The Wal-Mart Crusade

Big-boxing a mega-retailer's ears.


A quack has been defined as someone who's got something good for you no matter what's wrong with you. That must make documentarian Robert Greenwald a kind of anti-quack. No matter what you think is wrong with the world–pollution, street crime, poverty, outsourcing, racial prejudice, failing public schools–Greenwald knows something that's making the problem worse: Wal-Mart.

In Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price, the director of Outfoxed and Uncovered (and the 1980 Olivia Newton-John roller-disco musical Xanadu) flings an ample supply of feces at the world's largest retailer, in hopes that some of it will stick. Some does. But a far larger pile sails from the screen, falls short of its target, and lands with an unceremonious plop on your coffee table.

There are some solid points in the film. Former managers allege that timesheets were routinely and systematically altered to deprive workers of overtime pay, and that race and gender discrimination were endemic . There is also the company's unapologetic grubbing for government handouts–though even here, the film steals a few bases by counting as subsidies all welfare benefits received by Wal-Mart employees, as though these were a cost the store imposed on taxpayers by failing to pay higher wages.

Meanwhile, Greenwald dilutes his reasonable points by attempting to indict Wal-Mart for every ill under the sun.

The sin for which Wal-Mart catches the most flak is the low wages it pays. They are low, but critics seem determined to depict them as uniquely awful, usually by picking higher-paid grocery workers rather than all retail workers for comparison. The median hourly wage in 2004 for all retail salespersons, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, was $9.03. The hourly wage for sales clerks at Wal-Mart that critics have blasted as absurdly low was around $8.50 at the time–not great, but near the middle of the industry range.

Critics like to note that the typical Wal-Mart "sales associate's" pay amounts to an annual income a bit below the poverty line for a family of three. But it's not clear why that is the appropriate standard–except, perhaps, that it conveniently falls just above the annual income of a Wal-Mart sales clerk. Is there some reason that every job, including those often held by teenagers or the semi-retired, must be remunerative enough to support a family of three?

In some scenes, the film obliviously undermines its own argument. The opening segment visits the small town of Middlefield, Ohio, where small-business owners are kvetching about the looming opening of a new Wal-Mart superstore. Greenwald creates the impression that a local hardware store was run out of business by the big-box retailer when in fact, "there was no connection," as the store's owner told National Review. Other merchants' complaints reveal what consumers might regard as a salutary effect. "We've been trying to get ready for them for maybe 10 years," one says. "Explain what Wal-Mart does and what we could do different[ly]." In other words, Wal-Mart spurs complacent retailers to adapt by lowering prices, offering more specialized or higher-quality merchandise, or training more expert employees to assist shoppers.

Occasionally the film's indictment passes from the strained to the bizarre. At one point, over somber music, a text scrolls over a black-and-white image of a vacant superstore. It informs us that there are 26,699,678 square feet of empty Wal-Mart in the U.S., "enough room to build 29,666 classrooms and educate 593,326 kids" –as though the stores, by their sheer size, had crowded out the children.

Another lengthy segment is devoted to the topic of crime in Wal-Mart parking lots. Perhaps it's true that the company could better protect its customers by hiring a few guards to patrol its lots at night. But is it really more dangerous to do your shopping amid the throngs who drive out to Wal-Mart than at any other store? Never mind–just listen to the tearful testimony of another victim (and another! and another!) of Sam Walton's parking lots of death!

Whatever its merits, the crusade against Wal-Mart seems to be gathering adherents. A recent Zogby poll found a majority of respondents agreeing that "Wal-Mart is bad for America," and that its low prices "come with a high moral and economic cost for consumers." (The work of New York University economist Jason Furman suggests that it's the other way around: Any wage-depressing effects of Wal-Mart stores are dwarfed by the benefits to low-income consumers of their parallel price-depressing effects.)

Plenty of people who share that sentiment are on display in the film's closing montage of activists fighting to keep Wal-Mart out of their neighborhoods. Watching the cheers of these retail resisters as they learn they've blocked one more big box, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that there's something more at work here than disagreement with the company's wage or health-care policy. The activists seem motivated by an almost religious fervor–and, indeed, often seem to be led by clerics of one denomination or another. (Perhaps, in this age of exurban big-box megachurches, ministers just recognize a competitor when they see one.)

The anti?Wal-Mart movement is both more and less than the sum of its parts. It is less in that it seems likely that most critics are, at least initially, motivated by one or two narrow concerns: an affection for small shops, or a distaste for outsourcing. It is more in that Wal-Mart has taken on a symbolic role as an emblem of corporate power that is ultimately unmoored from the particulars of the charges against it.

Wal-Mart attracts the wrath of so many environmentalists, living wage advocates, and sprawl opponents not because it is the most egregious offender against their ideals but because its size and visibility give them a common banner under which to rally. And that is the final irony of Greenwald's film: The faceless corporate behemoth turns out to be a potent force for community.