I watched the 2005 documentary “Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price” last night, and want to share some reflections on the movie from the perspectives of a digital storyteller, concerned citizen/consumer, and educator. The video highlights multiple problems/challenges which are not unique to WalMart but are perhaps amplified because of the corporation’s size and clout. There ARE troubling problems with the company itself, however, which beg the question of whether individual consumers should (at a minimum) stop patronizing local WalMart stores in response.

First, a few personal connections.

Watching the initial scenes about the closing of a local hardware store, in response to the impact of a new WalMart store in the town, reminded me of summers I spent in Itasca, Texas, with our good family friends Fred and Alice McPherson. Fred and Alice owned the True Value hardware store in Itasca, and I can relate to the relatives of the owners who shared a deep connection with the store and what it meant to them and their relationships. I also thought of my aunt and uncle in Cody, Wyoming, Marge and Dick Wilder, who have struggled with others to keep WalMart (eventually unsuccessfully) out of their town. The negative impact of WalMart upon small business owners is real, tangible, and not just an academic concept for me. I relate to this personally.

Second, I want to share some ideas from the perspective of a digital storyteller about this film.

The writers and producers did a great job juxtaposing scenes of the WalMart CEO (Lee Scott) making positive statements to shareholders and the press about his company, and then subsequent scenes interviewing former WalMart employees and others which directly contradicted Scott’s statements and made him sound like a liar. The juxtaposition of images and statements in this style naturally leads to cognitive dissonance on the part of the viewer, because the two messages are in direct opposition to each other. The film does not use any type of textual chapter titles to divide it into sections, but rather introduces a new theme with actual video footage of the CEO or actual company videos, which are then followed by scenes showing opposing/alternate views.

The spin and propaganda purpose of these WalMart videos is strikingly apparent, particularly because of the way the film’s authors sandwich them between interviews with former employees who share contradictory perspectives. It is extremely important that we continue to help students develop independent capacities of media literacy, which include the ability to identify bias in presented information. This video as a whole, as well as individual clips from it, would be excellent to use for class projects and class discussions about media advertisement spin and the need for critical consumption of videos produced for the mass market.

WalMart Bejing

Third, I want to reflect on some of the societal issues which this film (and WalMart’s role in our local and global economy) brings to the forefront.

As a citizen of the United States, I do believe that our market-oriented economy along with our relatively open political system provides a wealth of economic as well as social change opportunities for a wide range of constituents. While I wish we had the Prime Minister on the metaphorical “grill” of critique style of regular accountability which is present in the government of Great Britain for our own chief executive, I do think we have a fantastic country and a great economic system. I agree with the idea that democracy is messy but it is better than the alternatives.

That being said, I think we have a lot of room for improvement in many areas. Many of these are sharply highlighted by this film. I’ll list these issues, and then reflect on them a bit separately. These include issues of urbanization/small town America in crisis, health care costs, the challenges associated with living on a “minimum wage” in the USA, lack of honesty/integrity in business and personal relations, sexism, racism, and opposition to union activity / labor organizing. In addition, the relentless corporate pressure to cut costs and maximize profits can and does lead to problems when people value the bottom line over other human beings.

First, issues of urbanization. Our nation, along with many developed and developing areas of the world, continues to experience population flows from rural to urban settings. This is part of what Alvin Toffler called “the second wave” of changing demographics from a predominantly agricultural model to an industrial one, as well as the ongoing “third wave” of information age demographic changes. Small town America is generally in decline, with aging and declining populations in most areas. School populations continue to shrink in most small, rural towns (certainly here in the midwest where I live) and school district leaders often find it difficult to pass bond initiatives for increased funding for schools amidst an aging population of older citizens. Floydada, Texas, is an example. The first year of their TxTIP project at the middle school, a new educational bond package that would have funded construction of a new school failed by a very narrow margin: I think less than 100 votes. Many taxpayers in Floydada are older and don’t have school-age children, and they live on fixed incomes. Supporting schools that had (at least to that point) been shrinking on a yearly basis sadly wasn’t a priority for many of them.

