Thursday, October 27, 2011

Resistance Is Not Futile; Why Does Anyone Still Have Anything To Do With This Company? WalMart: The High Cost of Low Price!

The Good: Some frightening new information, Generally logical documentary
The Bad: Does not develop a lot of its arguments fully, Speed of graphics on-screen, Documentation
The Basics: Despite a number of unsubstantiated sources (i.e. interviews where people simply say "it is so"), WalMart: The High Cost Of Low Price raises enough questions about WalMart that people should not be doing business with them.

When I sat down to watch WalMart: The High Cost Of Low Price, I anticipated that it would largely be preaching to the choir of people who, like me, do not show at Wal-Mart any longer.

In this documentary, filmmakers follow the workings of the largest retailer in the United States. With countless testimonials from WalMart employees (mostly former) and community members, the documentary explores the way WalMart moving into a community destroys local small businesses, utilizes subsidies and grants to establish their stores and encourages its workers to use government social programs like WIC, public assistance and state health care options. The film explores the low wages WalMart pays its employees in its stores, subjugates workers in China and India to produce their merchandise, and circumvents overtime law. It also highlights the union-busting activities of WalMart and explores crime in the WalMart parking lots. Only at the end does it introduce the anti-WalMart initiatives in various states that have successfully prevented WalMart from entering their communities.

Throughout the film, WalMart CEO Lee Scott is shown making various statements, which the film then provides testimony to disprove. WalMart: The High Cost Of Low Price is not the best put-together documentary I've ever seen. Unlike Fahrenheit 9/11 (reviewed here!) which simply put together clips of public officials damning themselves with their own lies or An Inconvenient Truth where Al Gore makes a solid, coherent argument starting at the beginning and working through all of the permutations with tidal waves of facts from multiple, reliable sources to make the conclusions, WalMart: The High Cost Of Low Price relies on a lot of personal testimonies, opinions and "facts" that are not adequately substantiated.

To reiterate; I'm a part of the anti-WalMart crusade. They are the embodiment of the hegemony I struggle against. But WalMart: The High Cost Of Low Price does not make its case well enough. So much of the documentary relies on opinion or undocumented claims, that it ultimately weakens its own argument. This film WONDERFULLY raises all of the right questions, but it does not answer them with enough indisputable logic or confirmed facts to make the conclusions inescapable.

So, for example, the only company document that is shown in the film comes near the very end of the movie when an internal memo from WalMart is shown that illustrates 80% of crime at WalMart happens in the parking lots. This study was part of a case made against WalMart and this internal memo basically proved the company knew about the problems that exist in WalMart parking lots and they were negligent in dealing with them, especially considering that WalMarts where golf carts make rounds in the lots have reduced crime down to zero.

The presentation of evidence in this case comes during the weakest moments of the documentary. I understand the outrage that exists over crime happening in any business's parking lots, in fact the rate of crime specifically in WalMart parking lots was one of the few new arguments I had heard against WalMart presented in this film. But the segment begins with a very human, very frightening story from a woman who was assaulted in a WalMart parking lot. As tragic as this event was, as well as every other crime perpetrated in a WalMart lot, it comes as something of a non sequitor and dilutes some of the film's punch. Put more simply: when the film abruptly shifts from corporate machinations to personal crimes, it does not fit logically with immediate comprehension. Instead, the viewer shakes their head, says, "That's tragic, but how is it WalMart's problem?" For all my loathing of WalMart, it's hard to make an argument that the massive chain is responsible for what criminals do in their parking lots. WalMart is not like a gun manufacturer where the product it is creating has a logical correlation with death and destruction.

Except . . . in the argument the film never makes. WalMart: The High Cost Of Low Price very cleverly builds an argument that WalMart is contributing to a degeneration of society as far as widening the class struggle (seeing the Walton Family bunker for use in apocalyptic circumstances is pretty damning!), driving down self esteem by compelling employees to subscribe to government programs, turning a blind eye (at the very least) to racism and sexism within its stores, and perpetrating global problems like the virtual enslavement of the Chinese and Indians in their factories. But what they never do with the parking-lot violence angle is suggest the logical correlation here. People who are poor will do what they need to to survive and the big, open spaces of WalMart parking lots offer the most logical place for victims of poverty and dangerous criminals (those are two distinctly different groups!) to prey.

And by the time the film answers the question, "How is this WalMart's problem?" it comes a bit too late. The reason parking lot crime at WalMart's is a corporate problem (in addition to the "wolves go where the sheep are" philosophy I develop) is that: 1. It is something the company knows about, 2. It creates an additional burden on local law enforcement, and 3. Corporate policy on it has been to obfuscate and deny the problem. Moreover, there are simple, cost-effective solutions that have been proven to work in areas where the problem has been rationally and realistically confronted.

