ARE YOU READY FOR WAL-MART WEEK?
by Joe Shea
American Reporter Correspondent
BRADENTON, Fla., Nov. 10, 2005 -- Is Wal-Mart's smiley face the personification of corporate evil? That's the question that will be on many minds when Wal-Mart Week - a seven-day reprise of all the arguments we've ever heard about the world's largest retailer - kicks off with the nationwide screening of a new movie about the corporation in some 6,000 living rooms, backyards, meeting halls and restaurants in 50 states on Sunday, Nov. 13. Some 100,000 people are expected to see it.
The moving force behind this massive public relations assault is television and movie producer Robert Greenwald, whose documentaries "Outfoxed" and "Uncovered" won wide coverage after they tackled the Fox News culture and the Bush Administration's leap into Iraq with a special sizzle that won over critics, if not moviegoers (the two films together grossed under $700,000 in limited theatrical release).
I shop at Wal-Mart on a regular basis, although I will admit to feeling funny about it at times. When I was reading this book, I kept feeling employees were following me around the store. But I felt the same way when I covered the vote against Wal-Mart in Inglewood, Calif., on my radio show here in Bradenton last year. While I'm pretty sure that's all in my head, I do have a lot of nice conversations with Wal-Mart workers - something Greenwald and several co-producers couldn't manage to do in five months of trying.
None of Wal-Mart's 1.3-million current employees was willing to talk to Greenwald's field producers in front of a camera, and that resistance was a major factor in the development of the film. I talk to them off-camera all the time, and while some are distinctly unhappy, and other complain a lot about other workers, most seem happy to have their jobs and quickly recommend it as a place to work. Here in Florida, a "right to work" state, I don't have much choice about searching out a unionized store, and if I found one, I probably couldn't afford it, anyway.
And that's a major issue for Greenwald, as recounted in Greg Spotts' "Wal-Mart: the high cost of low price - The Inside Story Of The Documentary Film Sensation" (New York, 2005: The Disinformation Company, Ltd; $9.95.) The subtitle is a generous claim for a film that will be released next week, but in fact the airwaves have already buzzed for the mandatory 15 minutes following its theatrical release on Nov. 3, and have since shut up about the film. As the nation's largest retailer of books and DVDs, Wal-Mart is a dangerous enemy for anyone in the entertainment business.
Low price, in Greenwald's world, means low wages, limited health benefits, uncertain employment, ruthless competition and corporate use of the welfare state to support it all. He's definitely got a point. While the book about the film provides few statistics about Wal-Mart, it's a reliable journal of the making of the film, and the crew of young producers, editors, and researchers that worked on it - many at low wages, and many for free. The book and the movie both got their major backing from the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), headed by Andrew Stern, and another union.
Stern is a controversial and important figure in the American labor movement, one who faced down labor czar John Sweeney and broke his union away from Sweeney's AFL-CIO because it had failed to reverse the decline of labor unions in America. I actually confused Stern long ago with someone who was the scion of the Stern's department stores chain, which he is not; he's a former social worker from "a middle-class family in New Jersey," his SEIU biography says.
Stern's 1.8 million members of the SEIU, many of them black and Hispanic janitors and other low-income workers, obviously would benefit greatly if they can use the negative publicity from the movie to force Wal-Mart to unionize. Michael Moore, in contrast, has never seemed to have the same kind of interest in the outcome of his films; Moore only wanted to dump President Bush in 2004, while Greenwald's project staggers under the substantial baggage of his financial backers. None of that indicts the accuracy of his film, however; the interviews and footage could probably stand on their own, just as Moore's lively videos do.
Ironically, though, Matt Bai, a well-known contributor to the New York Times Sunday Magazine, writes of Stern, "His father built a profitable legal practice in northern New Jersey by catering to small Jewish businesses, helping their owners make the jump from corner store to full-service retailer."
In a long profile in the magazine last year, Bai quoted Stern as saying, "What was good for G.M. ended up being good for the country." And it was, I would add, at least until General Motors started closing down plants and laying off tens of thousands of workers as sales slipped and costs rose (partly due to unions); now its stock is rated as "junk," and its bankruptcy may be the next big economic disaster facing American business.
But in contrast to GM, Bai continues, "Stern says, 'What's good for Wal-Mart ends up being good for five families' - the heirs to the Walton fortune. Stern's reform plan for the A.F.L.-C.I.O. includes a $25 million fund to organize Wal-Mart's workers. But as a retail outlet, Wal-Mart doesn't really fall within the S.E.I.U.'s purview. What Stern says he is deeply worried about is what he sees as the next generation of Wal-Marts, which are on his turf: French, British and Scandinavian companies whose entry into the American market threatens to drive down wages in service industries, which are often less visible than retail," Bai wrote.
Fair enough; but "fairness" is not the point of this book, nor of the documentary. Not once in 220 pages does author Greg Spotts describe anyone associated with the film as bothered by the fact that it is wholly critical, even if it does allow Wal-Mart chairman Lee Scott to pontificate at times. Scott's viewpoint is presented in segments that knit the film together with out-takes from various speeches that are then refuted by ex-employees and statistics. Wal-Mart refused to provide Scott for interviews, so perhaps the use of chopped-up speeches is fair play. But this film and the Spotts book are part of a political campaign - Greenwald's film operation, Brave New Pictures, had three "political directors," along with the support of some of the most political union leaders and progressive churches and groups in the country.
