Outside Trinidad, Colorado, in 1914, militiamen, professional gunmen and street toughs in the employ of John D. Rockefeller’s Colorado Fuel and Oil Company erased a striking miner’s encampment. In 2005, the Walton family’s Wal-Mart is erasing whole towns. Forget King Kong. The most harrowing monster movie of the season is Robert Greenwald’s Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price. It’s also the most encouraging.
This corporation puts Hurricane Katrina to shame. Setting up shop in Middlefield, Ohio, the mega-store proceeds to destroy a viable family business going back generations. Patriarch Don Hunter tells Greenwald how he’s “seen a lot of small businesses crucified.” Hunter’s own H&H Hardware goes belly up even before Wal-Mart opens, when his blocklong building is appraised too low to serve as collateral on an expected loan — all because Wal-Mart is expected to knock property values down. In Cathedral City, California, IGA supermarket owner Red Estry tells about the squeeze both he and the town are in, with public services shortchanged because subsidies were lavished instead on attracting Wal-Mart. In Charlotte, North Carolina, improperly stored herbicides and insecticides from Wal-Mart leech into storm drains and creeks and eventually into the drinking water.
Wal-Mart is a company that always feeds on its employees. When Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott gives his company pitch that store “associates” are well-treated and adequately compensated, a slew of former and present employees (the latter shown in shadow) are there to explain why the job is thankless and how the company even assists in placing full-time employees on public assistance, Medicaid and in Section 8 housing to supplement meager wages and benefits. Ex-managers, some with 17 years company experience, say they were expected to doctor the books to avoid paying overtime and to insist associates work off the books. They all admit that the stores were simply not structured to do the job right.
Class action suits have been filed against the corporation for hiring undocumented workers and for racial and gender discrimination in promotions. A black woman was told by her boss “‘there was no place for people like me in management.” She asked if that meant because she was black or because she was a woman. “Two out of two isn’t bad,” the boss replied.
Criminal assaults — in numbers not experienced by other retailers — were rife at thousands of parking lots nationwide just because Wal-Mart was too cheap to provide security. In some cases spy cameras were set up, not to protect shoppers, but to keep tabs on employees; when no union operations were expected, the company even stopped staffing the monitors. They wouldn’t even let the cameras do double duty.
Union busting is rife, and the company harasses anybody, one associate says, “who even appears to be conspiring to do something.”
Wal-Mart may be the most aggressive anti-union company in the nation, so it was bittersweet to hear a German employee of one of two merchandisers swallowed whole by Wal-Mart but still protected by union contracts say she couldn’t understand why co-workers stateside “don’t have a workers council.”
On its face, the film is a marvelous piece of gut-punching propaganda — a 97 minute attack ad that will be hard to refute. And it presents numerous examples of communities that are saying “no” to Wal-Mart. Still, with all this information — and it could do with a little trimming — the film is remarkably and unnecessarily one-dimensional. There is little attention to what it would take to unionize Wal-Mart, or even stocktaking of past efforts. There’s also little here to distinguish Wal-Mart from a ravening night stalker instead of an (admittedly bloodless) human institution shaped by economic dictates.
Is Wal-Mart a rogue corporate elephant, needing to be brought to heel, or, as a socialist would argue, the most egregious and flat-footed example of the corporate need to accumulate? As Marx observed, “Accumulate, accumulate! That is Moses and the Prophets!,” and even a boss or a capitalist class must operate instrumentally in order to churn profits into capital.
Certainly there are huge variations in corporate cultures and lifestyles. Steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, hated in his lifetime by his own workers, was a leading philanthropist who liquidated his fortune even as the notorious woolens manufacturer William Wood of Lawrence textile strike infamy kept and flaunted every dime. Today Wal-Mart and the Walton family play Scrooge to Bill Gates’ Father Christmas. Still, it’s the similarities that need underscoring, not just the differences.
Perhaps in an effort to appear topical and non-ideological, Greenwald focused his beam narrowly on the predatory greed of one corporation. Greenwald tells his audience — in one of a number of bonus features on the DVD, the best of which are a set of mordant spoofs on actual Wal-Mart ads — that he meant his film as a “tool to help tell the story of how Wal-Mart impacts people all across the country and all across the world.” He does a masterly job of pinning deserved blame on one group of corporate pirates. But with Wal-Mart red in tooth and claw, it will take a broader public discussion — something the Left is in a position to kick off — to make the point that this particular predatory beast is just first among equals. It’s a leader in the global corporate race to the bottom, sure, but no isolated mad dog.
This film should be shown widely, but with the corollary point made that profit maximization and its attendant cruelties are business as usual, and damn the human consequences. As Ambrose Bierce observed, corporations are “an ingenious device for obtaining individual profit without individual responsibility.” Pinning the blame on a system is harder, as is naming its gravediggers. But these need doing, too.
Michael Hirsch is a New York-based labor writer. This article first appeared in the Fall 2005 issue of Democratic Left, the journal of Democratic Socialists of America, and was part of a special section on the fight against Wal-Mart. Information on the film Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price is available online.