On the worker's rights front, WalMart: The High Cost Of Low Price very effectively shows the efforts of one store's automotive department to unionize. The problem here is balance. It's unbelievable to me that if Michael Moore is able to get soldiers in Iraq outfitted with cameras to aid in his documentary that director Robert Greenwald is unable to get even one interview or footage of a store manager actually firing an employee for trying to unionize from within the store. I understand that WalMart is notoriously closed-doored and excels at misdirection and keeping outsiders out, but - for example - one of the film's accusations includes that WalMart managers will watch the behavior of workers and break up groups that are talking on the floor when they suspect one might be trying to unionize. This is where a more "Michael Moore" approach would have benefited the film. How hard would it have been to outfit one of the employees with a small camera, wait for a manager to come talk to them about their activities and then question that manager?

My point here is that while the documentary does a great job of presenting their argument, it does far too little to substantiate that. Interviews are given with high-level workers who talk about the corporate practices that they were forced to institute and some of them are heartwrenching. The field supervisor who was responsible for inspecting foreign plants talks about how he began to speak out against the working conditions in some of the factories where WalMart goods were being made and nothing was done at the corporate level (and he was fired). I would never suggest that ANY of the people who were interviewed in this movie were not telling the truth; there are far too many corroborating stories in other publications, like The Nation that detail similar problems and abuses. But, without any third-party sources or official documentation, much of this movie is unsubstantiated. It's a bunch of people complaining about a corporate policy that they cannot illustrate is a methodical, codified state of being.

In short, much of the counterargument to WalMart: The High Cost Of Low Price by the WalMart corporation could simply be, "Prove it." Or "Show me where in the manual it says to do this." Or even the terrible ad hominem of "So says a disgruntled ex-worker."

I'm not saying the evidence does not exist. It's just not here in this movie. In fact, one of the few pieces of actual evidence the film is able to provide is a video of a WalMart anti-union video. That is strong and damaging to watch a video WalMart employees are subjected to decrying the benefits of organized labor. And, as a result, that stands apart as one of the stronger arguments the movie makes.

Even one of the more simple facts presented in the WalMart anti-union activities would seem to be easily substantiated given that the movie presents it; an anti-union surveillance system is priced at $8,000 in the movie, with no citation as to the source of that figure. Again, a smart documentary will beat every possible argument into submission to make its point. Instead, WalMart: The High Cost Of Low Price takes the buckshot approach; it shoots off a number of arguments and does not develop many of them fully enough.

But . . .

In my recent review of Blood Diamond I decried the U.S. for simply not "getting" the movie. There has been no movement in the United States to reject diamonds, to basically say "Even the POSSIBILITY that a diamond comes at the price of human life, dignity, and national development is unacceptable." The arguments that WalMart: The High Cost Of Low Price makes well include:
Established, community-driven small businesses are crushed and driven out of business when WalMart moves into a town,
There have been negative environmental ramifications of WalMart's continuing policy of storing fertilizers outside where runoff can cause toxins to enter nearby waterways,
Regardless of corporate policy or involvement, many WalMart employees are eligible for public assistance programs in order to meet day to day living and/or healthcare expenses,
WalMart knows that crimes ranging from theft to rape to murder happen in their unpatrolled parking lots,
WalMart has consistently fought against the formation of unions in its stores and at the corporate level,
and WalMart has been known to avoid its corporate responsibility of paying certain taxes by simply moving outside a jurisdiction where taxes are owed.

Despite my sympathies for the arguments, and ample evidence being available in other sources, these are the only arguments that WalMart: The High Cost Of Low Price adequately makes. Does it raise a lot of other questions? Absolutely. Do the other assertions seem reasonable and true? Absolutely. Are they proven? Not well enough in this documentary. It should have been longer and better developed or focused on one or two of WalMart's specific problems and made their findings irrefutable.

But to go back to the concept of the questions raised in Blood Diamond, do we want to continue doing business with a company that has been proven (we have to trust something, why not our courts?!) to be criminally negligent, corrupt or inhumane to its customers, the environment and workers? I cannot shop there and this documentary raises enough questions to make even the most impoverished among us question shopping there.

As for this DVD, it's highly recommended for those who do not know about the egregious problems that WalMart creates and perpetrates. It is a nice tool for raising awareness of the problems of WalMart, problems that those who shop at WalMart indirectly support (WalMart only survives so long as society accepts them). As for those of us who are already fighting the struggle, this is just preaching to the choir, a choir that might already know better developed sources for making this fight winnable.

For other documentaries, please check out my reviews of:
An Inconvenient Truth
George W. Bush: Faith In The White House
March Of The Penguins


For other movie reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2011, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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