Wal-Mart's War on America

In anticipation of the mind-bomb unleashed by Robert Greenwald's superb new movie, Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price, the New York Times reports that Wal-Mart has recruited a bipartisan team of PR hacks led by Reagan attack dog Michael Deaver and Leslie Dach (formerly a media consultant to Bill Clinton). They have now set up the company's new "war room" in Arkansas to augment its roving teams of union-busters, lobbyists and other shills.

How fitting. That's just what Wal-Mart has been doing across America -- making war on workers, communities and the economy. When they're not busy sopping up corporate welfare (by 2004 the company tagged taxpayers for over $1 billion in subsidies) or outsourcing production to overseas sweatshops like the gulags of China, they're busy forcing taxpayers to pick up the slack for the fact that they don't provide their "associates" (Orwellian term for temp slaves) an affordable health care plan.

There are many entertaining and interesting points in Greenwald's movie. One of my favorites is the shot of the Walton family bunker -- a razor-wired concrete compound built in Bentonville, Arkansas after 9/11. What Islamic fundamentalist would think of going to Bentonville? The Walton family -- which is worth some 80-plus billion dollars -- has spent millions supporting President Bush and other politicians who pushed to repeal the estate tax and privatize social security. No, if the Waltons have any blowback to fear, it's not going to be coming from a bunch of Middle-Eastern fundamentalists, but rather from the vast majority of mid-western fundamentalists -- ordinary American taxpayers, consumers and citizens who are getting screwed by Wal-Mart and its political "associates" in the Republican party (and some on the other side of the aisle as well).

By letting company employees, managers, customers and competitors speak for themselves, the movie documents how the company's success is the seed of its own downfall. Wal-Mart epitomizes so much of what's ailing America that it's hard to know where to begin. Destroying small, locally-owned entrepreneurs; locking undocumented workers in to clean their stores overnight; installing security cameras in the parking lots to make employees paranoid about talking to union organizers (while letting kidnappings and other crimes go on undetected), blacktopping such a vast patch of land that the runoff from its parking lots alone is a toxic tributary to local rivers and streams. Yes, Greenwald touches upon all of this, but ultimately it would take an artist like R. Crumb to do this story justice.

Meanwhile, the company's new media counteroffensive sprang a leak almost immediately after it was launched. An internal memo written by the company's vice president for benefits was released by WakeupWalmart. The memo acknowledges that 46 per cent of the children of company employees either have no health insurance or rely on Medicaid (which is supposed to be for the unemployed). She also suggests that to cut costs further, the company should adopt a policy to require all employees to perform physically demanding work -- as an indirect means of lowering health benefit expenditures by making less healthy people ineligible for jobs like cashiering.

For some time, the company has gotten away with the libertarian-sounding claim that its employees and consumers ultimately benefit from their low-low prices -- after all, "it's their choice." (Tell that to people's whose downtown retail district has been decimated.) Defenders of Wal-Mart are quick to parrot the claim that the company saves an average family $2,000 per year. Depending on how you do the math, that may strictly be true, but then that doesn't account for all the costs shoved off the company balance sheet onto the same people -- via their taxes, loss of customer service, etc.

That claim has recently been called into further question by two studies conducted by the University of Illinois' Chicago Center for Urban Economic Development and the University of California-Berkley. The studies revealed that items purchased at Wal-Marts in Illinois, Michigan, Indiana and California scanned the wrong price as often as 8.3 percent of the time. (Connecticut's Attorney General Richard Blumenthal says he will investigate Wal-Mart's the discrepancies between the chain's posted and checkout prices.)

Wal-Mart's defenders have said, it's "just a store." But the Wal-Mart debate is about something much more than consumer protection or worker rights. It goes way beyond PR and changing the big box store's environmental image. It's about what corporations like Wal-Mart represent -- a fundamental threat to democratic decision-making and community-based economics. WalMart is the logical result of a globalized economy colonialized at both ends by multinationals, a model of mass consumption that begins in giant sweatshops and ends with communities crushed like roadkill in the company's wake.

Although the "Beast of Bentonville" will try to marginalize its opponents as dupes of organized labor, that just isn't going to wash. Wal-Mart is to the global economy what Halliburton is to war profiteering and what Enron was to corporate crime. The ongoing campaign against Wal-Mart therefore touches on something profoundly troubling. For the company this "crisis" is something that can't be "managed" with a few ads and token concessions to moderate charities. Although certainly that will be among the first line of tactics coming out of the company's "war room."

But if the company has nothing to hide, perhaps they will invite Greenwald or better yet defenders they trust (like Ron Galloway?) to broadcast the "war room" 24/7. Call it "Sweatshop Survivor" or "Bounced: Wall-Mart's Reality Check".

For variety, every week they could send a crew out to one of the 484 new communities being targeted by Wal-Mart as suckers who they will try to con into subsidizing the new supercenters that suck their communities dry.

Yes, bring it on, I say, because we desperately need a debate at the local, state and national level about corporate monopolization in the new economy -- not from the perspective of lame bureaucrats at the FTC, but from the perspective of people whose lives have been ruined by giant corporations.

By the way -- If you live in one of the communities on Wal-Mart's target list, be sure to take advantage of the many "war rooms" set up to fight Wal-Mart, including WalMartWatch and WakeupWal-Mart (two labor sites), as well as Sprawl-Busters.

Everyone should go and see the movie. After you do, be sure to check out ReclaimDemocracy.org's discussion guide and related resources.

And for those who want to dig even deeper, be sure to check out JusticeVision.org's Democracy Digest #70 -- a DVD recording of "The UCLA Conference on Wal-Martization," the Frontline piece on Wal-Mart, and historian Nelson Lichtenstein's primer on Wal-Mart, which includes essays by different activists and academics who presented at another conference.