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November 17, 2005

Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price

I caught Robert Greenwald's latest documentary, Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price last night at the DC Drinking Liberally screening in a bar near Dupont Circle, and while I praised the film's tireless promoters earlier simply for shifting the conversation about Wal-Mart, the documentary itself was surprisingly powerful. Many of the documentary's arguments may be familiar regarding Wal-Mart's harmful effects on locally-owned businesses, its poor hourly wages and benefits packages, its intense anti-union efforts, and its use of overseas labor. I'll admit that I was surprised about a few things, including the company's surprising stinginess when it comes to supporting charities. But what I found most valuable about the film was its ability to put a human face on all of Wal-Mart's harmful business practices.

The film is framed by video footage of a shareholders meeting in which Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott repeats talking points about the beneficial effects of Wal-Mart, which would include obscene profits at the expense of their underpaid employees. Scott's cheerleading is then undercut by various examples of the harmful effects of Wal-Mart. Some of the more vivid examples include a local business owner in Ohio forced to close his store after 41 years in business. In another instance, we are introduced to a Chinese woman who works in one of the factories where Wal-Mart goods are manufactured. The woman explains that even if she and her boyfriend choose not to live in the factory's dorm, they still have rent deducted from their tiny wages. Other images include an African-American woman who suspects that she was passed over for management because of her gender and race. The attention to these last two personal experiences alone makes Wal-Mart a remarkably feminist film.

But this awareness of Wal-Mart's effect on the everyday lives of its employees and members of the community doesn't stop there. To my mind, one of the major strengths of this film was its ability to capture people in their everyday lives. When we meet the family whose business has been forced to close (I forget their names), the grandmother is portrayed working in the home, ironing clothes. Another female anti-Wal-Mart activist is shown preparing dinner while she talks to the camera. A union organizer working for a Wal-Mart auto repair center is shown making calls and trying to convince others to join. The effect--to my mind--is powerful. We glimpse these employees in their homes and get a very clear sense of who they are. The fact that the women, in particular, are engaged in domestic labor when they get home form work conveys some sense of how hard they are working (note: Ty Burr liked the film for similar reasons).

But, like Andrew O'Hehir, I felt the most powerful moments are the ones in which Greenwald's camera enters the dreary factory in which we meet several workers who earn roughly 30-40 cents an hour to produce the cheap goods sold at Wal-Mart. O'Hehir compares these images to the righteous anger of Chapter 4 in Marx's Capital, and I think that's an apt comparison. As O'Hehir's comments imply, scenes like these can have the effect of shaking one's complacency as a consumer. But O'Hehir's review blurs some of Greenwald's most important critiques, particularly when he asks, "Am I really willing to buy a shirt at a price that would pay the person who made it a decent wage?" Prices matter here, of course, but Greenwald's villain is not the consumer but the concentration of wealth at the top of the corporation. And, in fact, we already pay higher prices for these goods through hidden costs such as tax breaks used to lure Wal-Marts into communities.

While the film raises some serious charges against Wal-Mart, often using some powerful emotional images, it manages to balance that with some playful humor, whether the satirical commercials used to promote the film or in one well-timed break in tension, a clip from The Daily Show. The fim itself ends on an optomistic note, featuring two local communities that fought Wal-Mart and won, often through word-of-mouth campaigns that grew from a few people in a small room in the back of a church to several hundred people marching on the streets. Although O'Hehir faults the film for making Wal-Mart the bad guy in the current stage of global capitalism, I think he underestimates the film and its audience, and his critique, in fact, produces a sense of resignation. Instead of concluding that Wal-Mart is the only villain, the film offers a recipe for thinking about power imbalance in other situations as well. Part of the power of taking on Wal-Mart, however, is that they are the most potent symbol of these abuses. And while the not-in-my-backyard politics can only achieve so much, if enough people keep Wal-Mart out of their backyards, then Wal-Mart and even its competitors will be forced to do better.

Plus, anything that makes Bill O'Reilly this upset has to be good, right?

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Posted by chuck at November 17, 2005 10:44 AM

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