Wal-Mart managers mingle in KC while workers shop for stuff they can't afford.

Always Low, Always 

Wal-Mart managers mingle in KC while workers shop for stuff they can't afford.

Wal-Mart obviously knew how to make its managers feel at home this past weekend when they gathered for their annual meeting in Kansas City. The second floor of Bartle Hall had been transformed to look like the inside of a Wal-Mart, complete with yellow smiley-face signs. Aisles held everything from toiletries to TVs. On gym-style bleachers in the center of the massive exhibition hall, lieutenants of the Wal-Mart army listened to spiels from their corporate bosses. "Always low prices," signs reminded them from every angle. "Always."

Meanwhile, across town, two women walked through the automatic doors of a Wal-Mart in Overland Park and headed for the women's clothing section, looking for reminders of home.

Flory Arevalo found hers quickly. She rubbed the ribbed cotton fabric of a short-sleeved baby-blue blouse. She turned the price tag around, and her eyes widened. Seven dollars and 43 cents. She stared at it for a while. Her mouth moved a couple of times wordlessly before she got anything out. "This is so sad," she whispered. "This is so expensive for us."

Days earlier, 37-year-old Arevalo was working in a Filipino factory, making $3 a day to produce the blouses. Last week, the Washington, D.C.-based International Labor Rights Fund brought Arevalo, along with Nicaraguan factory worker Damaris Meza, to the United States to speak at rallies and church services across the country; this was their second city on the 13-stop tour. On January 28, they gave speeches and answered questions for 100 or so people who were attending the Rollback Wal-Mart Conference at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

Organized by labor groups, the Rollback Wal-Mart Conference included Saturday-afternoon workshops with titles such as "Taking the 'Wal-Mart Is Not Cool' Message to Youth" and "Would Jesus Shop at Wal-Mart? Talking to People of Faith."

The conference message wasn't that people should stop going to Wal-Mart. "People always ask me where I should shop," David Nassar of Wal-Mart Watch, the most outspoken critic of the retail giant, told the group gathered in UMKC's Pierson Hall. "Unfortunately, we don't have a good answer for that right now." Instead, Wal-Mart will stop buying from factories that mistreat workers if their customers put pressure on them to do so, Nassar said.

Kansas City is a likely place for an anti-Wal-Mart confab. Every year, the corner of downtown between Bartle Hall and the Marriott crawls with about 6,100 casually dressed managers wearing Wal-Mart name tags. According to the Kansas City Convention & Visitors Association, the conference contributes an estimated $5.9 million to the local economy. Wal-Mart pays the city about $800,000 for use of Bartle Hall, internal city documents show. But nobody outside the company knows exactly what happens inside Bartle Hall. Wal-Mart spokesman Kevin Thornton declined to comment on event activities.

Instead, he e-mailed a statement to the Pitch that boasted of Wal-Mart's role in creating 125,000 U.S. jobs last year. The e-mail also criticized the counter-rally at UMKC. "America's working families have to be wondering why union leaders are spending member dues on a conference in Kansas City attacking a company where union members shop to save time and money," Thornton wrote. "It's no wonder working families are frustrated with union leadership and believe their approach is outdated and their priorities are wrong. Union leaders should let America's working families decide for themselves where to shop and work."

But workers already had a shopping trip planned. During the first smoke break at their own conference, two International Labor Rights Fund employees drove the two Filipino and Nicaraguan factory workers to Wal-Mart to look for the stuff they had made. The women's clothing section was right in front of them when they walked past their first Wal-Mart greeter.

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