Thus, the book, and DVD, I suspect, which I have signed up to host a screening for next week, are not going to approach their task as a newspaper like the New York Times might do, carefully balancing all that one side says with responses from the other side. Wal-Mart, however, didn't need to approach the film as a problem in that way; someone else, who got cooperation from Wal-Mart, produced another documentary about the retailer, and his film got just as much publicity when the Greenwald film debuted. (That was a successful exercise, I might point out, of my own invention: "mirroring" a political campaign's attack ads to the degree that no voter can be sure where he heard what, and will thus dismiss the whole topic and do what he or she was already doing - voting for the incumbent, probably, or shopping at Wal-Mart.)
Reading the book was sufficient for me to want to see the DVD, which I had to order (for $10, plus $3.48 shipping) when I volunteered to host the screening on Nov. 14. I think I will like it as much as I liked "Fahrenheit 9/11," the top-grossing documentary of all time, but I doubt it will have the impact the producers hoped. While Michael Moore's film was probably a lot better, this one is aimed at different kind of animal, and its producer, unlike Moore, is not a highly personable man. Greenwald, "who has to be the center of everything," Spotts says, is not a protagonist (although he does several important interviews), and he has apparently gone a little far afield to make his points.
While Moore was happy to work with what common sense told him, Greenwald has gone and created a "nightmare" scenario for Wal-Mart by finding and interviewing several victims of crimes that occurred in Wal-Mart parking lots across the country. What troubles me about that is the simple fact that crimes occur in parking lots everywhere; Greenwald isn't planning to do a documentary on crime in casino parking lots in Las Vegas, I presume, and there might be more shocking deaths there than Wal-Mart has ever seen in its own. And fairness might also dictate that Greenwald mention that Wal-Mart lets RVs use its parking lots for free; no one at Brave New Films was brave enough to seek out the tens of thousands of elderly sunbirds who use those lots to ask what they thought of the crime issue.
Spotts mentions that the key insiders on the documentary were five Jewish activists, including Stern and Greenwald. That fact made me wonder whether there could be an ulterior motive; most of the department store chains in this country that are so badly hurt by Wal-Marts have Jewish origins. Were they out to get the "Christian" Walton family? Was there an economic motive beyond social justice in the making of Greenwald's film? Since Greenwald is also someone who keeps a lot of his final decision-making to himself, it's worrisome that a writer like Spotts who is so deeply "embedded" in the film's production is unlikely to explore the dark side of any motives at work. No one else will either, I suspect. The persuasive content of "Wal-Mart: the high price of low cost" will likely push those kinds of questions far aside.
As an American, I believe in "fairness," and I recognize that being fair can sometimes advantage the other side in a political dispute. Greenwald and Spotts would probably make the point that there is no room for fairness when you're pointing out the flaws of a behemoth corporation that bestrides the world of retail like the Colossus of old. That corporation's power and profits can fund any kind of response it desires, from absolute hardball to the velvet-gloved approach. Wal-Mart's smiley face is so much ingrained in the national psyche at this point that for Greenwald's film to succeed, he has to capture the eyes and minds of tens of millions of Americans.
Greenwald admits during the making of the film that the biggest entertainment companies and distributors wouldn't touch his effort because Wal-Mart controls the principal point of DVD distribution for all of them. That would help make an argument that Wal-Mart doesn't need fairness, but I don't see those allied with Greenwald in other political realms making the same case for Al-Qaeda prisoners. Why do they deserve fairness, when they offer none? Why do the American people need fairness, when we were unfair to Iraq? Why shouldn't we just absolutely polarize everything and everyone, bit by bit and but by but, since life isn't fair?
Wal-Mart as a corporation is an aggressive retailer with huge size and a vast market share that pays low wages and charges low prices, while importing most of its good from low-wage China, Vietnam, Burma, India and other very poor countries. That is a marketing strategy that works for them but not for many of their workers or the U.S. government, which must then pay Wal-Mart workers in food stamps, health care and family assistance - with Wal-Mart's eager and active complicity. That is not good for anyone. On the personal side, a snail-mail letter about how a black employee drove me home to get my car keys when I lost the first set, which I wrote to Bentonville and copied to his boss several months ago, never got a response. The other day, I learned the employee never heard about it, either.
Yet Wal-Mart is good for me because I have a very limited income and can't afford to shop at the other non-unionized supermarkets around here. It's good for America to the extent that its Sales Associates raised $190 million for charity last year, and Wal-Mart coughed up $2 million the day after Katrina struck in 2005 to help her victims. When hurricanes strike us here in Florida, it's the only place that always has all the supplies anyone needs at regular prices. It's the only large store where it's easy find someone to help me find stuff.
And just as it's good for me, it's good enough for its employees that not one of them would talk to Greenwald's crews at the risk of losing their low-paying jobs. My condo community seems to have as much crime in our parking lots as they do in Wal-Mart's, unfortunately. And while I do feel very badly for all those thousands of Mom 'n Pop businesses like the ones that Andrew Stern's father helped to become full-scale retailers, why should I condemn someone like Sam Walton and his descendants who took that same principle to its ultimate expression?
Well, on Nov. 14, I guess you'll know where the caffeine-free Pepsi and the popcorn came from. But I'm listening, Mr. Greenwald. Go after the department store credit-card business and I'll write you a book.
Spotts, Greg. WAL-MART: the high cost of low price - The Inside Story of the Documentary Film Sensation. Introduction by director Robert Greenwald. New York: The Disinformation Company, Ltd., 2005. 220 pps. $9.95.
Joe Shea is Editor-in-Chief of the American Reporter and heads its Book Review.