7 December 2005: Wal-Mart Video

Wal-Mart video may change your gift buys

Add one more item to your Christmas shopping list, but you’re not likely to find it if you shop Wal-Mart. It is the recently released documentary, “Wal-Mart: the high cost of low price.” It is sure to arouse a thought-provoking dialogue and nods of head from Left to Right, from those who work for social justice to those who seek to maintain a free enterprise system that allows for opportunity and competition. The video suggests another meaning for WMD—Wal-Mart the Destroyer. It is a story about how, as producer and director Robert Greenwald puts it, “Wal-Mart affects us all.”

When it comes to the Wal-Mart debate, many automatically put it in context of the subsistence wages along with other poor labor practices. The movie, though, begins with the story of a small-town business, family-owned and run for several generations and how the heralded arrival of Wal-Mart decidedly put an end to a piece of Americana, an American enterprise and tradition. The story would repeat again and again over time.

Wal-Mart often gets its foot in the door through the corporate-welfare program called subsidies. Communities across the nation have forked out tens of millions in taxpayer funds to get Wal-Mart to move in, and once in, particularly in towns too small to sustain competitive retailers such as Target, it soon holds a monopoly. One needs to go back to the Gilded Age of “the octopus,” the Union Pacific railroad, and of Standard Oil of the late nineteenth century to witness such a monolithic economic engine.

The story is not told or commented on by outsiders but by folks who were part of the system, from floor employees to store and training managers. It’s a first-hand account backed by data and facts, not designed to sensationalize, but to provoke a debate among the rest of us. It tells of employees being cheated out of overtime wages as evidenced by a class-action lawsuit here in Colorado for $50 million. It tells of struggling workers, often single parents, who, reminiscent of the company store of Loretta Lynn’s “Coal Miner’s Daughter” story, cash and spend their paychecks at the same store with little to nothing to take home. It tells of women who “pay their dues,” yet are denied their rightful reward of being promoted to positions for which they are qualified due to gender and race. It tells of other unfair labor and blatant anti-union practices that effectively deny workers of their American right to organize and fight for better conditions. In short, it tells a story of duplicity of community leaders and Wal-Mart shoppers without whose patronage, the giant whale would go belly up.

Wal-Mart is the Titan among giants. It’s policies and practices determine the playing field of its “competitors.” In one riveting anecdote, young Chinese workers, trying to escape subsistence living on a farm, find themselves trapped in a sweatshop, mass-producing objects such as toys for the American consumer. It’s a poignant scene when the young Chinese, essentially slaves/serfs of a communist society, address the American buyer as “respectful Wal-Mart shopper.”

CEO Lee Scott said, “We’re troubled by the fact people working fulltime can’t provide necessities for their families.” Yet, Sam Walton’s heirs are among the wealthiest people in the world. They are wealthy enough to build a massive well-secured compound in Arkansas but are unwilling to pay their employees a sufficient wage and provide them with a health care program that would keep them from resorting to governmental services—in short, from being among the Working Poor. So, Wal-Mart hits up the taxpayers twice—once to subsidize location and construction and a second time to provide their employees with health services.

The old line about being part of the problem and not the solution holds here. Wal-Mart couldn’t stand if shoppers and communities would just say “no, not until you do right by your employees and those who make the products you sell.” It’s time to come to realize that someone is paying the bill, and that someone is you, the taxpayer. The story, though, goes much deeper, for the question that Red Espy, small town IGA market owner who was run out of business with the arrival of Wal-Mart, asks: Is this the America you want for the future, for your kids? You can find it online at www.walmartmovie.com.

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