I wrestle with this issue from time to time, and wonder if and when technology of the “flat world” will provide an answer to reverse rural to urban demographic trends in the United States. It was interesting to watch this movie after having consumed (via audio book) Tom Friedman’s book “The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century” a year or so ago. Friedman objectively reports on the economic models of WalMart, particularly WalMart’s efficient use of supply chains, as one of the main “flatteners” of our world. Rather than critique WalMart and its business economics as this film certainly does, Friedman seems to extoll it and encourage listeners to find ways to replicate and leverage these economic potentials to their own individual, business and national advantage.

I don’t think the economics of WalMart style supply chains are inherently evil. I think what we continue to see with supply chains and the growth of WalMart is a continuing evolution of Adam Smith’s free market economic model, which emphasizes the inexpensive delivery of products to consumers at ever rising scales of production. I frequently joke with participants at my educational workshops that “rural” today is defined by one’s distance from a WalMart store. After watching this movie, I’m thinking that joke may still be accurate but is perhaps more sad than funny. I don’t know what a “solution” to rural/small town decline in the United States is, but I don’t think a complete answer can be found in just opposing the construction of new WalMart facilities in or close to a community. I understand the reasons people oppose new WalMart construction projects in many cases, but I think “victory” in this context (from a big-picture standpoint) must be found in CONSTRUCTIVE solutions which are achieved cooperatively, not merely DESTRUCTIVE campaigns like opposing a new proposed WalMart building project.

Health care costs and the ridiculously complicated as well as costly situation we find ourselves in throughout the United States in 2007 is the second major issue raised by this film. It highlights how WalMart, by paying its “associates” so little and in many cases allowing them to work fewer hours to maintain part-time status, actually costs taxpayers millions of dollars each year because those employees rely on public medical assistance to meet their basic health needs. The “solution” to this which the filmakers would propose is not entirely clear, but it seems evident they support the idea of WalMart paying workers higher wages and providing for their health care needs.

That sounds good, but I think this problem (along with many others highlighted by the film) is not isolated to WalMart. I know many US military families at the bottom of the enlisted pay scale still qualify for food stamps and other forms of federal worker and health assistance. Even more generally, I think anyone trying to support a family on a minimum wage job (or even two minimum wage jobs) in the United States today faces a depressingly difficult struggle. This is why we hear (and some of you may know from direct experience as well as others you know personally) about people working two and three jobs to try and make ends meet. Sadly, that sort of work environment is not rare in the United States today.

Our health care system is ridiculously complicated. My wife and I faced this head on this past summer and fall, as we were presented with health care options from her new employer as well as mine. It was virtually impossible for us (and we are both educated, fairly smart people) to figure out which plan would be better in the long run for our family. Co-pay requirements were different, individual and family annual pay caps were different, medicine benefits were different: And the monthly costs of each plan were different. How could we compare “apples to apples” and make the right decision? We never figured that out, and so we just guessed and went with one plan. The complexity and HIGH cost of our medical situation is ridiculous. I am thankful we have high levels of medical care quality in the United States, don’t get me wrong. I have lived and traveled in other countries in the world, and in some cases the access we have to medicines (including basic antibiotics) as well as hospital care is tremendously better. That said, however, I do not think our health care system should be as expensive or as costly as it is today. I do not think the financial condition of our U.S. medical care system today benefits either patients or the doctors themselves as well as it should. Most times I have gone to the doctor lately for a personal illness, I’ve felt like I was strictly trading money for licit drugs as quickly as possible, and at a cost which was both high and complicated to understand. I don’t think I’m alone with these sentiments. Health care challenges are real, but they are not just limited to WalMart employees.

