Friday, January 23, 2009

Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Prices

If you didn't already hate Wal-Mart for its dodgy business practices before you see Robert Greenwald's quietly deafening documentary Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Prices, you'll surely hate it afterward. It places everything you probably already knew to some extent and delves into the full truth in all its darkness, bringing into the open the shameful business practices used to destroy small communities who welcome these stores with open arms.

Constructed chiefly around interviews with small business owners and actual Wal-Mart employees, Greenwald's searing documentary puts a human face on the suffering caused by that giant corporation. These people generally come from small towns and (with the exception of the small business representatives, of course) speak of their initial elation with Wal-Mart. One woman mentions how her town went crazy when Wal-Mart set up a store there, remarking that the parking lots were completely full for days and that so many went there that the actual streets were empty.

But soon these families find themselves living in towns populated by closed down businesses, and many take jobs within the Wal-Marts nearby. It's here that the most sinister aspects of the corporation's sordid practices come to the fore. Mixing interviews with newsreel footage of lawsuits brought against Wal-Mart for their flagrant violations of workers' rights, Greenwald reveals how Wal-Mart kept profits up by not paying overtime, cutting hours, and jacking up the price of their health plans to keep employees from taking advantage of it. A former manager recalls having to instruct his subordinates to apply for government health care so the taxpayers could pick up the tab instead of Wal-Mart.

As deplorable as their reliance on the government to shoulder their burdens are, it pales in comparison to their merciless treatment of its own workers. Managers follow employees throughout the store and fire them for speaking to co-workers. Any attempt to unionize gets crushed into dust. A black woman recounts how she was told to her face that she wouldn't get a promotion because of her sex and race. Perhaps the saddest irony of all this is that the employees are so underpaid that they pump their paychecks right back into the store in order to get groceries and such cheap. It's a vicious, carefully planned cycle meant to wring every last penny out of its own workers.

Also touched upon are Wal-Mart's terrible environmental violations and, in particular, its status as the ultimate killer of small businesses. As a manager drives down a street, he mentions how he and another manager used to drive down small town streets and point out businesses they'd end up killing. Greenwald splits small business down the middle between those struggling against Wal-Mart and those who have already lost. Those still in business seem to be on the brink of crossing the line; their stores seem unstocked in areas, but you get the uneasy feeling its not due to the popularity of the item of in question.

Despite this incendiary stuff (and I haven't even mentioned the footage from one of the Chinese factory that produces Wal-Mart's goods), the film falters when it departs from its interviews to hit us with ironic juxtapositions and to throw out a bunch of figures that are never sourced nor proven. These moments underscore Greenwald's refusal to even offer another side to some of this, such as pointing out that these conservative small town workers unknowingly advocating socialism or the fact that Wal-Mart's "propaganda" video against unionizing does hit on some valid points.

Yet, in the end, you can't argue with the actual talking heads, and their stories will incense and outrage no matter how overtly misleading Greenwald's personal touches may be. Those streaks of one-note socialist back-patting take away somewhat from the visceral impact of the actual people, but this is nevertheless an insightful film that will reaffirm everything you already hated about that smiley-faced corporation.

- doesn't offer another side
- throws up all sort of figures without ever proving them
- doesn't consider downside of unions

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