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Union Cries Foul in Wal-Mart Sign Fight


Published: April 19, 2005

The image planned for the anti-Wal-Mart billboard was unusual - a fire-breathing Godzilla standing next to the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge - and the language was strong: "The Wal-Monster will destroy Staten Island businesses and devastate our quality of life."

But New Yorkers may never see the billboard, which was supposed to go up on the island, because Clear Channel, the giant radio network that also runs an outdoor advertising company, has rejected it, saying its image and language are too inflammatory.

Officials of the labor union that was planning the message to help fight a Wal-Mart proposed for Staten Island yesterday accused Clear Channel of improper censorship, asserting that the company was taking pains not to offend Wal-Mart Stores, the country's largest company.

"This absolutely is censorship," said Michael Mareno, secretary-treasurer of Local 342 of the United Food and Commercial Workers, which signed a contract with Clear Channel Outdoor for a billboard near the ferry terminal in St. George. "I'm really disappointed because we wanted to express how we felt and tell the truth about Wal-Mart."

Paul J. Meyer, the chief executive of Clear Channel Outdoor, said that because billboards are a type of advertising that people cannot avoid, his company felt an obligation to restrict a message that might offend.

"Are we perhaps oversensitive on this?" he asked. "Maybe. When it comes to images of violence in New York City after 9/11, we feel we have to be very careful."

Last summer, Clear Channel faced accusations of censorship when, shortly before the Republican National Convention, it rejected a Times Square billboard that was to show a bomb and a fuse, decorated in stars and stripes, with the message, "Democracy is best taught by example, not by war." The antiwar group that sponsored the billboard sued Clear Channel, and the two sides settled when the company accepted a new design in which a dove replaced the bomb.

Mr. Meyer said Clear Channel would work with the union to find an acceptable image and text for the Staten Island billboard.

But Mr. Mareno said that even after the union agreed with the company's demand that it drop the words "destroy" and "devastate" from the billboard, Clear Channel continued to reject it, even with a toned-down message, "The Wal-Monster will diminish Staten Island businesses and impede our quality of life."

"The Clear Channel rep said the image and words were inappropriate for the post-9/11 world, that words like 'destroy' and images like Godzilla were offensive," Mr. Mareno said. "It's laughable."

Local 342 has a contract with Clear Channel to pay $3,500 a month for six months for a billboard near Borough Hall.

Evan Stavisky, a partner with the Parkway Group, the consulting firm that the union hired to design the billboard, said, "It's outrageous that Clear Channel is seeking to censor legitimate public discourse in the city of New York."

Mia Masten, a Wal-Mart spokeswoman, declined to comment, saying the dispute was between Clear Channel and one of its clients.

Staten Island officials say that a prominent developer is seeking approvals for a Wal-Mart in Richmond Valley, near the Outerbridge Crossing. These officials said developers were also exploring construction of a Wal-Mart in Mariners Harbor, in the northern part of the island. Either store would become the first Wal-Mart in New York City.

In February, a developer who was planning to build a Wal-Mart as part of a shopping mall in Rego Park, Queens, decided against including the store in the face of intense community, labor and political opposition. Unlike the Wal-Mart planned for Queens, the one proposed for Richmond Valley has some important political supporters, including Vito J. Fossella, the congressman who represents Staten Island, and Guy V. Molinari, Staten Island's former borough president.

"Every poll or questionnaire that has been done on the subject tells us that the consumers want Wal-Mart, and they want it badly," said Mr. Molinari, who represents Cedarwood Development, which hopes to build the Wal-Mart in Richmond Valley.

Union officials say a Wal-Mart would drive unionized supermarkets that pay significantly higher wages out of business and could also hurt small businesses and increase traffic.

Mr. Mareno, the union official, said the local and its consultant were developing a new billboard that would omit the Wal-Monster. Clear Channel officials, he said, "want to make it palatable to Clear Channel and also to Wal-Mart."

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