Judge Russell Engebretson admits to sometimes shopping at Wal-Mart, but he hates himself in the morning.
"I remember that like it was yesterday…'To Hell with it, we'll buy the damn town—we'll shut them down.' And we used to drive through town (pointing at storefronts)—'six months, three months, six months,' for when they'd be closing." Weldon Nicholson (Wal-Mart Store Manager Trainer—17 years)
Wal-Mart is the retail behemoth that needs no introduction. It adorns (or blights, depending on your perspective) the American landscape from sea to shining sea. Filmmaker Robert Greenwald analyzes then deconstructs the company's propaganda blitz that portrays Wal-Mart as a consumer paradise. His conclusions guarantee that this DVD will not be taking up shelf space at your local Wal-Mart.
Facts of the Case
The documentary begins with a videotape of Scott Lee (Wal-Mart CEO) on stage giving a pep talk to a large crowd that greets him with bone rattling applause. Scott's speech is the typical corporate pep-rally, a mix of praise for the employees, braggadocio about the company's latest earnings, and grim pronouncements of how quickly profits can erode when a corporation slips into complacency. His remarks are littered with the usual empty phrases that fall so easily from the mouths of politicians and business managers: stay the course, do the right thing, get the message out there. But Scott's speech takes an unexpected turn when he says, "For whatever reason—whether it's our success, our size—Wal-Mart Stores Incorporated has generated fear, if not envy, in some circles." His prescription for what ails Wal-Mart immediately slides back into a series of corporate homilies, yet it is obvious from his remarks that the company's expensive and elaborately crafted public relations image might be losing its luster.
The next segment of the film opens with interviews of the Hunter family, who started up a small hardware store in Middlefield, Ohio in 1962. They had a much larger store built in 1992 and seem to have had a prosperous business until Wal-Mart came to town. Their story is typical of the thousands of family owned businesses that Wal-Mart targets for elimination. Seeing the impact of the store's dissolution on three generations of the Hunter family, and several of their employees, puts a human face on the impersonal business-closure statistics. It's a heartbreaker to watch.
Each chapter has a theme with a descriptive title and generally a different set of individuals interviewed. Some of the titles include "Razing Main Street America," "Union Busting," "Off the Clock," "Race Matters," and "Made in China." Each segment of the film, as Greenwald says in a featurette, is like a story, several of which could easily be extended into full-length documentaries. Greenwald expresses regret over the large amount of footage that had to be edited out.
The documentary ends on a hopeful note for citizens who are fighting to halt the incursion of Wal-Mart into their towns. The final chapter details the actions of successful organized resistance against the retailer in two different cities—Chandler, Arizona and Inglewood, California. The film shuttles from one city to the other to interview residents and detail how they stopped Wal-Mart from opening stores in their communities. The contrast between how the pair of cities differed in their tactics (one city white and prosperous, the other predominantly brown-skinned and working class) provides a blueprint of sorts for anti-Wal-Mart activists, regardless of their income level, religion, or skin color.
There are many examples of Wal-Mart's duplicity here, but the hypocrisy and unctuous insincerity of the company's corporate philosophy are perfectly captured in the film's segment on health insurance. Scott Lee, in reverent tones, invokes the shade of store founder Sam Walton to praise Wal-Mart's health plan. Scott's remarks are book ended by comments from employees (or "associates" in Wal-Mart corporate-speak) who calmly explain that most of them cannot afford to pay the medical insurance premiums with their meager salaries (an annual average of $13,861 in 2005), and those who pay their premiums find they are woefully underinsured due to large prescription co-payments and inadequate coverage for hospital and doctor office visits.
Whether the discussions centered on medical care or some other work-related topic, there was a great deal of coaxing involved to get employees to speak on film. Several people who worked on the documentary were amazed at the fearfulness of Wal-Mart employees to come forward and tell their stories on camera. They felt that Wal-Mart workers had much less to lose, as compared, for instance, to professional workers such as those interviewed for Greenwald's Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism. However, as one commentator notes, most Wal-Mart workers have nowhere else to go in America's era of the "jobless recovery." Small local businesses are gone and the traditional good-paying union manufacturing jobs have vanished down the NAFTA hole. As a side note, for those who believe Wal-Mart jobs are easy to obtain, according to the January 26 Chicago Sun-Times a new Wal-Mart that opened on Chicago's city boundary drew 25,000 applications for 325 jobs; at about the same time 11,000 people applied for a few Wal-Mart jobs in Oakland, California. The Wal-Mart employees were intimidated and fearful for good reasons.
