The Wal-Martization of America and the High Cost of Low Price

Suffice to say, our two-hour visit in Wal-Mart, escorted around by the store’s friendly (and honest) manager, answered many of our questions, raised others, and, most importantly, opened our eyes to the realities of corporate retail in modern America. “Do all Wal-Mart employees really do a Wal-Mart cheer at the beginning of each work day?” asked one of my unbelieving students. “We do,” one employee sheepishly admitted, and then proceeded to perform the rather embarrassing number with her fellow “associates.” “You kids be sure to stay in school and finish your education,” admonished another “associate” taking a brief break in the store lounge. “You don’t want to end up working in retail like me.”

Think of Robert Greenwald’s powerful new film “Wal-Mart: The High Cost Of Low Price” as one giant field trip across the United States at a time when corporate multinational retail box store power dominates the landscape. Anyone with even a passing interest in matters economic knows a bit about Wal-Mart’s rap sheet, as well as the lure of “low prices – always.” But Greenwald’s film does an admirable job of both contextualizing and personalizing the wide variety of trade offs Americans have made in allowing Wal-Mart to own and operate the very fabric of our 21st century economy.

The film is full of moments of heartache that resonate – long-time family-owned and operated businesses driven into the ground by the aggressive Wal-Martization of Anywhere, USA. In one poignant scene at film’s beginning, we see, in slow motion, a sepia-toned Stars and Stripes fluttering against Bruce Springsteen’s haunting crooning of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land,” sung over a depressing picture that is all too familiar: dilapidated and boarded-up down town Main Streets across America, driven out of business by the economic clout of giant corporate power, wielding more efficient economies of scale, as well as aggressive (and many would say ruthless and corrupt) business tactics.

In assembling his new film, Greenwald makes two shrewd tactical decisions that pay off in spades by film’s end. The first involves his decision to give voice to the voice-less. Those familiar with Greenwald’s previous films – “Uncovered: The Whole Truth About The Iraq War,” for example – know of his interest in capturing powerful voices on camera, authority figures from inside the corridors of power who know how the System works and aren’t afraid to speak honestly about abuse and injustice. Surprisingly, in “Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price,” the viewer doesn’t encounter a single Ph.D.-sporting talking head.

Instead, Greenwald introduces us to ordinary Americans, struggling to make sense of a billion dollar multinational corporation that consistently says one thing and does another, displaying an arrogance and an eye-opening set of double-standards that could fill volumes. Many of these folks are dyed-in-the-whole small town conservatives, rock-ribbed Republicans (in the traditional sense of the term) who believe in the power of hard work, sacrifice, entrepreneurialism, and a sense of fair play that, once upon a time, made the U.S. economy the envy of the world. The film also interviews a number of former Wal-Mart employees, many of them upper level managers, who speak candidly about the corporation’s deeply rooted sense of foul play, amoral behavior, and unethical business practices. Hearing their celluloid confessions is enough to make any CEO squirm.

Greenwald’s second tactical decision in telling his story involves brilliant use of rhetorical jujitsu, as he leverages the multi-billion dollar juggernaut of Wal-Mart’s advertising and public relations (PR) power against itself. We see, for example, Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott at a national company rally, claiming that his corporation provides well-paying jobs with retirement benefits and a host of other perks. Then we meet Wal-Mart workers who simply cannot make ends meet, no matter how hard they try, backed up by sobering statistics pointing out that, while CEO Scott pulled in a $27 million salary last year and the five members of the Walton family are worth more than $102 billion (with a “b,” yes), the average full time Wal-Mart employee (FT defined as a mere 28 hours a week by Wal-Mart’s reckoning) earned under $14,000 during 2004.

In this way, Greenwald’s new film is as much a study in the propagandistic power of corporate public relations and advertising as it is a meditation on Wal-Mart’s deliberate bleeding of the U.S. economy to enrich the pockets of its shareholders. The shiny happy people featured in Wal-Mart advertisements, as well as the company’s continued PR claims of corporate responsibility (“We at Wal-Mart take an active interest in conserving the environment!”), simply doesn’t match the frustrating reality of their corporate behavior. Even the largely toothless Environmental Protection Agency, for example, a federal regulatory outfit that sometimes seems to exist simply to provide permits for giant corporate polluters, has managed to prosecute Wal-Mart for Clean Air Act violations in nine states, due to the company’s stubborn insistence on storing lawn fertilizer and other toxic chemicals in parking lots located near local watershed areas.

Greenwald even takes us to Wal-Mart’s global factories in China, Honduras, and Bangladesh, where Wal-Mart workers put in 14 hour days 7 days a week and brush their teeth with fireplace ashes because their salaries don’t allow them to buy tooth paste. Implicitly in this global tour is the fact that, while wrapping itself in the American flag and a shallow sham version of patriotism, Wal-Mart cares very little for the health and well being of its workers, the environment, or the health of the U.S. economy as a whole, beyond the short-term dollar value it can extract to increase its profit margin.

While all of this is deeply sobering, Greenwald wisely chooses to end the film on a powerful high note, spotlighting and interviewing several citizen/activists – normal people just like you and me – who have chosen to organize their communities to oppose Wal-Mart’s predatory behavior and fight for more just and sustainable local economies.

And that hope is this filmic field trip’s ultimate message. Don’t believe Wal-Mart’s hype. Educate others. Speak out. Organize. As consumers, as workers, as citizens, as elected officials, all of us make daily decisions that perpetuate or undermine Wal-Mart’s (and other large multinational corporations) existence in our communities.

Let us choose wisely. Our economic future is at stake.


Contact Mad River Valley historian, media educator, and musician Rob Williams at