Archive for Friday, June 2, 2006

The high cost of low price

Filmmaker targets Wal-Mart corporation through community-based screenings

June 2, 2006


Filmmaker Robert Greenwald recalls learning from a neighbor who had been hired at Wal-Mart that the man was unable to afford the company's health insurance. However, management suggested he apply for state-subsidized health coverage, which was paid for by California tax dollars.

Greenwald couldn't comprehend how one of the world's largest and most profitable corporations was encouraging "associates" to essentially go on welfare. Once the director began to investigate the company's practices, he realized he had a cinematic subject of David vs. Goliath proportions.

"Wal-Mart has a clear identity coming from (founder) Sam Walton ... that everything is OK in the service of squeezing an extra nickel," Greenwald says. "That gets transformed and transmuted, and that gets sent up and down the chain of command. And then you have the abuse you see in the film."

The result of Greenwald's investigation is "Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price." The documentary meticulously takes the mega-retailer to task in areas such as worker exploitation, government subsidies, foreign labor practices and environmental abuses.

"They're an interesting corporation in that their first statement about everything is, 'We're perfect. We're here on earth to make your life better, only behind Mother Teresa,'" Greenwald says of Wal-Mart's response to his film. "Then they say, 'Oh wait, we've changed and we're making it better!'"

Brave New Films Image

Brave New Films Image

Radical distribution

Greenwald's documentaries have jousted with other powerful targets, such as the Fox network in "Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism" and the Bush administration in "Uncovered: The War on Iraq." That in itself isn't peculiar, given the customary politics of those who make their living in Hollywood. What is unique, however, is the method Greenwald has adopted to get his message heard.

"It's radically different," he explains. "Our focus through Brave New Theaters (a company he founded) is reaching as many people as possible, but not through movie theaters. We use the Internet - where people can purchase copies - and through screenings at homes, churches and schools."

Interested parties can go to or and buy or borrow a copy of the film. Greenwald doesn't charge any usage fees for screenings, either.


"Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price," (trailer) Enlarge video

He says that the first week his "Wal-Mart" was released (in November), nearly 8,000 screenings were organized.

"It's the equivalent of a huge studio release," he says.

Lawrence resident Tim Hjersted bought a copy off the Web site, and together with friend Matt Toplikar decided to stage a showing at Liberty Hall, 642 Mass.

Past Event
"Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price"

  • When: Monday, June 5, 2006, 7 p.m.
  • Where: Liberty Hall Cinema, 644 Massachussets Street, Lawrence
  • Cost: $2
  • More on this event....

"I was trying to spread awareness and get more people involved in some of the issues that have been affecting our community," the 22-year-old says. "It seemed like showing this movie would create a dialogue to figure out, 'Do we want big corporations springing up around this city?'"

Proceeds from Monday's event will go toward efforts to raise local awareness and keep the proposed second Wal-Mart from developing at Sixth Street and Wakarusa Drive.

Hjersted says, "I really love how it's not a left or right issue; it's a human rights issue."

Wal-Mart responds

Not so, says Wal-Mart spokesperson Dan Fogleman.

"More than 100 million Americans shop at Wal-Mart every week, and they're tuning out the critics groups and union benefactors," he says. "Working families haven't heard a single idea from these groups: no solutions, no vision, just criticism."

Fogleman has seen "Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price," and he's not impressed.

"What stood out to me was the number of errors and misrepresentations," he says, citing the opening scene which shows a family-owned hardware store closing after 43 years once Wal-Mart comes to their small Ohio town. He claims the store sold to another local owner three months before Wal-Mart opened.

For a more accurate picture, he suggests renting Ron Galloway's documentary "Why Wal-Mart Works: And Why That Drives Some People C-r-a-z-y," which was made in response to Greenwald's film.

Fogleman asks, "Have these negative attacks from these no-idea critics saved working families any hard-earned money? Have they created a single job? Have they helped reduce greenhouse gasses? Have these negative attacks helped any families get health insurance? Without a single idea, the critics are just talking to the critics. Quite frankly, the American people aren't taking them seriously."

From features to docs

Greenwald took a rather circuitous route to crafting rabble-rousing documentaries.

Filmmaker Robert Greenwald

Filmmaker Robert Greenwald

The 60-year-old filmmaker started producing and directing television movies in the 1970s, most notably the award-winning drama "The Burning Bed." His body of TV projects have since earned 25 Emmy nominations.

But he's probably best known for another award entirely. His 1980 musical flop "Xanadu" was what inspired John Wilson to create the Razzie Awards, which continues to dishonor the worst achievements in film.

So has Greenwald met any other directors who started in features and then shifted almost exclusively to documentaries?

"No. I'm afraid I'm the only nutcase," he says, laughing.

When approaching the "Wal-Mart" project, he had to sort through more than 400 hours of interviews in order to assemble the tale.