A third problem in our society generally highlighted by this film is a frequent lack of honesty and integrity on the part of individuals. The story of the WalMart executive who was fired for being a whistleblower about worker standard violations in Latin America was a sad and disturbing tale. Tomorrow I plan to show my wife and two oldest children the section of the film that deals with workers in China and Central America. The working conditions they face, the working schedules, and the ludicrously low pay scales they are compensated under for their labors are abhorrent. I discussed this issue of “unbridled free market capitalism” with one of our workshop participants in Enid this past week, before I saw this movie, and this is something I think a great deal about from time to time. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the broad-based failure of communism as an economic and political model seemed to leave free-market capitalism and democracy as the only viable alternatives on the world stage. Francis Fukuyama espoused that view in 1989 with his article “The End of History” in National Interest magazine and his subsequent book by the same title, which I read with great interest in an earlier season of my life when I was focused more on political issues than educational ones and was researching security issues in Latin America. While centrally planned, totalitarian economies and governments are certainly NOT preferable to alternatives embracing market economics and democracy / political freedom, there are still BIG problems with market economics which must be addressed through some forms of regulation and worker / consumer protection.

Communism may have been debunked as a viable economic and political system on the world stage, but the economic rich/poor gap in many parts of the world has not been significantly changed by that event. The land distribution issues and realities of poverty which led to war in El Salvador in the 1980s have not been solved. The rich/poor gap problems which paved the way for the Sandinistas to gain power in Nicaragua in 1979 have not been resolved. (BTW, I listened to a great NPR episode back in November that was eye opening about what Daniel Ortega is up to these days.) My own experiences before, during and after my year living and studying in Mexico in 1992-1993 were informative in this respect. When I went to Mexico in 1992, Carlos Salinas de Gortari (the Mexican President at the time) was a hero in the United States for leading his nation in economic reforms which produced single digit inflation, and the promises of NAFTA were all the buzz in social as well as political conversations. After I left (and these events were not directly related to me, of course!) Salinas ended up fleeing the country as a criminal, Mexico faced a violent, insurgent uprising in Oaxaca, and many on both sides of the Rio Grande openly questioned the value of free trade agreements in general and specifically NAFTA. Just as there are no panaceas or silver bullets in education, neither are their panaceas to be found in economics or politics. The complex dynamics in each context combine to prevent any single policy from offering a complete “solution” to the array of challenges which are present.

Protest for WalMart to pay living wages

That said, I think we can generalize to say unfettered free market economic policies always tend to lead to worker abuse and poor treatment if they are not tempered and bounded by some regulation. Consider the case of factory mills in England in the early industrial period. Mistreatment of workers by factory owners led to the labour movement and multiple protections for workers, including child-labor provisions, limits on the length of the work day, etc. I think we clearly see the need for strong labor movements in India, China, parts of Latin America, and elsewhere when people are being financially coerced into working slave-like schedules for paltry wages. Again, the story of the WalMart executive inspector who was a whistleblower for inhumane treatment of WalMart employees in Latin America was a strong segment in this movie. After inspecting his first factory and seeing the conditions and circumstances in which the people worked, as well as the wages they were paid, this man openly wept. Are consumers in the United States and elsewhere cognitively as well as emotionally understanding this situation of modern-day economic labor mistreatment? I will not use the word “slavery” because what is happening now in the cases of factories like those depicted in this film is NOT precisely “slavery,” but it is inhumane and wrong. “Wage slavery” is a term used by some to refer to what I’m discussing here. (Slavery is still practiced in the international sex trade and elsewhere, however, and these abhorrent practices should also be actively opposed by people everywhere.) The institutionalized practices of WalMart executives to block and disrupt any form of WalMart associate labor organization WAS a big surprise to me, and I find that also abhorrent. Unions can, in some cases, block desirable goals for needed reforms, but in other contexts they play vital roles to protect worker rights and limit/check the power of employers to abuse workers.