I found the chapter on Chinese labor especially chilling. A 21-year-old female factory worker from the Shanghai Province tells her story of life in a Chinese sweatshop, which involves working 16 hour days, seven days a week, for less than three dollars a day. Workers labor in sweltering heat with only ceiling fans to move about the air, and live in austere cubicles that more resemble storage units than human habitations. I agree with the director that this segment alone would make a fascinating 50-minute documentary.
In the same segment on sweatshops, Jim Bill Lynn (Wal-Mart Global Services Operations, Manager—9 years), sacked by Wal-Mart for reporting the disgraceful working conditions in South America, gives a moving interview in which he is clearly wounded by Wal-Mart's embrace of the anything-for-a-buck ethos. He says, "I believed in the mission and the culture which I thought existed at Wal-Mart…I didn't know that we weren't going to make it the goal to correct Wal-Mart violations, and I didn't think retaliation would be brought against me for doing my job. I now realize I was pretty naïve. The system was designed to keep the goods flowing to the United States. When push came to shove, they did not stand up and do the right thing. What really happened was, we were getting fired for telling the truth about the factory certifications." Sadly, it's exactly those kinds of loyal, enthusiastic employees that find themselves in the company's crosshairs, and probably why there were so many bitter management people willing to share with an audience their disgust and anger over Wal-Mart policy.
This documentary is an all around damning indictment of Wal-Mart and it's sociopathic "corporate culture" that is difficult to refute: backroom deals for subsidies to Wal-Mart that leave a town without adequate funds for its fire department, school, and police; blatantly illegal union busting tactics that target possible union "conspirers" for termination; wages so low that Wal-Mart store managers routinely issue instructions to employees on how to obtain funds from state government programs for poverty stricken families; workers forced to work overtime off the clock; disregard for local pollution laws and stonewalling the city when toxic yard chemicals in Wal-Mart's parking lot are found to be flowing directly into a drinking-water reservoir; hiring illegal immigrants for janitorial work at the Bentonville headquarters; refusing to hire security guards to patrol their crime-ridden parking lots (where 80 per cent of crimes at Wal-Mart take place); discriminating against women and people of color when promotions become available; claiming to support American-made goods while importing 18 billion dollars of product from China in 2004; and the list goes on and on.
As for the technical aspects of the DVD, video is sharp and colorful, with some variation depending on the source. The Dolby 2.0 stereo is unspectacular but crisp and clear. A couple of songs (graciously contributed by Bruce Springsteen and Jackson Browne) nicely complement the understated score that is used sparingly throughout the film.
The funniest extra consists of several hilarious Wal-Mart parody ads (only one of which made it into the final cut). Two other standout extras are about how a Wal-Mart store in Canada was closed right after it was unionized; and the sharp contrast between American Wal-Mart stores and their counterparts in Germany, where workers enjoy a decent wage, excellent benefits, and several weeks of vacation each year. The commentary by director Greenwald is delightful. At one point he mentions the horrible difficulty in acquiring financing (one big, unnamed donor pulled out because he was afraid his movies might be blacklisted by Wal-Mart). Elsewhere he discusses technical aspects of the film, such as how they decided not to use the talking head approach that is the norm for most documentary interviews, and instead opted to film the interviewees in their homes and workplaces. He provides insightful anecdotes on the making of the film, and finds just the right balance between hard information and revealing tidbits on how the documentary was conceived and reshaped.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I don't share the reverence for small business that's often on display in the film. Plenty of family-owned storefronts—almost always hotbeds of nepotism—provide only low paying jobs with substandard benefits, and there is no shortage of small business owners who are insufferable little Caesars. Also, the statement that small business is the "backbone of the American economy" is a myth. Steel mills, automakers, and other unionized, heavy industries were the real economic powerhouses of America, and provided the good-paying jobs that created and sustained the working middle-class. However, that's a minor complaint. When a big-box retailer comes to town, the small-time entrepreneur can shelve his dream of self-employment; and most of the local businesses are destroyed. The documentary is on the money where it really counts.
This documentary does not pretend to offer a measured debate between the pros and cons of Wal-Mart's actions. In one of the featurettes, Greenwald states up front that the video is a tool to be used by community activists who want to stop Wal-Mart from building in their towns and cities. The film succeeds admirably on its own terms. Despite its muckraking pedigree, the film is rigorously researched and fact-checked, and it's the finest piece of filmic investigative journalism I've viewed in years. It's worth a purchase, and a copy can be had for less than 13 bucks at the official DVD website—so you don't even have to buy it from a big-box retailer.
Hanging's too good for 'em. The Walton clan and their minions are sentenced to 50 years of labor in any Chinese sweatshop of their choosing.
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