Has Charlotte Gone Bananas?
As business leaders celebrate the arrival of Chiquita’s headquarters and continue to lionize Dole Food Company’s David Murdock, a new documentary raises questions about the history of each corporation
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On November 29, 2011, in a room inside the Charlotte Chamber building on Tryon Street, a group of local political and business leaders sprang to their feet to give a standing ovation. They’d just been told that Chiquita Brands International was relocating its corporate headquarters to Charlotte from Cincinnati, lured in part by a local and state incentive package worth more than $22 million.
Chiquita Chairman and CEO Fernando Aguirre approached Gov. Bev Perdue, hand raised. The two slapped palms in a high-five, then clasped hands in an iconic moment captured by news cameras. Later that evening, Duke Energy turned the lights on its uptown Charlotte headquarters building yellow and blue—Chiquita’s corporate colors—to celebrate the announcement.
Similar scenes of celebration by corporate and business leaders have played out over the past several years in the Charlotte region thanks to the chairman and owner of another banana behemoth, Dole Food Company. David Murdock, who has earned much of his fortune thanks to the tropical fruit, has footed most of the bill for a $1.5 billion biotech center in nearby Kannapolis—along with about $47 million committed from taxpayers to make the North Carolina Research Campus a reality.
A couple months after Aguirre high-fived Perdue, a banana-themed documentary made headlines at the Sundance Film Festival and left its viewers sour on both Dole and Chiquita.
Big Boys Gone Bananas! tells a story of corporate behavior by Dole and Chiquita that can only be described as corporate bullying. Both companies have faced allegations that their use of pesticides and other practices in Central America harm the workers who grow bananas there, and they have responded to those allegations with heavy-handed tactics that targeted the journalists who reported them. Swedish filmmaker Fredrik Gertten, well known as a foreign correspondent and newspaper, radio, and television commentator in his home country, paints a picture of public-relations machines that pay scant attention to truth, justice, or First Amendment rights in their zeal to quash negative allegations against the companies. He also targets lazy reporters and editors who let PR firms set the agenda.
The documentary has been making the rounds at film festivals all spring, including Durham’s Full Frame Documentary Festival in April, and is expecting to see theatrical and DVD releases later this year. The Ottowa Citizen called it “probably the most important movie … at Sundance” and Variety’s review said the film’s “proximity to U.S. elections will make ‘Big Boys’ particularly pertinent, especially for politically minded viewers.”
For Charlotte, the film hits at an awkward time. The city has already suffered a blow to its economy and self-esteem since both Bank of America and Wachovia were revealed as major players in the mortgage scandals that led to the nation’s housing crisis. The news that Chiquita would open its offices in the NASCAR Hall of Fame’s office tower to accommodate about 400 employees, more than 200 of them to be hired locally, was a welcomed point of civic pride. Meanwhile, the region has spent several years pinning its hopes for jobs to replace textile losses to Murdock’s venture in Kannapolis, viewing him as a benevolent rescuer.
The film and its timing can’t help but raise the question: Are local and state leaders doing enough soul-searching about who they’re using tax dollars to recruit? Gertten says he doesn’t blame Charlotte for recruiting Chiquita or lionizing Murdock. “I totally understand the community needs jobs,” he says. “Hopefully the city has good people who can change these corporations.”