In the past five years, gargantuan retailer Wal-Mart Inc. has had to fend off charges of racketeering, has had to settle a federal investigation that found that hundreds of illegal immigrants were employed cleaning their stores, has been fighting a class action suit in Missouri that claims employees were made to work off the clock and were deprived of lunch breaks and rests, and is currently in the midst of a class action sex discrimination lawsuit.
For years, small business owners have complained of anti-competitive practices by the retail giant. Labor unions have decried the retail giant’s refusal to allow its workers to organize.
Now, a new muckraking film exposÈ by Robert Greenwald seeks to portray Wal-Mart as a menace to local communities and small business owners. Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price opened in select theaters nationwide on Tuesday, November 1st, and has been receiving national media attention (partially due to an aggressive public relations counter-offensive by Wal-Mart).
Locally, a screening has been planned by the West LA Democratic Club set for 7 p.m. Wednesday, November 16th, at the Venice Center for Peace with Justice and the Arts, 1020 Victoria Ave., Venice. A $15 donation is requested.
The film was also screened for the public on Monday, November 7th, at Loyola Marymount University in Westchester with Greenwald in attendance.
In addition to the theater circuit, Greenwald hopes to screen the film in thousands of homes, churches, colleges and community centers across the country.
Recent documentaries by Greenwald include Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism, an unflattering look at the Fox News Channel, and Uncovered: The Whole Truth About the Iraq War.
“Best case scenario, I hope this film opens up a national dialogue on the way that Wal-Mart is affecting American families,” says producer Sarah Feeley.
Key stabs the film takes at the retail giant include documenting the pain of a family shutting down its business at a family-run hardware store in Middlefield, Ohio, and four-decade-old family-owned grocery stores in Hamilton, Missouri, depicting the closings as alleged casualties of Wal-Mart coming to town.
Teary-eyed interviews with family members decry subsidies given to Wal-Mart to build sewer lines and traffic lights while no such subsidies were given to small businesses.
A multinational corporation, Wal-Mart’s Chinese workers interviewed in the film describe 12 hour days and allege substandard wages and uncomfortable working conditions at a Wal-Mart toy factory, conditions far below Western labor standards.
Not just a Chinese issue, former Wal-Mart managers of stores in the United States describe cheating workers out of lunch breaks and rest times and having associates work overtime off the clock as modus operandi in the Greenwald film. They allege workers not being able to afford lunch, and the film cites state-by-state statistics on the thousands of Wal-Mart employees on public assistance for healthcare.
“One of the issues that really irked Robert Greenwald into making this film was his experience with a neighbor who described a store manager at Wal-Mart giving him a form to apply for MediCal because he didn’t make enough to afford the healthcare plan that Wal-Mart offered,” says Feeley.
Wal-Mart contends that it provides its employees with an adequate healthcare plan.
But on Wednesday, October 26th, the contents of a company memo written by Susan Chambers, executive vice president for benefits at Wal-Mart, were revealed in a New York Times article. According to the New York Times, the memo read, “Wal-Mart has a significant percentage of associates and their children on public assistance.”
In response to the Greenwald film, Wal-Mart hired Edelman, one of the nation’s largest public relations firms, to aggressively combat the film. But some question whether the effort is hurting or instead helping the film.
“Wal-Mart’s public relations response is really heating things up,” says Feeley.
“Their response shows their level of fear, and they should be afraid,” she contends. “The topics addressed in the film are quite damaging.”
Wal-Mart calls the Greenwald film full of “errors and distortions,” and Wal-Mart has released a list of bad reviews of previous Greenwald films, describing the filmmaker as “god awful” and “exploitative.”
Wal-Mart applauds itself as having created 100,000 new jobs by the end of 2005.
In its response to the film, Wal-Mart says that it is a diverse employer that employs an estimated 208,000 African-Americans, 139,000 Hispanics and 220,000 associates ages 55 and older. The company estimates it saves consumers about $100 billion dollars per year on groceries and other goods.
According to Wal-Mart, the typical Supercenter gives away $30,000 to $50,000 per year to local communities. The company has donated $300 million to 170 children’s hospitals since 1988 through the Children’s Miracle Network.
One segment of the film describes Wal-Mart’s ongoing fight with the United Food and Commercial Workers Union and workers’ attempts to organize the Wal-Mart work force.
Jon Lehman, a Wal-Mart store manager of 19 years, describes Wal-Mart as the “most aggressively anti-union company in the United States.”
Lehman, other managers and store employees talk of surveillence of employees to try to “kill the campaign” to unionize.
An excerpt from a Wal-Mart instructional video shows an associate telling employees, “all the union wants to do is take a cut out of my paycheck.”
A suspenseful scene from a Loveland, Colorado store details workers rallies and a failed attempt to unionize.
By the end of the documentary, the focus turns to a number of activists and watchdog groups such as Wake Up Wal-Mart and Wal-Mart Watch who allege that the company “fails its employees, fails the community and destroys the Main Streets of America,” says Feeley.
The film shows both conservative and liberal opponents of the company’s practices, from a small businessman with a “Sportsmen for Bush” sticker on his truck to an Inglewood pastor who claims that the Walton family (Wal-Mart heirs) are making a fortune through the exploitation of the poor.
The film ends as a sort of activist call to arms for individuals and community leaders to organize against Wal-Mart. The film’s final segment is a call for action showcasing efforts in communities like Inglewood whose voters rejected a proposal by Wal-Mart to bring a store to the city.
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