In addition to these issues of market economics, this film also highlights BIG problems we continue to have in the United States with sexism, racism, and overall equal treatment of people. Good leadership matters, and there are certainly many examples in this film of people who unfortunately had to work for people who acted VERY POORLY in their managerial and supervisory roles. I would like to see our schools focus as intensely on helping students forge meaningful relationships with others from different cultural and ethnic backgrounds, to break down stereotypes which often perpetuate sexist, racist, and other discriminatory treatment of others as much as many schools now focus on drill and practice in preparation for annual statewide tests.

Protesters of WalMart

This film seems to beg a basic question about our current economic system overall: What are the present and future prospects for entrepreneurism in the United States and elsewhere in the world? Although it is not suggested in this film, I think the prospects are exceptionally BRIGHT, but they are not the same prospects with which people are historically familiar. Mom and Pop hardware and even grocery stores in small town and even large town America are in most cases a thing of the past. Today more than ever, working Americans cannot and should not expect to rely on their own muscle and sweat potential to earn a livable wage and provide for their families.

Literacy, education, and ongoing learning are more essential not only for vocational success but also for a hope of having a reasonable quality of life. Money is not the solution to everything, and my recent reading of “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience” by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi reminded me of this, but livable wages are a necessity rather than an option for everyone. Education and “schooling” does not offer a panacea to economic problems, but discussion about the importance of EDUCATION is a commmon denominator in virtually every discussion I read, hear about or participate in relating to the many complex and wicked problems we face at local, regional, national and global levels. To those of you still reading this rather lengthy post working in formal or informal educational settings, let me say this: We (as educators) are in a mission field of VITAL importance and the need for our passionate dedication to our work each day cannot be understated. Whatever your religious and spiritual orientation and belief, I suspect you can agree on the primacy of education and literacy in contributing to the constructive solution of a diverse array of challenges which beset people around the globe. As educators, we should rightfully take pride in the noble work in which we are engaged. Nothing less than the future of the human race is at stake in the education of our children, which takes place not only in formal school settings but also in our homes, in our churches, in our communities, on our streets, and in our places of work.

We need to deliberately and intentionally help students learn how to become entrepreneurs in the 21st century, and that skill as well as orientation development process must look different than it should have looked in the 20th century. (I wrote “should have looked,” because many students in the previous century never received formal encouragement and mentorship in a process of learning to be an entrepreneur, even though our nation’s economic system is based on free-market entrepreneurship.) WalMart has not and will not close out every other store in the United States. Yes, many smaller hardware, grocery, and general merchandise stores have been closed as a result of WalMart, but look at all the other stores that are thriving! Why are they thriving and continuing to pull in profits each quarter despite the close proximity (in most cases) of at least one WalMart store? Contexts and reasons obviously vary, but in general I think we can say these businesses DIFFERENTIATE themselves well and serve niche economic needs that remain unfilled by WalMart. Identifying those niches and mobilizing the resources to effectively fill them with a small business venture should be an essential part of REAL educational opportunities for young as well as older learners in the 21st century.

I will share three more thoughts, and then I’ll close.

The segment of this film comparing the vacation schedules for workers at WalMart-owned German companies (which were unionized prior to WalMart’s acquisition of them) and workers in the United States as well as parts of the developing world was striking as well as sad. It reminds me of the book “In Praise of Slowness: Challenging the Cult of Speed” by Carl Honore which I have almost finished reading. The pressure to do more faster, work 24/7 and never take a break which seems to be exalted as well as rewarded by our common economic and social culture is both personally destructive as well as ridiculous. OF COURSE there should be limits on the number of hours people work each day and each week, and provisions for lengthy and restorative vacations for EVERYONE in all occupations, regardless of geography, should be common rather than rare. It is more than just “sad” that many people in their jobs today find they cannot take all the vacation days they are allotted, because of the tremendous workload they face daily and the pressure they have continually to DO MORE, FASTER, with even FEWER resources. (Ultimately of course those are personal choices and not the “fault” of the culture in which people find themselves, but I do think it’s fair to say this culture is toxic for many.)

