Friday, November 25, 2005

Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price

Robert Greenwald is one of the most popular directors in the world of progressive films. Last year he released Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism, which examined the tactics and influence of reporters and commentators at the staunchly conservative Fox News Channel. This year he turned his attention to Wal-Mart, the ubiquitous retail chain that is America’s largest employer.

Like Greenwald’s other films, Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price was released direct-to-video. His reasoning is that a theatrical release would draw people who already agreed with the film’s message, but informal viewing parties could influence a much broader range of people. The goal is to show how Wal-Mart’s success comes at everyone's expense and then to move people to action.

More than 7,000 people or groups have hosted viewing parties in living rooms, churches, union halls, and universities across America this month.

The old anti-Michael Moore charge that it is just propaganda, not a documentary, will surely be made about this movie, but any critical thinker knows there is no such thing as an unbiased documentary. Besides, being biased doesn’t make it false. The movie certainly isn’t a balanced look at Wal-Mart’s operations, but it does not purport to be.

The movie focuses on people. Some characters are predictable, such as the small town store owners who had to close their doors when Wal-Mart came. Others are less so, like the woman who was attacked in a Wal-Mart parking lot. The movie also explores unaffordable company healthcare, factory life in China and Latin America, anti-union practices, environmental violations, racial and gender bias, and labor law violations such as making employees work unpaid hours.

It’s easy to get depressed watching the stories in this movie.

A common argument from Wal-Mart apologists is that people want and need to save money on their purchases and so benefit from Wal-Mart’s low-price tactics. One point the movie makes is that shoppers are not necessarily saving. For starters, the company’s poorly-compensated employees receive nearly $1.6 billion in state and federal aid (healthcare, school lunches, etc.). Essentially, taxpayers are keeping Wal-Mart’s prices low.

Not only does a new Wal-Mart turn downtown into a ghost town as mom-and-pop stores close (old news by now), but local governments give the company huge tax breaks that offset much of the supposed economic gain. The money a consumer saves at Wal-Mart is made possible by the consumer's own tax money – in the end, the consumer isn’t gaining anything. (The claim that Wal-Mart is economically beneficial is tenuous at best – when Wal-Mart says their store will sell $100 million worth of merchandise, those are not new sales, rather they are largely sales taken away from existing businesses.)

The movie left a lot of fertile territory unexplored. For example, a PBS Frontline called "Is Wal-Mart Good For America?" revealed how every year Wal-Mart coerces suppliers to cut their prices, essentially reversing the traditional wholesaler-retailer relationship. This eventually forces companies to close factories and move production overseas. That special also pointed out that Wal-Mart does not necessarily have the lowest prices on everything; they simply built a reputation as being the cheapest and customers take it on faith that they are.

Greenwald instead hones in on the most personal, human stories. He clearly was going for maximum dramatic effect and working to get viewer empathy for his subjects. In that respect, it makes sense not to discuss the concerns of factory owners when more people can identify with those of Wal-Mart employees with sick children. On the other hand, one might have expected to see a displaced factory worker or two in the movie.

The movie ends with an inspiring call to action. It lists dozens of towns that have successfully opposed the opening of Wal-Mart stores, encouraging viewers to say no to Wal-Mart.

The flaw in this approach, say city officials nationwide, is that nothing stops Wal-Mart from building outside the city limits instead or finding a neighboring town whose residents are just a little more desperate.

Greenwald tries to portray this as a groundswell of Wal-Mart opposition, the beginning of a movement perhaps. But as a rallying cry it is weak, especially because it doesn’t offer anything to those in the thousands of towns that already have Wal-Marts.

After viewing Outfoxed, one cannot help but notice that Greenwald employs techniques similar to those of Fox News to tell the Wal-Mart story. Patriotism and religion are frequently employed to show that these are “good American Christians” being crushed by Wal-Mart. While that may be true, it comes across ham-handed in the film.

Some of the biggest Wal-Mart malfeasance stories are buried in the DVD bonus material. When workers voted to unionize the Wal-Mart in Jonquiere, Quebec (the only successful union vote ever in Wal-Mart, a company that actually has an anti-union hotline and response team), the company declared the site unprofitable and closed its doors.

A woman says she hopes all Americans are not like this. While Wal-Mart is neither the first nor worst American corporation spreading ill will around the globe, the sentiment illustrates that Wal-Mart has more influence than Americans realize.

A man talking about Wal-Mart’s affiliate in the United Kingdom explains that when the store says cabbage is on sale this week two for one, customers don’t realize that the store went to farmers and said, “This week we’re only paying for every second cabbage.” In other words, the store makes itself look good, like it is providing value, when clearly the suppliers are making all the sacrifices.

Some say it isn’t fair to attack Wal-Mart just because they are successful capitalists, but Greenwald argues that their profits have come at the expense of not only workers, but all U.S. taxpayers. And because the company is so successful, one must wonder whether they could still achieve reasonable success being a better corporate citizen. Certainly Wal-Mart has made admirable advances outside the realm of human resources, such as in inventory control and data analysis, which ought to give them enough competitive advantage without resorting to tactics like doctoring employee timesheets.

Overall, Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price is interesting and entertaining but incomplete. The aforementioned Frontline episode would be a great companion piece. Those who have been following the Wal-Mart story won’t find much new information in the movie.

Ultimately a movie like this is not judged on its cinematic virtues so much as its ability to convey its message and change the minds of viewers. Will Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price, along with the coordinated push coming from progressive organizations and media, make a difference? Will it serve as a catalyst for change? Only time will tell.


Zakar Alpha said...

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Anonymous said...

Walmart sure is the high cost of the low price and I hope they work to provide health insurance for employees as they deserve benefits.