"With documentaries, unlike the 50-odd non-documentaries I've done before, the form of each film is very different," Greenwald explains. "With 'Outfoxed' we spent a huge amount of time looking at clips. Most of the movie was there, but it was finding it and getting the five or six Fox employees to come forward. ... With 'Wal-Mart,' the biggest part of the movie was finding the people who are the story. That required sending people all over the country and all over the world to find people who'd be willing to come forward."

A Chicago resident protests against the retail giant in the documentary "Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price."

A Chicago resident protests against the retail giant in the documentary "Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price."

Next up, Greenwald is releasing "The Big Buy: Tom DeLay's Stolen Congress" on June 26 (which he produced but didn't direct). He also is engaged in creating a documentary about war profiteering.

As for how Wal-Mart will adjust to the mounting negative charges, community protests, lawsuits, fines and judicial injunctions, Greenwald is surprisingly optimistic.

"(Ten years from now) I think they'll be a more responsible company," he says. "Capitalism has always been most effective with restraints. I think the market driven by social activists will impose restraints and constraints - both legislatively and community - that will cause them to be more responsible. Will they be the ideal corporate public citizen? Probably not."


work4aliving 11 years, 10 months ago

Can't wait for Liberty hall to be filled with college kids living off Mom and Dad who will stream out vowing never to stoop to shopping at Wal-Mart or any other big box store.

Doug Harvey 11 years, 10 months ago

Not surprisingly, we have a right-winger commenting on a story with a decided right-ward slant. I'm not a college kid, I've worked hard for over 30 years to make a decent life for myself and my family, and you can bet I'll be at Liberty Hall watching this film that exposes the fascist practices of Wal-Mart. Mussolini would have loved Wal-Mart -- slave-produced products sold by people who make subsistence wages while the top executives pocket all the profits. Need insurance for your workers? Let the government (i.e., the American people -- more hapless workers) pay for it.

I don't shop at Wal-Mart. I'd rather go without. And I've done that, too.

planetwax 11 years, 10 months ago

I stopped shopping at Wal-Mart after watching some of the advertisements for the movie. I never did make it to a screening, but I meant to. I've been Wal-Mart free since December.

Kam_Fong_as_Chin_Ho 11 years, 10 months ago

From the sounds of it, I suspect that Greenwald's films are heavily one-sided. I'm no fan of Wal-Mart, so I'll check out this film. I'll also check out the "Why WalMart Works" film because I like to see both sides of the story. It's good to get as much information from both sides and draw your own conclusions. I enjoyed "Fahrenheit 911" and "Bowling For Columbine" but I also liked "FahrenHYPE 911" and "Michael Moore Hates America." I never understood why some people insist on only getting half the picture.

acarlson 11 years, 10 months ago

The trick to dealing with this issue is to encourage your friends and neighbors to generally quit buying so much stuff...Wal-Mart exists because it is full of cheap junk that people want to buy. The kicker is that usually the purchase of this stuff ends up being kind of a let down. There is a lot more to life than accumulating more plastic objects.

GardenMomma 11 years, 10 months ago

If Wal-Mart were a country, it would be the eighth largest importer from China. Wal-Mart imported $15 billion in 2003 from China, up to $18 billion in 2004

In 2002, ten-percent of ALL Chinese imports to the U.S. was for Wal-Mart alone.

Wal-Mart requires full-time employees to work six months before they can qualify for health insurance, part-time employees need to wait two years.

In 2001, the average Wal-Mart worker made roughly $13,000 a year; the Federal poverty line (for a family of three) was roughly $15,000 a year.

At Wal-Mart in 1999, employees paid 36% of the health insurance costs and in 2001 that percentage rose to 42%. The national average for firms of Wal-Mart's size has employees paying 16% of their premium costs.

How many lawsuits does Wal-Mart have pending for labor law infractions, sexual discrimination, and illegal workers?

Wal-Mart is currently involved in 50 lawsuits. The average company bigger than $1 billion is wrestling with 147 lawsuits. (Wired News, 2006)

However, by its own count, Wal-Mart was sued 4,851 times [in 2000] - or nearly once every two hours, every day of the year.

Juries decide a case in which Wal-Mart is a defendant about six times every business day, usually in favor of the Bentonville, Ark., retail giant.

Wal-Mart lawyers list about 9,400 open cases.

No one keeps a comprehensive list of all the nation's litigation, but legal analysts believe that Wal-Mart is sued more often than any American entity except the U.S. government, which the Justice Department estimates was sued more than 7,500 times [in 2000]" (Willing, 2001).

In 2000, Wal-Mart paid $50 million to settle a class-action lawsuit that stated 69,000 current and former Wal-Mart employees in Colorado were forced to work off the clock.

