Guide for Post-film Discussion of “Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price”

Ideas to make screenings more informative and productive events

By ReclaimDemocracy.org staff

Posted November 14, 2005

Introduction

Robert Greenwald’s Walmart documentary can be a useful conversation starter and entry point for citizens to learn about some of the destructive impacts of corporate chains on our communities, economy, jobs, environment and more. But without a strongly facilitated discussion to bring out these points, the film’s exclusive focus on a single company may leave some viewers with a misunderstanding of the problems and potential solutions.

The film can be an excellent educational tool, so we created this discussion guide to help local screening organizers facilitate such post-film discussion. A question or two prior to the film may help viewers get the most out of it, too — even a simple “ask yourself what the real problem is.”

This document was produced immediately after viewing the film for the first wave of screenings. We welcome your ideas for improving this guide, and we’ll update it on our website as ideas come in. To order “The High Cost of Low Price,” click here (a portion of your ($13) purchase will go to support our work).

Is WalMart Unique?

“Walmart: The High Cost of Low Price” focuses solely on Walmart Corporation while ignoring the existence of other giant retail chains (Sam’s Club, which is mentioned, is a division of Walmart) that create most of those same destructive impacts. Walmart indeed is unique in its size and impact, has a worse record than most in compliance with the law, and certainly deserves most criticism it receives. But while Walmart differs in scale and degree from other corporate chains, is it different in kind?

  • Target Corporation, Walmart’s most direct competitor, is invisible in the film, yet it:
  • Pays workers wages essentially identical to Walmart and is ardently anti-union;
  • Drives down wages at competitors, especially unionized supermarkets;
  • Has an equally devastating impact on many of the communities where it locates “superstores” and on independent business in and near those communities;
  • Wields its amassed power to extract taxpayer subsidies around the country, with all the accompanying harms the film blames on Walmart;
  • Uses corporate funds to help elect candidates favored by its directors, undermining democracy
  • Sells mostly imported goods from the same countries and often the same factories as Walmart (the prices and quality tend to be slightly higher, but an equally low portion of sales go to the people who make them);
  • Drives sprawl, increased costs for roads and services, and consumes enormous amounts of land for single-story buildings and parking lots isolated from any other destination.

Clearly, labor leaders, environmental groups and others who pressure Walmart for concessions have reason to attack it. As the world’s largest corporation, Walmart is a symbol and publicity magnet, and a positive change in Walmart can have broad repercussions. But is Walmart the disease or the symptom? What are the risks of presenting the symptom as if it were the disease?

Costco often is presented as if it were the “anti-Walmart.” The company unquestionably treats workers far better and sells more upscale merchandise, but is much else different? Doesn’t it take wealth out of communities and concentrate that money and power in the hands of shareholders in the same way?

How many of you have heard of the class action suit pending against Walmart for allegedly discriminating against women in granting promotions into management level?

How many of you are aware that a nearly identical lawsuit is pending against Costco?

Are We Making Progress By Targeting Individual Corporations?
The Walmart movie closes with the story of Inglewood, California ‘s victory over Walmart–stopping a proposed supercenter. But did this battle improve people’s lives or merely maintain the status quo?

Thousands of volunteer hours and thousands of dollars were spent to stop a single big box store temporarily, with no guarantee that Walmart will not be back next year (as has happened in many communities). This in no way diminishes the inspiring work of those citizens — they pulled of an incredible campaign to win the initiative battle. But ask yourself if we achieve real progress when our energy is consumed with defensive battles one after another?

Millions of activists have fought harms inflicted by thousands of corporations one at a time for generations. Are the major societal problems caused by runaway corporate power getting better or worse? What does this tell us?

Should we redouble our efforts? Work harder and longer? Or do we need to rethink whether democracy even is possible when corporations are granted the rights of human beings with none of the limitations we the people have.

Blame Walmart or Our Broken System?
What would happen to our tax base if the penalty for evading income taxes was a fine of pennies? How many people would choose to break the law and risk getting caught in this situation? This is directly comparable to the case in which Walmart negotiated a deal with the federal government to pay 18 seconds worth of revenue to settle 24 labor law violations.

So do you blame Walmart executives for continuing to break the laws when the fines imposed on the relatively few occasions where they are caught and penalized are inconsequential? Or is it our fault for failing to assert our authority over Walmart and tolerating politicians who fail to punish criminal corporations in any meaningful way?

Should we keep pleading with one company at a time to stop destructive behaviors or should we focus on eliminating such behavior through asserting the superiority of human rights over (corporate) property rights?

Can a corporation that is legally responsible only to maximize profit for its owners truly be “socially responsible?” (reference “Inherent Rules of Corporate Behavior” –consider adding your own talking points based on that article.

Why do we expect poverty-level wages to be the norm among big box stores? Is there any inherent reason why service jobs should not pay a livable wage? Is operating a machine in a factory really that different than operating a cash register?

What can be done beyond a defensive battle to stop a big box store from opening in our community? Here are a few examples.

  • Ban or limit the number of chains in your community.
  • Ban subsidies to big box stores.
  • Limit the size and/or location of retail development to ensure new stores benefit your community.
  •  Create an Independent Business Alliance to help community-based business thrive.
  •  Explore worker-owned businesses, co-ops, and community-owned department stores (contact us for more on this topic) as an alternative to absentee-owned chains.
  •  Deny claims to “corporate personhood” that allow corporations to challenge citizens’ authority.

This guide was produced by ReclaimDemocracy.org. You are welcome to adapt in any way that suits your needs. Please note ReclaimDemocracy.org/walmart as a resource to your audience and, if you find our resources valuable, make a donation to keep us working. Thank you.