The America Not Made For You And Me

Robert Greenwald’s documentary, Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price (1), opens in a huge room packed with shareholders attending the company’s annual meeting. They greet the CEO, H Lee Scott, with an ovation as he takes the podium.

He tells them: “When you come to this meeting, year after year you get to say, `We had record sales, we had record earnings, we had record reinvestments back into our company’. But you’d better get ready to be better because, today, for whatever reasons, whether it’s our success or our size, Wal-Mart Incorporated has generated fear, if not envy, in some circles. And that makes it more important than ever that we focus on doing the right thing. And doing things right every time.

“There’s two things we should do. Number one is tell the Wal-Mart story. And the second thing is stay the course. Wal-Mart is too important for individual families who are stretching a budget, we are too important for the suppliers who employ millions of people, we are too important for our associates for whom we have so much love, and value so much.” Associates are Wal-Mart employees (2). Scott uses the word love to describe how he feels about them. The documentary reminds us, however, that in 2005 he earned $27,207,799, while the average wage of a Wal-Mart salesperson was $13,861. A salary differential of 1:2,000 seems an unusual way to show love.

Greenwald’s film makes other good points. The first Wal-Mart store opened in 1962, the same year Don Hunter opened a hardware shop in Ohio, which was successful until Wal-Mart wiped him out by opening up next door. A lifetime of work and a future for his family went instantly. Yet Hunter isn’t a critic of capitalism; he’s a Republican, keen on firearms, who each morning raises the American flag above his workplace: an ordinary man who speaks for everyday America and for the people that Wal-Mart has destroyed throughout the land, people who are now beginning to ask questions.

Greenwald shows the views of patriots who sincerely believe in the rights conferred on them by the US constitution. With a deep sense of injustice, even disappointment, they compare the hassles they have endured to get a single building permit with the apparent ease with which Wal-Mart operates, and with its easy access to funding. This is the film’s most eloquent element: a traditional, mostly rural, US, still bound in solidarity, dies a little each time a Wal-Mart arrives. When the bulldozers finish, there remain only Wal-Marts, Burger Kings and McDonald’s on the hilltops around small towns; all the local businesses have shut up shop.

On the soundtrack, there is Bruce Springsteen singing Woody Guthrie’s famous “This land is your land, this land is my land, this land was made for you and me”. The promise has been broken, since “this land” no longer completely belongs to that “you and me”.

Most of the people who appear are against Wal-Mart in the name of what they understand by America. John Bruening, who sells spectacles, is a conservative, but he pays his workers properly; he wonders if the unions might not be right to fight against the meagre wages paid by the hypermarkets. He and others like him ask themselves painful questions about artificial competition, monopolies and relocations. (It makes no sense to call a multinational “American” when, were it a country, it would be the world’s third biggest importer of Chinese goods.)

He says: “It’s like a Chinese company to me, with American board members. All they’ve done is give China a better distribution centre, whereas before [China] would have had to find contacts, [find out] who to sell to and develop their own markets. Now, they’ve got a pipeline right under everybody’s living room by going through Wal-Mart.”

Do Asian workers profit on an income of less than $3 a day? A Chinese worker in the film thinks not: “Do you know why you can buy cheap toys from Wal-Mart? That’s because we work each day, day and night.”

Explaining prices through the cost of labour doesn’t work, though, when a miniature car sold by Wal-Mart for $14.96 costs a mere 18 cents to assemble.

Jim Bill Lynn had been in charge of certification for Wal-Mart in central America, and he was a good soldier who believed in perfecting the system and its social ethics. He tells the camera: “If you would have cut me, I would have bled Wal-Mart blue blood.” But one day he discovered that Wal-Mart’s altruistic propaganda was a lie, and moreover it had lied to him. The injustice in El Salvador had hit him: “The people were so nice, they are so good and they are working for so little money.” He had called home to his wife in tears. His naivety seems strangely touching, the reaction of someone who discovers that the business he works for is not what he believed it to be, or what he made others believe, and that abuses are the norm.

Not everything in the documentary works as well at this. Sometimes it resorts to less-relevant incidents, such as a woman raped in a Wal-Mart carpark or a woman murdered because security is too lax outside the stores. The film has a happy ending, the successes of associations resisting new Wal-Mart stores. These successes make you wonder if this opposition could become a focus for joint action by those fighting the exploitation of wage-earners, green movements opposed to environmental damage and consumerism, and conservatives attached to their dream of America, as seen in old Frank Capra movies. Greenwald manages to capture the attention of all these diverse interest groups. ________________________________________________________

(1) Available on DVD from www.walmartmovie.com ($12.95).

(2) See the Wal-Mart dossier in the January 2006 issue Le Monde diplomatique, English language edition.


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