In Texas, the same type of class-action lawsuit was brought on behalf of 200,000 current and former Wal-Mart employees, which resulted in a $150 million settlement (Greenhouse, 2002).

Wal-Mart is facing lawsuits in thirty-one different states for wage and hour abuse involving hundreds of thousands of employees (Wal-Mart, 2005).

bjayhawk 11 years, 10 months ago

nice generalization, work4aliving. I attend KU and I also work for a living because the most money I get from my parents is $20 for gas when I go home. I work, I have loans and I TRY not to shop at Wal-Mart. (Sometimes, it's necessary at midnight when it's the only store open!) I think this documentary looks interesting. Obviously, this movie is one-sided, that is the nature of any movie. I do believe there are bad policies to the way Wal-Mart works and this looks like one filmmaker's view of why he doesn't like the store.

work4aliving 11 years, 10 months ago

I created the moniker "work4aliving" and my post this morning to seed the pot, and it sure worked! I am not a big fan of Wal Mart and I am fortunate to work for a company that pays a living wage and provides good health insurance at an affordable cost. The problem, however, goes way beyond Wal Mart. If we closed all the wal-marts and replaced them with the mom and pop shops that they tend to swallow up, the wages would likely not be much higher nor would there be adequate health care (just ask the folks who work up and down Mass street). The problem is our thirst in this country to acquire so much stuff (new cars with power everything, IPODs, computers, fancy clothes etc.) and the only way the middle class can have all these things is to outsource the manufacturing jobs to other countries to keep the costs down and leave the service sector and retail jobs here, which typically pay less and offer fewer benefits. Wal Mart may be an evil presence, but it is really just the manifestation of our greed to own more and more crap. I agree that wal-mart could raise prices a bit and improve health care coverage, but if you want to fight the battle for affordable health care, send your troops to Washington, not Arkansas. We need to define our standard of living by things that matter (education, health care, elder care, crime and drug rates, etc) not the size of our houses and the style of our cars. Attacking wal-mart may feel good, but it won't change the underlying values (or lack therof)that have allowed wal-mart to thrive.

optimist 11 years, 10 months ago

Everything stated here about WalMart seems plausible and for the purposes of this argument I will assume they are. However the perspective on each is skewed by each of you. I'm not an apologist for WalMart but I don't like government interfering in private business unless absolutely necessary and if you aren't willing to consider all of the facts then you would willingly invite the government to interfere in free enterprise out of sheer envy of Wal-Mart's success.

  1. WalMart requires a 6-moth wait for health benefits and then only pay slightly more than 50% of the cost.
    a. Given Wal-Mart's high turnover it seems a legitimate policy to ensure employees plan to stay with the company before enrolling them in the plan. b. Paying 50% of benefits is more than mom and pop retail shops pay for benefits assuming they provide them at all. To compare WalMart to other industries is disingenuous.

  2. Lawsuits are expected in any industry today. WalMart is a big target and there is no way to know how many of these suits are frivolous. The fact that so many cases are decided "usually in favor of the Bentonville, Ark., retail giant" tells me that many are frivolous or without merit especially given the anti-WalMart climate we're in.

  3. WalMart doesn't force people to work there or shop there. They provide jobs and services that people clearly desire. The truth is they don't even compete with most small business. Most small retail businesses, especially here in Lawrence, specialize in quality products. You won't find many products in common between WalMart and businesses like Sunflower, Weavers, Browns Shoe Fit, etc.

  4. We should consider a study to find out how many people working at WalMart are primary income earners in their homes. Though I rarely go to WalMart I have been there and mostly what I see are young people. They clearly aren't primary income earners for their family. I know that often times the adults working there aren't primary income earners for their households either. How many are? Isn't this relevent to the issue. I believe it is and it is a good example of why it's unfare to compare them to many other industries.

Whether or not you are pro or anti WalMart it is important to acknowledge all of the facts in the debate to ensure fairness and prevent government overreach with out justification. If you can't do that then you are one of those blinded by envy of the success of others.

GardenMomma 11 years, 10 months ago

I will grant Wal-Mart its due. It has a very successful supply chain and has done tremendous growth in its 20 some years as a business.

And Wal-Mart is really very good at what it does - give people what they want at prices they are willing to pay.

When the people start demanding better quality, better benefits, better representation, etc. then, and only then, will Wal-Mart change.

Once again, it all boils down to education. The better educated (not just reading, writing, and math) people are, the better choices they will make. But without the unrestricted flow of accurate information as well, people cannot make the choices that are best for them.

The decision to patronize Wal-Mart or not should stem from what is important to the shopper, whether solely a price issue or a idealistic issue as well - such as corporate responsibility.

And Wal-Mart has said that if a person is the sole breadwinner of the family, then Wal-Mart may not be the best fit for that person.