These dynamics are not caused by WalMart or uniquely promoted by the WalMart corporation, but are more general to our culture and society. I, for one, think the German workers with 30 days of paid vacation per year have a MUCH preferable situation to those of most workers in the developing world sweating in factories for WalMart and other multinationals.

Huntington Beach, California

Their plight brings to mind the essential importance of CITIZEN JOURNALISM as well as literacy education. When people do immoral and evil things, it is both the right and the responsibility of other people to find ways to shine metaphorical “lights” on those behaviors, individuals, and organizations to disrupt and end such practices. The work of Transparency International in India and elsewhere is a case in point. The constructive roles of citizen journalists and social media technologies ing promoting effective whistleblowing should be encouraged by educators and community leaders in all contexts. The movie’s story of the Catawba Riverkeeper and the pivotal role played by her blog as well as local mainstream media sources should serve as a lesson and model for us all.

“Victory” in our challenging economic times cannot be ultimately defined by mere opposition to another WalMart store. These stories of community members coming together to oppose WalMart expansion may be heartening to some, but ultimately those energies need to be channeled into more CONSTRUCTIVE rather than simply DESTRUCTIVE purposes.

ALL human beings deserve and have the right to be treated as ENDS, not merely means. (I share that view with Immanuel Kant as well as Jesus Christ, among many others.) The ongoing development and cultivation of literacy skills is an essential need for all people, and the importance of our work as educators is exceptionally high. I want to personally thank each and every educator out there today, struggling to make real the dream of a better tomorrow for learners within their sphere of influence. Educators truly perform holy work each day, and this movie made me realize the vital importance of that work more than ever.

I’m buying groceries for our family tomorrow, btw. It won’t make a huge difference, but I’m changing my behavior patterns anyway. I’ll be shopping at our local Crest Discount Foods instead of the recently finished Super WalMart on the same street, but adjacent to I-35. Even if I pay a few more dollars for my groceries (which I’m not sure I will) I know I’ll feel better supporting a local grocery store instead of Sam Walton’s progeny whose organization seems to have a pattern of making poor choices, especially when it comes to paying and taking care of their employees in the United States as well as in other countries.

The official website for this movie is www.walmartmovie.com.

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On this day..

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  • Wesley:

    There are three points you bring up that I think are the crux of many of the issues plaguing education today.

    The first is the fact that we need to teach media literacy and how to sift through information and recognize areas of bias. Secondly, the idea of teaching entreprenurism. We need to teach students, through mentoring, how to take control of their own economic and educational lives. Should we fail in this task, we will create a situation where there will be many thousands of individuals unable to take part in the economy of the 21st Century. Third, the idea of citizen journalism. This idea is related to the first issue I presented, but it is different in that it is the duty of all people to report and share what they have witnessed to others in the society. To do this, all citizens need to have media literacy skills and the ability to differentiate fact from opinion.

  • As Kant said, and many others before and after, and as you so well sum here, that each person is an end in him or her self, and not a means. And they are ends, not in the sense that they are deficient, and must be fixed, but rather, are ends in and of themselves.

    Our language sometimes leads us astray, even if we are well-intentioned. We always want to talk about ‘worth’ or ‘value’ (as in ‘self-worth’, say) but the worth is beyond worth, the value beyond value: there is no exchange we can make of material things for a human life.

    There’s still a lot to talk about – public health care, for example – but this post more than any other you’ve written makes me feel that such dialogue would be worthwhile, that you have penetrated through the major myths being perpetuated in today’s media, and have a grounded and well thought out alternative perspective on things.

    Learning isn’t about being productive or being able to compete in today’s world or even being entrepreneurial. It is about making choices for yourself, being in control of your own destiny, about leading a good life, being the best you can be, however you define ‘good’ and ‘best’ to be.

    Anything else is marketing. Anything else is someone attempting to subvert the educational system to their own ends – and in so doing, treating students as means to that end, always to the detriment of the students.

  • Wow – you said it all. Terrific piece.

  • This was a brave piece. Thank you.

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