Prior to 2000 Robert Greenwald was a producer and director of commercial TV and feature films: that year’s stolen presidential election turned him into a documentary filmmaker concerned with such topics as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Rupert Murdoch and the Koch brothers, whistleblowers and drones, and Walmart’s assault on the global economy.

To address these issues Greenwald founded Brave New Films and embraced strategies to disseminate films directly to ever wider audiences. In 2005 Walmart: The High Cost of Low Price was screened 3000 times throughout the US and abroad, leading the Walmart company to wage a public relations campaign to counter the film’s impact on viewers.

This film is an indictment of Walmart for its corporate behavior and the impact of that behavior on individuals, communities, other businesses, our very way of life. While it offers a critique of the effects of global capitalism, it does not constitute an analysis of that economic system and, while it celebrates resistance to that system, it suggests no resolution of its contradictions.

Because the film was released nearly a decade ago, a review and update of its indictment may provide a useful context for both viewing and discussing the film.

(1) The film charged Walmart with damaging local economies.

  • A 2013 study concludes that Walmart stores kill 3 local jobs for every 2 they create, have a   negative impact on existing retail, and send 57% of money earned out of the community (compared to 32% for locally-owned business).
  • This economic impact is magnified by Walmart’s continued expansion: since 2005 Walmart has increased from 3,400 stores in the US to 4,921 — a growth rate of 45%. Most of these are supercenters averaging over 200,000 square feet. Today 90% of Americans live within 15 minutes of a Walmart store.

2) The film charged Walmart with not providing health care coverage

  • In 2011 Walmart eliminated health coverage for new hires working 24 hours a week or less. In 2013 this was extended to 30 hours a week or less.
  • Even full-time workers whose hours are reduced to part-time now lose dental and life insurance as well as their spouses’ health coverage.

(3) The film charged Walmart with preventing its workers from unionizing

  • Last year, in response to protests and job actions by many of its workers, Walmart fired some and reduced the hours of others: this year the National Labor Relations Board filed a complaint against Walmart for retaliating against workers engaged in legally protected activities.
  • Last year, following similar actions in Norway and the Netherlands, the Swedish state-backed pension fund divested its Walmart holdings citing the company’s “systematic abuses of workers’ rights.”

(4) The film charged Walmart with wage theft

  • Just this year a warehouse subcontractor controlled by Walmart agreed to pay $21 million to settle claims of 1,800 workers “forced to work long hours, under oppressive workplace conditions, for legally inadequate pay”— wage and hour violations that occurred over 12 years.
  • In 2012 Walmart agreed to pay $4.83 million in back pay to 4,500 employees who had been misclassified as ineligible for overtime pay.

(5) The film charged Walmart with discriminating against women and black workers

In 2011 the U.S. Supreme Court’s right wing majority ruled for Walmart, throwing out a class-action suit brought on behalf of 1.5 million of its female employees. In reversing long-standing employment discrimination law the Court put in question the basis of class-actions and within two years Wal-Mart v. Dukes was cited over 1,200 times by federal and state courts in rejecting suits and overturning verdicts, including cases involving racial disctimination. This year, however, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit recognized the standing of Stephanie Odle, one of the original plaintiffs, thus reviving the issue of Walmart’s treatment of women.

(6) The film charged Walmart with shifting payment of its workers to taxpayers

This April 15 Americans for Tax Fairness released a report on the extent to which and how tax-payers subsidize Walmart, the largest private employer in the U.S. with 1.4 million employees and $16 billion in 2013 profits.

  • Because the company pays its workers so little that many of them qualify for food stamps, health care, housing assistance, etc. the company receives $6.2 billion in federal subsidies.
  • Walmart avoids $1 billion a year in federal taxes, through accelerated depreciation, etc.
  • Walmart receives $70 million a year in state and local economic development subsidies

(7) The film charged Walmart with environmental negligence

  • In 2013 Walmart plead guilty to improperly dumping hazardous products and agreed to pay $82 million in fines. The company also instituted EPA compliance procedures.

But Walmart’s environmental impact is significant and extends beyond dumping:

  • Its emissions rank Walmart one of the largest U.S. polluters, not including emissions from shipping containers of merchandise — 720,000 cargo containers in 2012 alone.
  • Walmart does not calculate the impact of its continued expansion on undeveloped land: its U.S. stores and parking lots already covered 60,000 acres in 2011.
  • Walmart and other big-box stores have reshaped shopping and reconfigured traffic patterns to the extent that Americans drive nearly 200 billion additional miles per year.

(8) The film charged Walmart with exploiting workers of foreign suppliers.

Although Walmart’s supply chain stretches across the globe, China is its main source: 70% of Walmart merchandise is produced there and 80% of Walmart suppliers are located there. Yet the company’s low wages and disregard of labor laws, exacerbated by extensive unsupervised subcontracting, has led to increasing resistance from Chinese workers.

  • In 2006, following a grassroots organizing drive, the All-China Federation of Trade Unions signed an agreement with Walmart establishing unions in all its stores in China. Though Walmart managed to prevent workers from electing union reps, these unions provide some workplace protection. Meanwhile, workers have gone on strike and some have even successfully sued Walmart over violation of labor laws.
  • Working conditions among Walmart suppliers worldwide are notorious. Perhaps the most egregious are those in Bangladesh, now the world’s second largest garment exporter: a fire there in 2013 killed 117 locked-in workers and a factory collapse later that year killed over 1,100 garment workers and injured 2,500.

(9) The film charged Walmart’s owners with greed.

The Walton family’s net worth of $149 billion exceeds the combined wealth of 49 million U.S. families! Their fortune derives from dividends from the company, much of it untaxed and most of it protected in trust funds. Yet the family, assembled at Walmart’s 2013 Annual Meeting, were indifferent to the plea presented by former Bangladesh sweatshop worker Kalpona Akter:

“I am sure you are aware that fixing these buildings would cost just a tiny fraction of your family’s wealth — a mere 1% of the dividends paid out last year to the Walton family heirs — so I implore you to please help us. You have the power to do this very easily. Don’t you agree that the factories where Wal-Mart products are made should be safe for the workers?”

Resources for information on Walmart since the film’s release in 2005 »

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About Jon Garlock

Jon Garlock chairs the Education Committee of the Rochester (NY) Labor Council. He coordinates an annual Labor Film Series, now in its 26th year, presented at the International Museum of Film and Photography at George Eastman House. He has published on 19th century US and local labor history, co-directing a video and developing teaching materials on Rochester's unions.