Link to this page: http://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/436/5161
Walmart: the High Cost of Low Price
Directed by Robert Greenwald
This is a film about Wal-Mart, a very big, very powerful retail corporation. The opening scene is of Lee Scott, chief executive officer (CEO), on stage in front of a packed, cheering crowd. He's smug and arrogant. The film contrasts Scott's cheap words on stage with the reality of life on Wal-Mart's shopfloor. The two don't match. The film features Wal-Mart ads for the same purpose. It is good, anti-big business propaganda.
The High Cost of Low Price exposes how Wal-Mart maintains its market dominance and screws as much profit out of its workers as possible. It isn't rocket science but it is meticulous, cold calculation. When Wal-Mart moves into an area, it promises decent jobs, improved infrastructure and all-round boom-time. Yet, in town after town, house prices fall, local shops close and town centres are killed off, triggering local economic recessions.
Not only do few communities - with notable exceptions - seem able to resist, Wal-Mart secures massive subsidies from state and county governments to set up. Once ensconced in its subsidised fortress, Wal-Mart gets down to its real business - making obscene amounts of money for the Walton family and top management. No cost corner is left uncut and the price is paid by the 1.6 million workers it employs worldwide.
Wal-Mart has a pathological fear of organised workers - as well it might given the atrocious pay and conditions it enforces. Managers travel from store to store, hunting down and forcing out workers suspected of union involvement. They are shown how to get into computer systems to cut hours off workers' pay slips. Stores are deliberately understaffed, with workers expected to 'fill in', often unpaid.
Then there's the Wal-Mart health plan for its employees. It is so expensive, that the vast majority cannot afford it. Instead, managers instruct poverty-stricken workers to apply for government help. In other words, state aid - largely paid from workers' taxes - is an integral part of Wal-Mart's poverty plan.
Donna Payton, a department manager working a minimum 40-hour week, relies on food stamps, Medicaid and subsidised housing to support her two children. In a stunning understatement, she says: "I don't feel Wal-Mart values me as an employee." She's right, it doesn't.
Wal-Mart treats environmental care in the same way - it is an inconvenient drain on profits to be ignored unless absolutely unavoidable. Other examples back up allegations of race and gender discrimination, currently part of the largest lawsuit of its kind in US history.
Most shocking is the plight of Wal-Mart sweatshop workers around the world. A young Chinese couple are featured. Working on opposite shifts, they see little of each other, entertainment consists of going to a karaoke bar occasionally. They work 12-hour shifts for $3 a day. No rights, constant harassment. Wal-Mart rents accommodation - packing workers, battery-hen style, into Spartan barracks. If a worker has a different place to stay, Wal-Mart doesn't charge them for utility bills, but still charges rent!
Jim Bill Lynn was a Global Services Operations Manager for nine years, touring Wal-Mart factories in Central and South America to ensure clean, safe and humane working conditions. He witnessed mandatory pregnancy testing, lack of drinking water and toilet facilities, workers locked in compounds, padlocked fire equipment and much else besides. Workers were threatened against speaking out. Jim Bill thought that Wal-Mart would rectify the situation: "Now I realise that I was pretty na•ve. But, it didn't occur to me that Wal-Mart wouldn't do anything except the right thing once they were faced with the truth." He was fired.
The people in the film - workers, ex-managers, campaigners, local administrators - see Wal-Mart as an extreme example, not necessarily typical of the way the whole capitalist system works. But it shows the anger at the brutal methods pursued by this corporation, and the many campaigns against it: for decent pay, union rights, environmental protection, etc.
With Wal-Mart's takeover of Asda in Britain, this film should be a stark warning to Asda workers of the need to strengthen union organisation and rank-and-file participation to counter attempts to force US conditions on them. The campaign against Newham council's proposal to sell the Queen's Market to Asda can learn from the experience of US towns.
Robert Greenwald has directed a series of 'anti-establishment' films, including Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism, and Uncovered: The Whole Truth About the Iraq War.
The High Cost of Low Price provides excellent raw material on Wal-Mart, from which it is possible to draw far-reaching conclusions on the nature of the capitalist system and the world economy. Socialists have to apply that analysis to building mass movements capable of changing the system and arming them with the ideas they need to do so.
In The Socialist 20 April 2006:
Socialist Party NHS campaign
Socialist Party election campaign
Workplace news and analysis
International socialist news and analysis