Also, to respond to the healthcare issue, Wal-Mart's typical employees are either college students covered under Mom and/or Dad's insurance, retired workers on Medicare, or second-income earners and covered under a spouse's insurance.

That said, an internal memo just happened to get leaked to the papers that said one way to combat the rising cost of healthcare was to not hire sick people.

Make your own choice.

Sigmund 11 years, 10 months ago

What I find so funny about the knee jerk corporate bashing is the inherent hypocrisy of the critics. For instance, those that criticize WalMart for pricing products too low (which causes less effecient retailers, even other corportate retailers, to loose sales), are the first to complain about Exxon-Mobil or Conoco-Phillips charging too much for gas! So you would think that these people would love WalMart to get into oil and gas sales and drive prices down. Ummm no, that would be unfair to.....someone, I guess Mom and Pop gas retailers, or other Corporations? It must be unfair to someone, right?

Or how about those that complain about low wages paid to WalMart associates yet are all for illegal immigration of workers from Mexico who are paid below minimum wages. Or, remember how "dehumanising" factory work was said to be? Now when we send factory work oversees those same people fret about America losing its industrial capacity.

To be truthfull, I'd rather send that factory work overseas to China as opposed to having illegal Mexican immigrants take low paid factory jobs here and then demand that we pay for their education, healthcare, all the while threatening to shut down the American economy by going on strike if we notice that they are felons. In fact, if Mexico wasn't exporting all their cheap labor to the US perhaps a few 'evil corporations' could open factories that paid Mexican labor better rates than the US minimum wages and as a bonus they could keep their labor force, their culture, their hardest workers, and the country's future in Mexico.

By the way, do you honestly believe that the higher priced Mom and Pop retailers on Mass. St. pay anywhere close to what WalMart does or provide half the benefits? Maybe Tony88 or some other bozo do, but I doubt anyone else is that poorly informed.

Oh and if you want less propagandized view of WalMart check out PBS Frontline for free (that is truly a everyday low price), "Is WalMart Good for America?"

For the purest out there it should be noted that both PBS and Frontline are Corporations and therefore probably 'evil' and the report will be too easy on WalMart for some and hard on WalMart for others, but all in all a much more balanced presentation than what you will get from this movie. Overall it's a better starting point for a rational discussion of the 'good' and 'bad' of the most powerful retailer in the world.

GardenMomma 11 years, 10 months ago

I saw that Frontline and it was excellent. Rather eye-opening.

Rebecca Valburg 11 years, 10 months ago

Was very surprised (and extremely pleased) to see the critical thinking going on regarding this movie. So often propaganda like this comes out, and people are so quick to jump on the bandwagon that they forget the real issues at work.

The first three paragraphs of the story are VERY interesting to read, when you learn that Wal-Mart actually has several health care plans to choose from that are under $20 a month. Granted, a manager suggesting "welfare" was obviously a lapse in judgement, but I'm looking forward to seeing the movie to see if the man explains where his money was going that he couldn't afford the insurance plan.

I was also glad to see that a few people are researching their alternatives before blindly proclaiming that they're better because they shop at the competitor across the street. I've struck up several conversations with strangers that were aghast to learn that I worked at Wal-Mart, told me how awful it was that I worked for such a place, and how they'd never consider shopping there. They'd then proceed to tell me which big box retailers they DID shop at (or in one instance, chose to shoplift from - somehow she felt she was ethically superior because she shoplifted at Target instead of Wal-Mart).

Here's an interesting site I came across:

As near as I can tell, Home Depot DID add health care for part-time workers in 2005. Good to hear.

As I've stated before, I do work at Wal-Mart, so I don't mind people taking my opinions with that in mind. And I certainly think that there's room for improvement with Wal-Mart, I just think it's disappointing when people focus ONLY only Wal-Mart, and think that by eliminating one company, all of our problems with capitalism will go away.

tribalzendancer 11 years, 10 months ago

Well, creating a forum for discussion is certainly the goal here so Im glad everyone has an opinion to share.

My 2 cents? Wal-Mart is obviously an effect of a much larger problem, but how do you tackle solving major economic paradigms? By starting with tangible faces, like Wal-Mart. Dont worry, more corporations will come next. No one will get left out. This is only the first step my friends.

The purpose for seeing this film (for me) is so everyone can begin a dialog based on a solid foundation of knowledge and awareness. So often people's knowledge of an issue is so splintered by biased information from the media and 2nd hand accounts that it is hard to find concensus on a few, agreed upon facts.

Again, watching this movie is yet another first step. I encourage everyone to get educated on these issues as much as possible from a diverse array of sources. And when proposing an argument, please assume first that the only reason another persons argument seems black or white is likely only because no one has time in this format to write a 30 page thesis outlining their point, impervious to all the possible "yeah, but"s.


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