. Wal-Mart will cost $1.6-million, Greenwald said.

But don't look for the director filming at Wal-Mart's annual meeting. "I've been waiting for them to invite me," he said.

Among many that will be attending are eight shareholder groups. Each will be lined up to present a formal resolution.

The Sheet Metal Workers' pension fund wants Wal-Mart to follow more "common sense" standards when setting high executive pay.

Pension funds of the United Methodist Church want Wal-Mart to take stronger stands to improve human rights and the environment.

Martha Burk, chairwoman of the National Council of Women's Organizations and best known for protesting the men-only policy at the Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia during the Masters tournament, will present a resolution asking Wal-Mart to report how many stock options go to women and minorities.

The Teamsters' union wants a report spelling out where Wal-Mart's political contributions are going.

New Jersey's Sisters of Charity of Saint Elizabeth wants a report showing what Wal-Mart is doing to promote and train women and minorities.

The United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America wants Wal-Mart directors to be elected by shareholders, not hand-picked behind closed doors.

The Amalgamated Bank fund wants at least two-thirds of Wal-Mart's board of directors to be "independent" and more accountable to shareholders.

A fund of the AFL-CIO wants Wal-Mart executives to reach more specific performance goals before receiving bonuses.

Wal-Mart is on the record urging voting shareholders to oppose those eight ideas. The company argues that it must remain flexible to compete. The company claims it is improving its opportunities with its employees. And it reminds shareholders that Wal-Mart is the nation's largest employer of Hispanics and African-Americans.

Odds are excellent that at the end of the annual meeting, each of these shareholder resolutions will be defeated. Many will be reintroduced next year.

In several Tampa Bay neighborhoods, Floridians with dislikes for big-box retail stores in their back yards will watch the news of today's Wal-Mart events with keen interest.

In St. Petersburg, the Concerned Citizens for Gandy Boulevard are rallying support to halt a 150,000-square-foot Wal-Mart Supercenter. It will be an uphill battle.

In Tarpon Springs, a more war-weary group has tried to stop a planned and approved Wal-Mart on the Anclote River by suing. The tactic may stall the retailer's arrival, but don't expect Wal-Mart to blink this late in the game.

Yet Wal-Mart does not always get what it wants. In Tampa's Ybor City, Wal-Mart was outbid last month by a California developer for a prime, 30-acre property. The loss even briefly shocked Wal-Mart, which recovered by saying it will continue its hunt for suitable land in what it calls "underserved" Tampa.

Wal-Mart used to try and build its stores no closer than 5 miles from each other, even in busy metro areas like Tampa Bay. Now, Wal-Mart says it can make money by packing its stores as close as 2 miles from one another.

And you thought we have plenty of Wal-Marts here? They've only just begun.

--Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@sptimes.com or 727 893-8405.

[Last modified June 3, 2005, 01:16:00]


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