This Friday, November 4, a new documentary, Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price, will open in selected cities. Produced and directed by Robert Greenwald, the filmmaker who gave us Uncovered: The War in Iraq (2003) and Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism (2004), it purports to probe the vile underbelly of the world's largest retailer.
In a tongue-in-cheek, Michael Moore-ish kind of way, the film may provide some moments of guilty pleasure, even some useful information. But a commonsense guide to political action it is not. Unfortunately, that's how Greenwald wants you to see the film.
Granted, a real expose shouldn't sugarcoat its subject. If it does, it's just a long infomercial. But activists like Greenwald have a way of reaching conclusions first and fitting evidence around them afterwards. Unwittingly, they raise a larger issue: Why does Wal-Mart get under the skin of its critics, especially those presuming to speak for "the people?"
The first reason is its extraordinary success. This is a company that during fiscal year 2004 (ending January 31) generated $256.3 billion in worldwide net sales (up from $156.2 billion in 2000), leaving competitors in the dust. Like the New York Yankees, Steven Spielberg, McDonald's and Walt Disney Co., Wal-Mart's ubiquitous presence and seeming invulnerability make it a target of simmering resentment -- human nature, one supposes.
A second and related explanation is the perception that Wal-Mart, in its paternalistic way, has been a mixed blessing to communities where it operates, providing jobs and low-priced goods, but also jeopardizing existing smaller businesses and blighting the architectural landscape. Though such concerns tend to be inflated, it is undeniable that a development of major impact is something residents have to live with for decades. That's why more than once in recent years Wal-Mart has run into intense community opposition to a site proposal.
But it's the third source of opposition -- the kind Greenwald delights in inciting -- that reveals much about the ratcheted-up campaign against the company. Such opponents see Wal-Mart most of all as a symbol. And what Wal-Mart symbolizes is the lowbrow, tacky character of American life. At least Target gets a few bonus points for its hip suburban soccer-mom marketing and cool TV ads.
Because Wal-Mart is Red State America writ large, its inquisitors project fears and resentments onto the company. They focus on exploitation, real or imagined, it inflicts on its workers. Omitted from consideration is the possibility that Wal-Mart has done some good -- like making available a large array of quality merchandise and services at low prices, in the process raising living standards.
Wal-Mart's enemies, like Robert Greenwald, operate like lawyers on a trophy hunt. His film reportedly quotes several ex-employees as being under orders to work off the clock. Let's say these people are telling the truth. By all means, the Labor Department should investigate. Yet this still appears a case of selective truth telling. In the agitprop activist's David-and-Goliath narrative, the verdict is known in advance: Wal-Mart is guilty because...well, because it's Wal-Mart.
Harold Meyerson, writing a year ago in the American Prospect, provided a lesson on how to load the dice. Wal-Mart, he noted, "drags down middle-class living standards in the United States, represses worker rights in the developing world, fails to provide insurance for its employees, wipes out better-paying competitors, discriminates against women, keeps its janitorial work force in semi-servitude, and gives big money to the GOP." Whew!
Just as fatuous were denunciations by marquee speakers at the AFL-CIO convention in Chicago this July. Ted Kennedy, John Edwards, and other Democratic Party titans framed the issue, quite literally, as "Wal-Mart vs. the people." Here's a shocker: Look down the aisles of any Wal-Mart, and you'll see lots of people.
Businesses, "household names" included, it is true, should not be immune from accountability. In the long run, a company is only as good as the trust it earns among its customers, employees, shareholders, and communities. Wal-Mart, sadly, squandered a good deal of trust in winking at its janitor-service contractors that hired illegal Latin American and Eastern European immigrants (the company this March settled a Justice Department civil suit for $11 million). Americans may value everyday low prices, but they value their sovereignty more.
And make no mistake about it: Wal-Mart management knows it has an image problem, especially on the eve of the Greenwald film's release. CEO H. Lee Scott Jr. announced October 24 that his company will add a new health care plan, reward environmentally friendly suppliers, and curb energy use. He also called upon Congress to raise the minimum wage.
But anyone familiar with the logic of corporate surrender knows the Left will declare these moves "a good start," and nothing more -- far more progress, of course, will be needed. Years from now, Wal-Mart will discover to its chagrin that it still can't win. That's because in the end, its foes are less interested in making a large corporation accountable to the public than they are in scolding the public as well as the company -- about 80 percent of all Americans, after all, shop there at least once a year.
"Elitists don't count pennies at [Wal-Mart-owned] Sam's Club," Esquire financial columnist Ken Kurson wrote last year. That's sound advice for ostensible champions of the common folk. But Wal-Mart's enemies aren't likely to adopt it anytime soon.
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